Ellen Wilkinson attracted epithets. As a young Labour MP in the 1920s she was “The Mighty Atom” and an “Elfin Fury”. In her enthusiastic promotion of the Republican cause in Spain in the 1930s she became the “Pocket Pasionaria”. The agent for her speaking tours in the US billed her as “Five Feet of Pugnacity”. With her small physical stature, in combination with her energetic campaigning and confidence as a public speaker, she cut a distinctive figure on the political stage. But it was the coincidence of her bright auburn hair and her socialist politics that made one moniker particularly irresistible: “Red Ellen”.
Wilkinson’s lasting claim to fame is her role in the Jarrow March of 1936, walking (at least for part of the way) alongside 200 of her constituents, as they made the long journey to London to protest at the devastating impact of the depression in the North East of England. She immortalised Jarrow as “The Town that was Murdered”: a symbol for the worst ravages of unemployment. However, Laura Beers’ biography is at pains to reinstate the internationalist, anti-imperialist and anti-fascist themes in Wilkinson’s politics, which arguably absorbed far more of her energies in the 1930s. Wilkinson travelled widely, attending congresses for the various international socialist and women’s organisations that proliferated in the interwar years, going on fact-finding missions and lending solidarity to socialist movements abroad.
The reconstruction of Wilkinson’s active, and at times controversial, career is hampered by the destruction of her private papers after her sudden death in 1947. Even in their absence, however, Beers has produced a detailed account of an extraordinary life: a tale of social mobility from a working-class district in Manchester, via grammar school, university, trade unions and the Fabian Society, to a seat in the House of Commons, well-paid newspaper columns, an eclectic and cosmopolitan range of friends and contacts, and a role in the foundation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation. The lost archive leaves room for speculation about aspects of Wilkinson’s personal relationships, but her prolific output as journalist and author, as well as the press’ fascination with this colourful politician, offers plenty of evidence as to her opinions and activities.
For all the media attention she received, Wilkinson’s parliamentary career never quite achieved the successes that her talents seemed to predict – or her ambition surely craved. Even so, she went on to hold office in three administrations, culminating in her appointment by Clement Attlee as minister of education, responsible for implementing the 1944 Education Act. Along the way she made the case for equal pay and the equalisation of voting rights for men and women, and steered through a private member’s bill to bolster consumers’ rights under hire purchase agreements.
The demands of her many political and professional commitments are sometimes hard to reconcile with the fact that Wilkinson’s health was always indifferent, plagued by asthma and the effects of an exhausting schedule fuelled by cigarettes, coffee and too little sleep. With her foreign travel, love of fashion, her London pads and her Austin Seven, she seemed to embody the independent modern woman. But Beers resists temptations to over-emphasise Wilkinson’s commitment to feminism. For Red Ellen, the class struggle always came first.
Clare Griffiths is professor of modern history, Cardiff University.
Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist
By Laura Beers
Harvard University Press, 568pp, £20.00
Published 27 October 2016