Keir Hardie Lecture by First Minister Carwyn Jones – Merthyr Tydfil 2015

Thank you for the invitation to speak here this evening. Looking back at the illustrious speakers you have had in the past really underlines what an important evening this has become in the political calendar – so it is a very special honour to be asked to deliver the lecture marking the centenary of Hardie’s passing.

I’d like to thank Huw Lewis, and Gerald Jones for the invitation. Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney is lucky to have two politicians who know their history, and who remain radical in their politics and in their ambitions for their home seat. 

The same can be said for Brendan Toomey, your fine and firey council leader.  All three will be pleased, as I was – I expect Huw most of all, to see the improved GCSE results for Merthyr Tydfil in September. 

Tonight’s lecture is not only timely because it coincides exactly with the date of Hardie’s death, but also because it comes at such a moment of flux in British politics.  

Of course we are also on the eve of our UK Labour Conference in Brighton. That gathering promises to be a hothouse of debate, and I’m sure, at least some comradely disagreement – just as Hardie would have wanted it. 

That spirit of debate is an important part of our party’s history, present and future – and is central to how I want to frame my contribution this evening. 

I will focus on the tension that has always existed inside the Labour Party – and the wider Labour movement. On one side we have the pure, raw energy of our righteous outrage at the injustices we see in society – the fire that drove Hardie. The passion that got all of us into politics. And, of the other side, the hard, calculated creation (and then evolution) of a party fit for Government.

I know that the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale was here in Merthyr Tydfil earlier in the week, and I was pleased to meet with her in Cardiff and discuss a closer working relationship between Welsh and Scottish Labour in the future. 

Kezia’s being here, and both of us being in Brighton for the coming Conference highlights that despite our growing autonomy in the Wales and Scotland – the Labour party remains one family. 

And the bonds that allowed a son of Lanark to represent first West Ham and then Merthyr Tydfil are still very much alive inside our party. 

But the thing that Kezia’s visit impressed upon me was the hunger of the Scottish party to become a credible alternative government once again. 

Without power, all we can do with Hardie’s legacy is discuss it – to truly honour his legacy we must govern, we must drive change in society.

The fact that we have moved with the people in Wales, and stayed at the helm over 16 years has been no mean achievement, and we should never, ever take that for granted. 

So I began by talking of a tension that has always existed inside the Labour movement. 

At times, at our best, this is a creative tension, when you can have people like John Reid and Robin Cook working together. 

But at other times it can be utterly destructive.

Forget about the various splits, factions, defections and affiliations that have existed over the years – to explore this phenomenon you need only view the life and works of one man.

In no, one person, in our party’s history is that tension more readily identifiable than our founder, Keir Hardie himself. 

Prophet and rabble-rouser, yes – WT Stead said this about him in 1905:

He is no prophesier of smooth things, this Caledonian seer, and he is no respecter of persons. He has flouted everything and everybody, from the Prince of Wales to the Leaders of the Liberal Party. It is the way with prophets. Nothing is sacred to them, because everything is sacred, and when they are on the warpath in the name of the Lord they smite and spare not.

I’m thinking about sending that last line to Sam Warburton to read out ahead of the game tomorrow. 

But Hardie was a deal-maker and strategist too, prepared to make concessions, and always conscious of the need to build coalitions of support. 

Lessons hard-learned from his early political defeats in his native Scotland. 

And so it was that his first election win in West Ham in 1892 owed as much to his broad appeal to Liberal voters as it did to the ailing and put-upon dockers of that seat. 

Then, in forming the very name “The Labour Party” he rejected the notion of adding Socialist to the title, because he thought the label too divisive and that it might narrow the appeal. 

As a prolific writer and journalist, Hardie would have been acutely aware about the power of words – and as every writer knows, what you leave out can be just as important as what you put in. 

At times, when he let his language run too hot, it allowed the establishment to dismiss him as a hot-head, a dangerous revolutionary. 

But, to some inside the early Labour movement, he was too ready to sacrifice the purity of ideas at the altar of progress.

Given the heated debates than many of us will have witnessed through the 80s, and then again through the years of the Blair/Brown Governments, it should raise a wry-smile that Keir Hardie was being lambasted as a sell-out even before he’d established the Labour Party in 1900.

The insult of “crypto-Tory” wasn’t invented for Tony Blair, or Kinnock or even Kendall – no that was used to describe Keir Hardie by Engels and his Marxist fellow travellers in the ILP. 

The very fact that historians and contemporaries disagree about his most famous prop – his headgear – was it a cloth cap, or was it a deerstalker – demonstrates that not only were there contradictions in Hardie’s own heart and actions at times, but that his legacy is a live issue even today.

Like previous speakers at this event I’m sure, it is to Ken O. Morgan’s great biography that I turned to try and disentangle the man and the myth. And extract the history from the histrionics. 

And why is it then, that Hardie – uniquely I would contest – continues to fire such passionate debate? 

To the extent where just last month the name Keir Hardie was trending on twitter – not Beyonce, not Taylor Swift, not even Jeremy Corbyn – but Keir Hardie, a hundred years dead.

And which other political leader would inspire the publication of a book asking what they would say and do today? 

Can you imagine an impassioned cry of “What would Gladstone do?” or even “What would Di’Israeli say?” – and yet just this month saw the launch of “What Would Keir Hardie Say?” A fine collection of essays, including a characteristically colourful account of Hardie in Wales by Owen Smith MP.  

Whether he’s managed to outdo his father’s contribution to this lecture series I will leave you to judge – though I am sure it has led to plenty of animated discussion between the two of them. 

It speaks to his importance I think that Hardie’s legacy, the history and historiography is as alive today as it ever was. 

Alan Johnson, David Miliband, Melissa Benn, and most obviously supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s successful leadership campaign have all tried claiming him for their specific causes inside the party. 

And yet as long ago as 1992, when John Smith was still our leader – Tony Banks wondered aloud whether Hardie would even join the modern day Labour Party. Peter Mandelson replied that he thought Mr Hardie would be “rather pleased” with the party reforms that had taken place. 

I don’t raise these claims to mock – far from it – because the truth is to an extent they’re all correct. Because as Labour members, we are all inheritors of Hardie’s legacy. 

This party is the gift he bestowed on us, and our job is to use that gift judiciously. To create the better, fairer country that was his life’s work, and has been all our lives’ work.

So I will leave the history to the historians for now, and move on to what might be safer ground for me – and consider Hardie and Welsh Labour now in the context of today’s politics and the future for Wales as I see it. 

As ILP historian, Barry Winter, has noted in the 19th Century, when all eyes were focussed on Westminster, the real political revolution was happening in the provinces. It wasn’t Parliament or Fleet Street, but the pitheads and factories where the really new ideas were fermenting. 

And I’d argue that we’re seeing a version of that happening again today. 

When people look to Westminster today, and how it is reported, too often what they see represents an antiquated parlour game.

Words that Hardie used in his open letter, "Ishmaelitism Justified” once again have more than a ring of truth about the Parliament of today:

“They reminded me of a gathering of ghosts of other days revisiting the scenes of former triumphs. Their speeches and battle cries were all of the past. The men by whom you were surrounded had no message for the present, no inspiring hope for the future.”

However, his further reflection that Parliament was a “putrid mass of corruption” would certainly seem a bit strong today.

As our metropolitan political class failed to grasp the hardening of views towards “more of the same”, the people outside the bubble have begun to take things into their own hands.

Most calamitously, in Scotland, the UK came within a whisker of being dismantled.

In the North of England – don’t be fooled that the idea of a Northern Powerhouse came from George Osborne’s desk – it came from the North itself. 

Where, through collaboration, ingenuity and genuinely radical local Labour leadership, massive progress has been made in transport, economic development and regeneration.

And, as ever, more quietly here too in Wales – where in the midst of trials, tribulations and defeat in England, Welsh Labour is moving forwards to a brighter future. 

We have built an authentic genuinely Welsh, genuinely Labour party of Government in tune with our traditional values, but equally alive to the need to build a broad base, to work for the many beyond class boundaries – and to embrace reform and modernity.

So what does it mean to be Welsh Labour today?

We are proud inheritors of Bevan and Hardie’s legacies. 

And there’s a recognition too that their power came not from their rigidity, or dogma – but from the solutions they offered to the evils and horrors that plagued society. 

Some of these answers were deeply pragmatic and some prophetic.

What elevates Hardie in my opinion, is that he was never satisfied at merely raging against the machine – though he did a fair bit of that. He also worked hard to offer solutions. 

And where responsible business owners did right by their workforce, he was happy to champion their example. 

That quest for solutions is what has given Welsh Labour our advantage in the devolution era. 

Under the banner of Standing up for Wales, yes we campaigned against the worst excesses of the Tories, but we also produced our own programme of Government to keep Wales running – and succeeding - through an era of cuts.

Before I move on to what the future might hold, we should just pause and think about the level of our achievements. Too many of our successes we too quickly bank and move on. 

Wales is a country transformed since 1999. 

Merthyr Tydfil itself, is a town transformed since devolution.

No borough in Wales has seen a more rapid improvement in economic inactivity rates – a decrease of 11.5% between 2001 and 2015.

When I started a Wales-wide tour doing public Question & Answer sessions, I started just up the road in the Soar Chapel here in Merthyr Tydfil.

One of the questions I was asked was about the TV series – “Skint” by a young questioner who was clearly, as I was, horrified by the picture of the town the producers had set out to capture. 

It is a lazy view that still colours how Wales is perceived by too many London based journalists and politicians. 

As First Minister for Wales I am constantly stunned that it is investors from Japan, the USA and elsewhere around the world who understand the real, modern Wales. And yet opinion formers two hours away by train still have a view formed more by the 1980s than today. 

Think back even to where Merthyr Tydfil was in 1999, the year when one of Keir Hardie’s ambitions – home rule – was at least partially realised. 

And compare it today. The town, I contend, is unrecognisable. New roads, new infrastructure, a Welsh Government office that houses 600 staff, improved rail, a new College, and Merthyr Tydfil is now a University town. 

Most pertinently of all we have invested over £30million in the new Keir Hardie Health Park, a pioneering approach to integrating health, wellbeing and social care, under one roof. 

And even beyond these building blocks for a brighter future is the investment in something that matters almost as much – into civic pride. There’s no greater example than the regeneration of the Old Town Hall, so closely associated with Hardie’s time in Merthyr Tydfil.

I was delighted to hear that UKIP chose that venue to launch their General Election campaign, blissfully unaware that it was European funding that had largely paid for the restoration. 

Joking aside, I’m under no illusion though about the electoral task ahead. 

The two brands of nationalism on offer from UKIP and Plaid Cymru could make for a toxic mix if they go unchallenged. One offering a home for grievance, the other offering a fantastical array of un-costed promises.

The Tories, though clueless and bankrupt of ideas in Westminster, are undoubtedly a re-energised campaigning force. 

It has never been more important for us to demonstrate the success of our social partnership approach in Wales. We must learn why voters in Gower and Vale of Clwyd left us, but we should not be distracted from our values.

I’m proud to support our trades unions in Wales.

Last week, I stood shoulder to shoulder with the Wales TUC in opposing the Trade Union Bill currently going through Parliament. 

Through whatever means we have at our disposal we will take on that piece of legislation that represents the greatest attack on workers rights in a generation. 

And lost in the coverage of the Bill and the recent TUC Conference was an important moment in the history of our movement in Wales. 

In a rare rule change, the TUC formally recognised the autonomy of the Wales TUC – it was as, Martin Mansfield rightly noted the moment that the “Wales TUC came of age”. 

I hope that individual unions now follow this example, and more fully embrace devolution. 

It makes little sense in my view for the teaching unions, in particular, to have so little autonomy when so much of what a teacher does in the classroom is decided here in Wales. 

So, yes, I’m a proud trade unionist – but I’m proud to lead a pro-business and pro-Enterprise government too. 

The same week we were campaigning against the Trade Union Bill, I signed off on a £115million investment into "cutting edge research". 

Bringing businesses and universities together, bidding for research and development funding from a pot made up of public and private cash.

I firmly believe that for our communities to succeed, the party and Government I lead can be nothing but fiercely pro-business.  

I take the view that essentially, we all want the same thing for Wales – a prosperous country, with good jobs for local people – decent services, a better future for our children and grandchildren.

Wales pulling together – through this genuine social partnership – business, government and workers together.

Every single day that balance will create tension. 

On the development of the M4 Relief Road – controversial. On the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a threat and opportunity all wrapped up in one.

Trade missions to wealthy countries who want to invest in Wales, but don’t share our democratic values – where economy and ethics clash.

On the NHS - being honest with people, and saying it makes no sense – medical or financial - for every hospital to try and do everything for everyone.  That to create specialisms and keep our NHS alive, we need to create centres of excellence, not a proliferation of mediocrity. 

In responding to the Tory Government’s austerity agenda – how far do we go as a devolved administration?  Given the scale of the cuts to our own budget, and the damaging welfare changes, we could spend almost all our allocation on filling the vacuum – but where would that leave our priorities of education and health?

These are the tensions that come with Government in Wales in 2015. And they are the questions I believe that only a Welsh Labour Government is able to respond to. 

So, yes, I believe we have a record to defend as a Welsh Labour party next year. A record that speaks to our values. But, what of the future.

The Wales I want to see in 2021 is a Wales equipped to realise our true potential and build on the exuberance and confidence I see in our young people today. 

That’s the biggest change I’ve seen in this country in my political lifetime – the growth of a can-do attitude with our younger generations.

A Welsh pride and identity that was once a bit chippy, and yes, sometimes language based, now fits comfortably and confidently on the shoulders of all. 

It isn’t about Wales against the world any more; it is about inviting the world to Wales. Small country, big ambition. 

That is the Wales I am proud to lead. That’s the Wales I believe in. 

If Hardie was about anything, he was about hope. 

And that is the word we must make our own in the coming months. 

Yes, we need to be honest with the people of Wales about the challenges ahead – about what £1.4bn less actually means in reality – but we must be ready with the answers and the solutions. 

So like Hardie and Bevan, to own the future we must first identify the big issues of the day, and present the answers that can work and inspire in equal measure.

For me the priorities are obvious. 

We must pursue the jobs of the future – more jobs, better jobs - with a hunger that we once pursued the 8 hour working day.  That means investment in three things – our skills, our infrastructure and our businesses. 

We must continue to reform our NHS, to future-proof it from the impossible demands of an ageing population, increasingly expensive treatments and an era of shrinking budgets. 

We can do this, and stay true to our view of the Welsh Labour NHS, but it won’t be easy. 

And we must have a period of consolidation and reinforcement in our schools – to allow reforms to bed in, train up our teachers – new and existing, and put rocket-boosters on our successful interventions such as the Schools Challenge programme. 

I strongly believe that the questions, and the answers for Wales’ future, exist in our classrooms – that is why I am so proud that we have delivered not just record funding, but much needed reform to our school system in this Assembly term. 

What will tie all this together is our vision of a united, connected Wales. 

Everyone has a contribution to make to our country’s future, and we want to unleash that potential. 

Hardie was inspirational, not just because of what he said or did – but what he made of himself. 

It isn’t just the coming cuts and austere times, which demand a fresh wave of community empowerment, it is because that ethos fits with our vision of Wales as a smart, agile country. People given the help they need to succeed. 

Already we are seeing that in practise today as the Welsh Labour Government is giving communities the chance to take over and run their own community assets. 

In business this is demonstrated through our co-investment in hugely successful apprenticeship placements.

In the NHS, increasingly we ask people to play their full part in addressing their health needs – by making smarter choices, and keeping fit and healthy to the best of their ability. 

With everyone pulling together, make no mistake about it, Wales is a country on the up. 

Never before has Wales bounced back quicker from recession than the regions of England. Unemployment here is now routinely lower than it is in London. 

But the firm foundations we have laid in this term will count for nothing if we don’t win again in May. 

We can’t allow the hopes of our small nation to be smashed on the rocks of a ramshackle coalition government whose only unifying cry will be – we’re not Labour.

The challenges today are different – the answers of course, must be different.

But what remains are some simple truths that Hardie built into this party at its inception. 

A united party wins. 

Hope triumphs over fear. 

Being radical and realistic are not political opposites. 

For a higher standard of living – and a higher standard of happiness - everyone in society must be given their chance to participate and a chance to succeed.

And whilst our mission must be focused, our appeal must be broad.

Those are the lessons we will take into the election next year, and beyond. 

We know that when Labour wins, Wales wins.

By fighting for a victory next May, we will be doing our best to honour Hardie in the most fitting way possible.

Thank you


Volunteer Facebook Twitter

Contact us / Cysylltwch â Ni

Stay in touch / Cadwch mewn Cysylltiad