SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 183 November 2014

Red Ellen

Ellen Wilkinson: from red suffragist to government minister

By Paula Bartley

Published by Pluto Press, 2014, £12.99

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

If people have heard of Ellen Wilkinson today it is mostly for her role as an organiser of the most famous of the 1930s hunger marches, the Jarrow Crusade, or for her appointment as the first female minister of education. Far less known is her reputation as ‘Red Ellen’, a militant trade unionist and suffragist, or her membership of the Communist Party (CP). This brief biography goes some way to redressing that.

Born in a terraced house in Chorlton, Manchester, Wilkinson aspired to become a teacher to counter the inadequacies of the elementary educational system which let working-class children down. She established a Socialist Society at university and joined the Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage, helping to organise the Manchester leg of the suffrage pilgrimage, which converged on parliament to lobby for votes for women.

Shortly after the outbreak of the first world war, Wilkinson was taken on as a national organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees (AUCE, a forerunner of Usdaw). She had special responsibility for organising women workers drafted in to fill vacancies left by men in the armed forces, challenging attempts to pay women less than the rate for the job.

Wilkinson led an eleven-week strike in Plymouth in 1916. In 1918, she led a multi-month strike at the Longsight printing works, in defiance of anti-union legislation and the opposition of craft unions, which objected to skilled workers in the Co-op joining AUCE, despite their failure to organise them previously. AUCE’s leadership attempted to sack her after the Longsight strike, but she was reinstated following branch protests.

The Russian revolution of 1917 made a huge impact on Wilkinson. She joined the CP when it was formed in 1920, and in 1922 unsuccessfully moved that NUDAW (the successor to AUCE) should affiliate to it. She attended the Congress of the Red Trade Union International in Russia, where she met Leon Trotsky. She later raised the question of granting Trotsky permission to travel to Britain after he was exiled from the USSR by Stalin.

Wilkinson was soon elected to positions in the Labour Party (while remaining a CP member), including onto its executive in 1923. In the same year, she topped the poll for nominees from NUDAW to be Labour MPs. She was elected national chair of the Labour Party in 1925.

As Wilkinson grew in stature within the Labour Party, the conflict with her communist sympathies grew deeper. She resigned from the CP when the Labour Party barred CP members from standing as Labour candidates, and was elected to parliament in 1924 for Middlesbrough East – Labour’s only woman MP, and one of only four women in parliament. As a result, on a number of issues regarding equal rights for women, she co-sponsored bills with the Tory MP, Nancy Astor.

Over time, Wilkinson began to drift towards the right, although it was not a straight path. At times, she felt the pressure of the Labour Party machine, and her friendship with Labour’s arch right-winger, Herbert Morrison, was another contributory factor. One example is her relationship to the CP-led National Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Wilkinson argued for Labour to support the initiative, and even organised a demonstration of unemployed workers from Jarrow when Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, visited his Seaham constituency nearby. Yet, after she became Labour MP for Jarrow in 1935, the Jarrow Crusade which she helped organise was deliberately ‘non-political’.

A full assessment of the reasons why she was buffeted by the pressure from the party bureaucracy and other forces is made more difficult by Paula Bartley’s tendency to sneer at Wilkinson’s communist sympathies. The book also includes several factual errors, for example, saying that Tony Benn’s father, William Wedgewood Benn, moved the bill for equal rights for women – the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, 1928 – when it was the Tory, William Joynson-Hicks. Nevertheless, it is worth reading for the wealth of information on Ellen Wilkinson’s life, and for the inspiration much of her campaigning work can give to new generations entering struggle.

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