Why you should care
Because this rebel girl rocks our world.
Two hundred men — most with dirty, hard-lined faces — were marching from the northeast of England toward the capital in 1936. They wore old waterproofs and flat caps that distinguished them as working class, and carried a defiant banner with two simple words: JARROW CRUSADE.
They were marching 300 miles from their little town of Jarrow to London — a long way, even for those among them who’d once slogged through miles of wartime trenches — to deliver a message of despair. It was the Great Depression, and Jarrow’s only source of income, a shipyard, had been closed.
Historically, the Labour Party spoke up for the people who lived and worked in Jarrow. And when no one in Westminster listened to them, a small, middle-aged woman named Ellen Cicely Wilkinson — dubbed “Red Ellen” for her fiery far-left politics as much as for her bright red hair — joined their march. As Jarrow’s Labour MP, Wilkinson helped propel their plight onto the national stage, even though fellow members of Parliament rebuffed their demands for a steelworks to be built to provide jobs to the town.
A fiery radical with the chops to compromise and keep things working in an emergency might be just what Labour needs.
Such radicalism eludes Labour today as it stares down another election. Dogged by the legacy of Tony Blair in Iraq, and accused by many of betraying its founding socialist principles, Labour will be hard-pressed to win — and if it does, it’s almost certain to be part of a coalition government. Which is why Wilkinson offers today’s Labour Party important lessons about more than just radicalism. To this day, Professor Andrew Thorpe of the University of Exeter tells OZY, “Wilkinson remains a figure of considerable historical interest and curiosity,” because much of her political legacy stems from her work for a coalition government.
Growing up in a working-class Manchester neighborhood, Wilkinson became interested in politics at the age of 16, when she saw socialist activist Katherine Glasier speak at a local event. Writing about the experience later in life, she praised Glasier’s ability “to sway a great crowd, to be able to make people work to make life better, to remove slums and under-feeding and misery.” Thorpe explains how Wilkinson’s background bolstered her desire to improve the world for the working masses, noting “she was strongly influenced by her Methodist upbringing.” With a history scholarship from the University of Manchester, she embarked on her journey toward making a difference in people’s lives and ran for Parliament.
As a Labour MP and a vehement socialist, Wilkinson passionately defended contentious causes, from women’s rights to communism to striking workers and the Jarrow March. She even visited combat zones during the Spanish Civil War to support Republican soldiers fighting fascism. Despite the fact that many Brits were undecided about the Nazis in the mid-1930s, Wilkinson was an early and fierce opponent, publishing a pamphlet called “The Terror in Germany.”
But it was her later career that made her so controversial. During World War II, Labour faced its biggest challenge: being part of a coalition with the Conservative Party. They were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and it was hard to see people like radical Wilkinson and traditionalist Winston Churchill getting along. But Wilkinson, in fact, had been instrumental in assuring Churchill’s ascent; she and other Labour members refused to join Neville Chamberlain’s coalition, as cited in The Home Front in Britain. Chamberlain knew this would make Britain look weak, and he consequently stepped down. Once Churchill had been installed, Wilkinson continued supporting him by throwing herself into the job of promoting air-raid safety, often visiting shelters in the middle of the Blitz. And to the dismay of many supporters, she made compromises with some Conservative policies that would’ve made her younger self blush. Wilkinson supported suppressing the oft-critical Communist newspaper The Daily Worker, for example, to keep up morale and, in turn, recruitment. She also encouraged the conscription of women, despite union protests. Her own union condemned her, and many of her Communist supporters turned their backs on her, but Wilkinson refused to apologize for strategically crossing those lines during the war.
After winning the war, Churchill lost the election — and Labour came to power, with Wilkinson as the second-ever female Cabinet minister. Her political experience, war work and ideology made her essential to a party focused on rebuilding postwar Britain. She was part of the government that gave the U.K. national health care, helped form the United Nations and worked to erase oppressive class barriers. As the minister of education, Wilkinson would continue to use her fighting “Red” spirit for equality, promoting free meals and raising the age at which Brits can leave school.
Though Wilkinson died just two years into her term and “did not reach the heights of office,” her accomplishments are not to be underestimated, says Thorpe. “She was … a pioneer for women in British politics and also for her anti-fascist work, and for her strong representation of Jarrow.”
Wilkinson may be remembered more as the hero of Jarrow than as a wartime negotiator, but a fiery radical with the chops to compromise and keep the wheels turning, even during political crises like war, might be just what Labour needs.