Keir Hardie

"A burning sense of what was just"


Born on 15thAugust 1856, James Keir Hardie rose from the humblest of beginnings to become a lifelong trade unionist who helped found the Labour Party as a voice for working people in parliament


  • Starts work as a message boy aged seven
  • Attends night school in Holytown, aged 10
  • Teaches himself to read and write (including shorthand)

Key positions held

  • 1866 – becomes a miner, aged 10
  • 1872 – signs up as active member of the temperance movement
  • 1879 – elected corresponding secretary of the miners, miners’ agent
  • 1886 – elected secretary of the Ayrshire Miners’ Union
  • 1887 – founds a new publication, The Miner
  • 1888 – elected first secretary of the Scottish Labour Party
  • 1888 – becomes editor of the Labour Leader
  • 1892 – elected MP for West Ham
  • 1894 – elected chairman of the Independent Labour Party (and from 1913–1914)
  • 1900 – elected MP for Merthyr Tydfil and the South Wales Valleys
  • 1906 – elected chair of the British Labour Party

Career highlights

  • 1881 – Establishes a workers’ union and leads the first ever strike of Lanarkshire miners.
  • 1886 – Becomes organising secretary of the Ayrshire Miners’ Union, salaried at £75 per year.
  • 1892 – Beats Conservative opponent in West Ham in the general election. Becomes known as ‘the MP for the unemployed’, and famously goes to parliament dressed in a plain tweed suit, a red tie and a deerstalker.
  • 1893 – Helps to form the Independent Labour Party, and is elected chairman and leader.
  • 1894 – After a fatal mining accident near Pontypridd, Keir asks that a message of condolence be added to an address congratulating the birth of the future Edward VIII. His request is refused and, in response, he gives a famous speech attacking the monarchy.
  • 1900 – Organises a meeting of trade unions and socialist groups, and forms the Labour Party.
  • 1900 – Is elected MP for Merthyr Tydfil.
  • 1906 – Becomes leader of the Labour Party, which by now has 29 MPs in parliament. Resigns in 1908.

Personal philosophy

  • Unlike most MPs, Keir usually backed trade union strikes. After all, union members made up most of his voters.
  • He was a lifelong champion of women’s rights, developing a close relationship with Sylvia Pankhurst. He was once arrested at a suffragettes’ meeting but the home secretary, concerned about arresting the leader of the ILP, ordered his release.
  • Keir believed in and advocated for free schooling, pensions and a minimum wage.
  • He often campaigned abroad and his writings and speeches laid the foundation of India and other colonies eventually gaining independence. In South Africa, Keir was attacked when he demanded that black workers be allowed to join trade unions.
  • A committed pacifist, Keir tried to organise an international general strike to stop the First World War. Despite widespread condemnation, even within his party, he continued to address anti-war demonstrations and support conscientious objectors.


  • Today, around 40 streets in the UK are named after Keir Hardie.
  • Keir’s brilliance as a lay preacher is recognised by the ‘Keir Hardie Methodist Church’ in London.
  • Allegedly, Mahatma Gandhi was a great admirer of Keir, gifting him a walking stick.
  • In 2008, Keir was voted the Labour party’s ‘greatest hero’ in a straw poll of delegates.
  • He’s Gordon Brown’s personal hero: “That’s what made him tick and what draws me to him – a burning sense of what was just, what was unjust and the courage to stand up for what was right, no matter the personal cost.”