Keir Hardie and the labour colony movement


In Working Men’s Bodies, I pay quite a lot of attention to socialist perspectives on work camps. This isn’t because I’ve got it in for the Left, but because I was interested in the way that socialist understandings of work and the body have changed over time. I was also struck by how many well-known thinkers and activists played an important role in promoting work camps.

Keir Hardie wasn’t one of these figures. I note in the book that he was interested that poor law authorities had powers to buy and work the land, and he thought farm colonies offered a way of combining social enterprise with land reform. He also took the opportunity to attack John Burns, the Liberal minister responsible for local government, for blocking municipal proposals for labour colonies. I also quoted a rather patriotic phrase from Hardie, which intrigued me as much for its Anglo-centrism as anything else.

All this was pretty much the norm for his generation of socialists, so I didn’t give Hardie much more thought. I was relying here largely on the work of Jose Harris, and particularly her fabulous book on unemployment and politics at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since then, I’ve found and read two articles by Hardie that expand on his views of labour colonies. Both appeared in a magazine called The Nineteenth Century.

In his first article, published in January 1905, Hardie analysed the prospects of the Unemployed Workmen Act. Hardie broadly welcomed the Act, introduced by the Tory MP for Dublin Walter Long, which allowed local distress committees to relieve unemployment through public works. But Hardie noted that Long’s measure would deal with the unemployed, and not with unemployment. Unemployed, he argued, required a ministry of labour, with labour exchanges to match workers with vacancies. Work, he argued, was a right. It could never be delivered through the Poor Law, because the ‘the decent man out of work’ was always neglected in favour of punishing ‘the clever imposters and shiftless wastrels of our social wreckage’.

Labour colonies, Hardie thought, would ‘by employing men on the land for wages weed out the deserving from the loafers’. But ‘as a means of dealing with the genuine unemployed’, they were ‘of very doubtful value. That they have their part to play, and a very useful part, I do not dispute; but their value lies chiefly in the fact that they deal with a class of the unemployed who require special treatment. For reclamation purposes, and also as a means of training people to work upon the land, they are in the latter case useful, in the former indispensable; but as a means of dealing with the genuinely unemployed they have not been a success’.

Nevertheless, Hardie did not see labour colonies as solely concerned with the ‘social wreckage’. He called for public works to ‘afforest the waste, and plant a race of yeomen on the fertile land of Britain’, with ‘proper facilities for teaching and training people of both sexes to work upon the land’.

Hardie returned to the theme a year later. Writing about the forthcoming General Election, called for‘the cost of working labour colonies or other undertakings’ to fall upon the wider public purse, and not on the deprived communities from which the pauper trainees came, and he repeated his case for a larger programme of public works of the kind carried out in labour colonies, such as land reclamation, as well as greater support for land settlement.

This fills out some of the detail, but doesn’t greatly add to our knowledge of Hardie’s view of the labour colony as a policy instrument. But I hadn’t known about his (rather brief) mention of women. George Lansbury had developed plans for a women’s labour colony – which were blocked, as usual, by John Burns. Lansbury and Hardie supported the extention of the suffrage to women (and indeed to those men who were still denied the vote), but they were far more exceptional in supporting women’s right to work.