Red Ellen

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Laura Beers’ biography of Ellen Wilkinson, a prominent socialist in the early 20th century, is packed with detail. It is written in a lively style and gives a real sense of her as a person.

Ellen was born into a working class family in Manchester in 1891. She joined the Independent Labour Party at the age of 16. She was excited and inspired by the Russian Revolution and later had dual membership of the Labour Party and the Communist Party (which was permitted under Labour Party rules of the time).

Before becoming the MP for Middlesbrough East in 1924, Ellen had worked as an organiser for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and later as a trade union organiser. She was an outspoken critic of the First World War, describing it as an imperialist exercise that would result in the deaths of millions of workers.

The list of campaigns Ellen was involved in is impressive: women’s rights at work as well as equal suffrage; support for the 1926 General Strike and fierce opposition to the General Council of the TUC for their sell out of the miners; support for the Jarrow march against unemployment, the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and opposition to fascism across Europe.

During the General Strike Ellen travelled across Britain and America raising money and solidarity for the striking miners. She was a fiery speaker.

Beers describes how an article Ellen had written describing the working conditions of British miners came under attack in parliament. Men and boys, with rope around their waists and a chain between their legs hitched to a wagon, worked in seams too narrow for pit ponies. As well as presenting photographs and statements from the miners to parliament, Ellen waved the rope and chain around the chamber to emphasise her point.

But despite being over 500 pages long, this biography leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The most important of these is the change in Ellen’s politics, from seeing the working class as the agent of change, to believing that change could only come through the ballot box.

Beers’ attempt at explanation is confusing: “She never wavered from her conviction that the true emancipation of the working class could be achieved only though the overthrow of capitalism.” The paragraph ends, “Ellen came to believe that the revolution could be achieved in the ballot box, if only workers could be educated for socialism.”

My second criticism of the book is its repeated references to Ellen’s relationships with married men. These are irrelevant to the development of Ellen as a political woman, and would not be included in a biography of any of the men involved.

As a parliamentarian Ellen introduced important reforms, including free school milk and an increase in university scholarships. It is for these — and her earlier years as a socialist fighter for women’s equality and workers’ rights — that we should remember her.