Page last updated at 16:38 GMT, Monday, 22 September 2008 17:38 UK

Hardie is 'greatest Labour hero'

By Emma Griffiths
BBC News, Labour Party conference, Manchester

Keir Hardie
Delegates backed Keir Hardie, MPs favoured Clement Attlee

Labour founder Keir Hardie has been voted the party's "greatest hero" in a straw poll of delegates - although MPs backed former PM Clement Attlee.

Labour peer Lord Morgan, Ed Balls, David Blunkett and Fiona Mactaggart argued the case for four Labour figures at a Guardian fringe meeting.

Lord Morgan described Hardie as "a simple heroic socialist" whose democracy "made our world".

Attlee topped a poll of 88 Labour MPs followed by Aneurin Bevan.

The packed meeting saw delegates asked to vote on four Labour "heroes" - from Hardie, Attlee - who presided over the 1945-51 government, Aneurin Bevan - the architect of the NHS - and Labour stalwart Barbara Castle.

'Times of distress'

Mr Blunkett, who sat next to Ms Mactaggart - one of the Labour rebels who has called for a leadership challenge - noted to laughter: "The size of the audience, the enthusiasm for this meeting demonstrates that our romantic history and heritage brings us comfort in times of distress."

While his choice, Clement Attlee "who was deeply understated and often underestimated and shouldn't have been" came bottom of the straw poll at the fringe meeting, he topped a poll of 88 Labour MPs with 42 votes.

It's clear that my candidate is the man to have a pop at, but that's enough of modern parallels
Ed Balls

"My pitch today for Clem Attlee is delivery, delivery, delivery," said Mr Blunkett.

"It took Clem Attlee to turn Keir Hardie's vision into reality," he said, adding he had built a welfare state and delivering a national health service.

Asked whether he could have achieved as much in the modern, 24-hour news era, he noted Mr Attlee was not a great orator but pointed out that, as far as he knew, he had never had an extra-marital affair.

When Lord Morgan and Mr Blunkett argued against Ed Balls's choice Aneurin Bevan, Mr Balls, a close ally of Gordon Brown joked: "It's clear that my candidate is the man to have a pop at, but that's enough of modern parallels."

Former minister Fiona Mactaggart, praised her hero, Barbara Castle, saying "guts is everything" in politics and said she had changed politics for women.

She described her as "spiky, in your face" and said "nailed her colours to the mast again and again" and was "prepared to be bold to be ahead of her time" - something Ms Mactaggart said was now rare, in an age when politics all had to be "bland" and "safe".

Lord Morgan noted that Keir Hardie , born in 1856, would have struggled in a modern news environment: "I think Hardie would not have been great on the Today programme, he wouldn't have been a spin doctor, he wouldn't have been very good interrogated by Jeremy Paxman."

But he compared him to Nelson Mandela, adding: "He had a force of conscience of moral greatness which transcends his era."

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