Keir Hardie’s Footsteps


Universe Column for May 19th 2002

By David Alton

Political commentators summed up this month’s local contests as “no change” elections.  Yet below the headlines about Councils gained and lost – and the turnout of just 34% – there were some undercurrents reshaping the political map.

In the tough inner city ward of Canning Town in east London, in the Borough of Newham, the Christian People’s Alliance made their first electoral breakthrough. Although this victory was secured under first-past-the-post the increasing use of proportional representation in elections will make future gains more likely and allow the CPA to become a significant player in politics.

Alan Craig’s victory made him the lone ranger opposition: 59 seats in the borough were won by Labour and the other was won by the CPA.

Before the election this was a one-party state with no opposition at all. What must seem like a battle between David and Goliath is healthy and good for democracy. When there is no effective opposition it militates against good government. Whoever claims to be “the masters now” tend towards arrogance and sometimes corruption. Ruling parties always need to be kept on their toes.

Alan Craig won a district which first elected Keir Hardie – the first Labour MP. In 1892 he scandalised MPs when he took his seat in the Commons and appeared wearing his cloth cap and tweed suit.

Hardie became a Christian in 1897 and later wrote that “the impetus which drove me first of all into the Labour movement, and the inspiration which has carried me on has been derived more from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth than all other sources combined.”

It took thirty years from the time of Hardie’s election until Labour formed their own Government. In the intervening period, even without proportional representation, the fledgling Labour Party worked with the Liberal Party in local electoral agreements. Alan Craig and the CPA can draw some inspiration and some food for thought from that.

Another current of the local elections was the general trend against incumbents. Liberal Democrats, for instance, lost Richmond-upon-Thames, which they had held for nearly two decades. The strong opposition of the area’s MP to church schools and her support for therapeutic cloning were among the things that clearly alienated many voters.

The election of Ray Mallon, the former police officer, as mayor of Middlesborough, the election of Hartlepool’s monkey mascot, and the rise of independents in places like Kidderminster and Stoke on Trent (where 22 independents were elected), are shots across the bows of the establishment parties.

1,575 independent candidates stood in this month’s elections – seeking to join the existing 1700 existing independents who already sit on our councils.

But it wasn’t the independents or the CPA who made the news but the election of three members of the British Movement in Burnley and their high vote in Oldham. After Jean Marie Le Pen’s electoral gains in France we should be alive to the dangers of xenophobia and racism.

What this month’s results teach us is that the most effective way to combat BNP extremism is by engagement in the communities they seek to exploit and manipulate.  The lesson of Alan Craig’s CPA and the independents is that hard work and local commitment can still inspire local voters.