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Books: Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist To Government Minister

This was a woman of rare vision and true grit, writes LAURA ELLIS

Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist To Government Minister

by Paula Bartley

(Pluto Press, £11.50)

ELLEN WILKINSON is an inspiration for socialists and feminists and Paula Bartley’s short and succinct biography is a good introduction for those who know only her name.

It is a wonder why she remains a largely unknown figure in British politics, having been involved in some of the most important events in the 1930s and 1940s.

Wilkinson was minister for education in Clement Attlee’s post-war cabinet, lobbied for countless changes in the law towards women’s suffrage and equal pay and strongly supported her unemployed Jarrow constituents on their long march to London in 1936.

Wilkinson was progressive beyond the Labour Party in the 1920s and 1930s and was far from being a middle-class career politician.

She was a firebrand, a communist and at times a revolutionary who sought support from movements outside the Labour Party such as the suffragettes and the Communist Party, which sometimes got her into trouble with Labour’s executive.

Yet fundamental questions — such as what ignited Wilkinson’s lifelong commitment to gender and class struggles and what gave her the confidence and self-belief to run for Parliament at the age of 33 during a time when women were still fighting to get the vote — go unasked in Bartley’s book.

Instead she focuses on Wilkinson’s achievements in and out of power.

Wilkinson was influenced by events outside Britain and Bartley expertly touches on significant global events such as the 1917 Russian revolution, the Spanish civil war and the rise of fascism in Germany.

Bartley suggests that WWII and ministerial responsibility eroded or at least redirected Wilkinson’s loyalties.

During the war Wilkinson openly disagreed with strikers and as minister for education in Attlee’s government refused to repeal the Tories’ introduction of class-based grammar schools.

These blemishes should not overshadow the immense work Wilkinson did as an MP for her constituents and British women.

It is striking and somewhat depressing that many of her experiences are echoed today — sexism in Parliament, a broken economy created by bankers and deprived northern constituencies.

Back in 1933, Wilkinson said: “The government’s austerity programme strategies hit the poorest sections of society the hardest.”

How disappointed Wilkinson would be if she could see we’re reliving that era again.


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