Ellen Wilkinson

Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), British Labour politician and crusader for the unemployed during the Depression, was part of the World War II coalition government and Labour minister of education from 1945 to 1947. She was a lifelong socialist, feminist, and politician.

Born in 1891 in working-class Manchester, England, Ellen Wilkinson's devout Methodist father was a cotton operative, but became an insurance clerk while Ellen was growing up. As a teenager she supported women's suffrage, participated in socialist activities, and joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). A successful scholarship student, Wilkinson first planned to be an elementary school teacher, but in 1909 she won a national scholarship to attend university.

A history student at Manchester University, Wilkinson joined the University Debating Society and the Fabian Society. After graduating in 1913 Wilkinson was an organizer for the nonmilitant National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. In 1915 she became the national woman organizer to the Amalgamated Union of Cooperative Employees, a union with a large female membership, particularly in wartime. A 1921 merger made the union part of the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW).

During the 1910s and early 1920s Wilkinson was exposed to various radical groups such as the Guild Socialists, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the emergent Communist Party, which she belonged to between 1920 and 1924. She also kept up her membership in the Fabian Society, the ILP, and the Labour Party.

Elected to the Manchester City Council in 1923, she moved on quickly: in 1924 she entered Parliament, representing Middlesbrough East, Yorkshire. Only 33 years old, Wilkinson was one of four female members of Parliament (MP). In Parliament Wilkinson fought to extend the 1918 act giving women over 30 the vote to include women above the age of 21 (finally passed in 1928) and for other measures to grant women equality and protection; she supported MPs who were critical of the short-lived Labour government of 1924; and in 1926 she supported the general strike and subsequent miners' strike.

She was a critic of Ramsay Macdonald's second Labour administration, elected in 1929. With other radical Labourites and even many moderates, Wilkinson urged the government to take more resolute action against unemployment, which was reaching peak levels with the Depression. Her parliamentary experience was enhanced by working as secretary to Susan Lawrence, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of health.

Macdonald dissolved the Labour government in 1931, and with that year's Labour defeat, Wilkinson lost her seat. Between 1931 and 1935 she worked for NUDAW, lectured, and wrote. Already a published author—she had written a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, Clash (1929), and a thriller, The Division Bell Mystery (1932)—Wilkinson also contributed to newspapers and magazines. In 1934 she coauthored, with Edward Conze, a work entitled Why Fascism tracing the rise of fascism in Europe.

Returning to Parliament in 1935 as representative for Jarrow, a Tyneside shipbuilding town devastated by the Depression, Wilkinson achieved national fame for leading the 1936 Jarrow Crusade, one of the most publicized Depression hunger marches. Becoming more influential in the left wing of the Labour Party, she also began a slow drift to the right. For instance, she agreed to separate the Jarrow march from other marches organized with the help of Communists. Yet the Jarrow march made a strong statement, which was reinforced by Wilkinson's The Town That Was Murdered, a history of Jarrow's economic exploitation published by the Left Book Club in 1939.

In the mid-and late 1930s Wilkinson joined other left wing Labourites in groups such as the Socialist League and the journal Tribune to support the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and to fight against fascism. In Parliament she initiated important consumer legislation for a more equitable system of installment purchasing.

By the late 1930s Wilkinson was on the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party. Her personal relationship with Herbert Morrison, a more conservative and influential Labourite, involved Wilkinson in internal party struggles. She played a balancing act between trying to push the party leftward and staying in its good graces. For instance, in 1939, when Stafford Cripps was expelled from the Labour Party by the NEC for urging unity between Labour, socialists, and Communists in order to fight fascism, Wilkinson voted against the expulsion, but did not oppose it once it was passed; thereafter she did not appear on platforms urging such a unity.

In Winston Churchill's wartime coalition government Wilkinson was briefly parliamentary secretary to the ministry of pensions and then a parliamentary secretary for Herbert Morrison, the wartime home secretary and minister of home security; Wilkinson was in charge of air raid shelters. Energetic at this job, she constantly visited sites, urged the conscription of women for home defense, and generally strengthened Britain's civil defense.

By 1945 Wilkinson was a key Labour leader. As chair of that year's annual party conference she called for the development of socialist policies. After Labour's landslide victory Wilkinson became minister of education, only the second woman to achieve Cabinet rank in Britain. (The first was Margaret Bondfield, 1929.)

The Labour government had to implement the 1944 Education Act, which called for raising the school leaving age to 15 and providing access to secondary education for all. Labour's left urged the development of "comprehensive" schools which would enroll all classes of students, as an alternative to middle-class academic "grammar" schools and technical and "secondary modern" schools meant for working-class youth.

Wilkinson's record as minister of education is disputed. Plagued by ill-health for years, she served less than two years before she died. Committed to raising the school leaving age (accomplished in 1947) and to recruiting more teachers, she did not get far in developing comprehensive schools. Whether this was due to her lack of experience in education, her inability to motivate career civil servants, or a belief that reforming the existing system—which, after all, had served her well enough—would be sufficient is hard to say. What is clear is that just as the Labour government was building the welfare state, a crucial issue in education was not attended to.

During this post-war period Wilkinson was also active in the founding of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Wilkinson's legacy lies in the pattern of her political development. She was a feminist; a pioneer politician who never forgot her working-class origins; a fighter against poverty, unemployment, and fascism; a person who never abandoned her socialism yet found that, once in power, she had to compromise some of her more radical beliefs.

Further Reading on Ellen Wilkinson

A useful biography of Wilkinson is Betty D. Vernon's Ellen Wilkinson 1891-1947 (1982). For women in Parliament see Elizabeth Vallance, Women in the House: A Study of Women Members of Parliament (1979). An important general work on the period is Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (1972).

Additional Biography Sources

Vernon, Betty, Ellen Wilkinson, 1891-1947, London: Croom Helm, 1982.

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