As I write this, I glance at a funeral mass card on a shelf above my desk. The card is from 1963 – for John F Kennedy – recently retrieved from the belongings of my late mother-in-law. Aged 92, Betty Healy from Co Galway died last year in a wonderful Camden hospice on the Feast of All Souls. It was a dignified death. Betty’s parents had left the West of Ireland for New York, passing through Ellis Island in 1910 before returning home in 1925.
Throughout his thousand days in power, Jack Kennedy represented the hopes not just of a nation, but millions of Irish around the world and of generations forced from their homeland. I was contemplating this family history following recent elections and the difficulties facing my party, the Labour Party.
Betty had married Martin from Co Mayo and they came to London in the 1950s. Could another Mayo man and the next catholic president after Kennedy – Joe Biden – be the one to offer hope and renewal for Labour?
When I was young along with my brothers and sisters I was taught about the fundamental dignity of every human being. My devout mother from Co Donegal believed that people acting together can cure what ails us. To this day she remains active within the St Vincent de Paul Society through a sense of personal obligation to confront injustice and poverty.
We were each taught about the importance of vocation – calling – and the dignity of labour, of solidarity and the duties and obligations we hold for one another to ensure we each might live a purposeful life. Such teachings took us in different directions – the Labour Party, into teaching, public service and the Carmelites – yet each of us retained a belief in “the dignity of the human person”, one “rooted in his or her creation in the image and likeness of God”.
Two people have given me copies of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. One was my mother, the other a wise old trade union activist. As a teenager I moved to Australia – where other family members had migrated – working on North Shore Sydney construction sites. In those days you had to have a union card to get work. Tom, originally from Glasgow, believed his own vocation was to educate young labourers with his humane Catholic socialism. He preached the dignity of labour – all jobs have worth and status that no occupation be considered superior. The best education I received occurred before I ever saw a university.
One of the first acts of President Biden was to put a bust of Cesar Chavez in the Oval Office. Chavez, the Mexican-American labour leader and civil rights activist, had inspired Bobby Kennedy in his final days and was a personal hero of mine as a young union and political activist. He dedicated his life to “the cause” – the struggle to organise dispossessed immigrant farm workers. Chavez, Kennedy and Biden – all advocates for workers, inspired by a shared faith.
Until a few months ago, the idea of the dignity of labour was deeply unfashionable. The pandemic changed this. We applauded the contribution of care workers, nurses, delivery drivers, council employees and many more. In the face of death, we recognised the worth of others and the dignity of their contributions. As we emerge from the pandemic, will we properly respect this work?
Many such workers are my constituents – their labour is often poorly compensated and protected. Society least rewards work that involves caring for each another. Could the dignity of labour be the new inspiration for Keir Starmer?
On Inauguration Day, Biden swore in his staff stating he would sack anyone found disrespectful to another. He said: “Everyone, every single person, regardless of their background, is entitled to be treated with dignity.”
Biden is driven by Catholic social thought – by papal encyclicals such as Laborem Exercens and Rerum Novarum. He often expresses it through poetry, particularly Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney – not, he says, because they are Irish but because they are the best! He is seeking to heal America, to bring all parts together by upholding the dignity of labour.
Labour could learn from Biden, not least when he announced plans to create 18 million jobs – “jobs you can raise a family on and ensure free and fair choice to organise and bargain collectively”. Labour needs poetry. We lack an emotional connection to people.
Acknowledging the power of poetry, Jack Kennedy invited Robert Frost to read at his inauguration. Frost once advised Kennedy to be more “Irish than Harvard”. Maybe Labour should become more Irish than Westminster – that would please my mum and the late Betty Healy.
Jon Cruddas is the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham. His book, The Dignity of Labour, is out now, published by Polity
This article first appeared in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.