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A class fighter of vision and principle

Bernadette Hyland talks to Paula Bartley about her new biography of Ellen Wilkinson

In 1924, Ellen Wilkinson returned to her home city of Manchester as a newly elected Labour member of Parliament and spoke to several thousand people in a cinema in Moston.

Wilkinson attacked the capitalist system and its responsibility for declining wages since 1900, while the wealth in the hands of the few had grown.

She said that taxes for the rich were being reduced while the poor were the "victims of the profiteer" and finished by saying: "This is not a fight for party but a crusade for the freedom of the human race."

Paula Bartley's new book Ellen Wilkinson: From Red Suffragist to Government Minister is a reminder of the amazing life of this working-class woman whose rhetoric in the 1920s is not out of place in the austerity Britain of 2104.

Bartley, a feminist historian, says that "in her day, 'Red Ellen' as she became known was arguably the most famous, certainly the most outspoken, British politician.

"She was a fierce left-wing feminist who championed the poor and the vulnerable."

Wilkinson was born into a working-class family in Ardwick in Manchester on October 18 1891.

It was one of the poorest areas of the city at that time and little has changed in 2014.

She was one of the luckier children born in that area as, after she finished her elementary education, she won a scholarship to Ardwick Higher Grade School - which was later renamed Ellen Wilkinson High School.

Winning a bursary in 1906 she combined studying at Manchester Day Training College for half a week with teaching at Oswald Road School for the rest of the week.

In 1910 she won a scholarship to read history at the University of Manchester, one of the few working-class women to do so at this time. At the age of 16 she joined the Independent Labour Party and began a lifetime of radical activity.

In 1920 she helped set up the Communist Party.

Bartley feels that the role Wilkinson played in the Communist Party has not been recognised. "I knew that Ellen Wilkinson was one of the early members of the Communist Party but had not realised how influential she was in it.

"Indeed the Soviets gave her and Harry Pollitt money to travel first-class to the first Congress of the Red Trade Union International in Moscow. When she returned Ellen helped found the British section of the Red International of Labour Unions, Profintern."

Wilkinson left the Communist Party in 1924 but maintained a close relationship with her former comrades. Her parliamentary career started a few months later when she was elected as Labour MP for Middlesborough East.

Wilkinson played a significant role in the Labour Party which, as Bartley points out, is reflected in their 1945 manifesto which she co-authored. "Let us Face the Future was a passionate, expressive, radical manifesto which had Ellen's hand, and principles, written all over it."

The Labour government of 1945 had a radical agenda based on socialist principles of providing free health care and education as well as nationalising major industries.

Wilkinson was appointed as education minister with the job of implementing the 1944 Education Act.

At the Labour conference in 1946 she said: "When I went to the Ministry of Education I had two guiding aims, and they come largely out of my own experience.

"I was born into a working-class home, and I had to fight my own way through to the university. The first of those guiding principles was to see that no boy or girl is debarred by lack of means ... the second one was that we should remove from education those class distinctions which are the negation of democracy."

Sadly she died on February 6 1947 and did not see the major changes brought in by her Labour government.

 

Whatever Happened to the Welfare State? The first meeting of the Mary Quaile Club will be on Saturday February 15, at 2pm, at the Cornerstones Community Centre, 451 Liverpool Street, Langworthy, Salford M6 5QQ. For further details see MaryQuaileclub.wordpress.com

 

 

Ellen Wilkinson From Red Suffragist to Government Minister by Paula Bartley is published by Pluto Press, £11.50

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