Rachel Reeves tells Richard Angell and Conor Pope the subject of her book, Alice Bacon, would have a clear message for today’s moderates
First publish in Progress magazine
The Labour party is full of people whose stories never get heard. Who put in the hours, sit in the rooms where decisions are made and make sure that change happens. They make the history, but are often not recorded in it.
Alice Bacon is one of those people. She was a Labour parliamentarian for almost 50 years, 25 of them as a member of parliament, was a minister in the Harold Wilson government of the 1960s and sat on the National Executive Committee for almost three decades. Having grown up in a working-class community in Yorkshire and working as a teacher before her election, she was an early and tireless champion of comprehensive education, as well as a feared operator – earning the nickname ‘terror of the Trotskyites’ from Denis Healey. She was firmly against attempts to liberalise drug laws but key – alongside her boss at the Home Office Roy Jenkins – to the big liberalising battles of the 1960s, especially on abortion.
But when Rachel Reeves was elected as an MP in Leeds in 2010 she, by her own admission, ‘didn’t really know anything about Alice’. Reeves was struck by how many local activists spoke about her, noting that she was the first woman MP in Leeds since Bacon stood down 40 years before.
‘Leeds has had lots of very successful MPs, lots of role models for me. People like Hugh Gaitskell, Denis Healey, Hilary Benn, Merlyn Rees, my predecessor John Battle,’ Reeves says. But it is Bacon who sets the standard.
‘I looked to Alice for inspiration because she’s the only woman who’s ever done this. I set out to find out more about her.’ She describes the time spent looking into Bacon’s life as ‘a journey’, from her interest first being piqued six years ago to publishing Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon this month.
Bacon retired as an MP in 1970, and passed away 23 years ago. So why publish a book on her life now? Reeves argues that the woman who ‘devoted her life to politics’ has ‘never [been] more relevant’ than she is today. From ‘the battles on the Labour party NEC’ to ‘the debate about comprehensive education’, Reeves says that ‘the more I found out about Alice, the more I found that her battles and struggles are incredibly relevant for today’.
She would have inserted herself into the current debates within the party with gusto, with lessons for both the hard-left and moderates. ‘She would be very sceptical about some of the bigger ideology and stridency of some of the left of the party today,’ Reeves believes, championing practicality over all else. ‘She wasn’t into “isms” and ideologies, really, she was a very practical politician. Everything she did was geared to making improvements to the lives of working‑class people. Some of those were the big things, like comprehensive education,’ she says, but even those arguments were ‘very, very rooted in the experience of working class communities.’
That, though, is something that centrists in the party should also heed – especially given Brexit, the success of Donald Trump and the general malaise faced by social democratic parties internationally. ‘There is a challenge today, not just in this country, but across the western world, for social democratic parties, [to be] in touch with the group of people who we were formed to serve. Alice sort of intrinsically understood working class communities’.
Reeves says to ‘look at Brexit, for example, or look at the US and what happened to the white working-class folk in the recent presidential election’ to see what the absence of prominent characters like Bacon does for centre-left parties. ‘I think there could be things to be learned from politicians like Alice who had that instinctive feel for those communities.’
Bacon played that role in the 1950s and sixties, primarily for Gaitskell, who as well as Labour leader was a neighbouring MP and close friend. While ‘she wasn’t interested in was grand theories’, she could provide grounding for the loftier ideas that would emanate from the posher elements of Gaitskell’s inner circle. ‘She could provide functions, purpose to Gaitskell that some of the others were not able to, because [his normal coterie] came from similar backgrounds. Winchester-educated, Oxford-educated, Hamstead-living, rather than northern working-class girl rooted in her community.’ It was because of that role she played that the two became close and why she was both ‘very valuable to Gaitskell but was not part of those sets.’
Unsurprising, then, that ‘it was Gaitskell who she wanted to see as prime minister’. But so close were the two that Reeves says ‘a bit of her died when he died, and she lost some of her zeal’. Sadly, that came a year before Bacon first entered government as a minister in the Labour administration of 1964.
It is perhaps also unsurprising that a no‑nonsense working-class woman in parliament often found herself patronised by her colleagues. Richard Crossman, the cabinet minister, once suggested Bacon – who went to university twice: to train as a teacher and to gain a degree in public administration – was ‘uneducated’, and Leon Abse, the MP who would sponsor the private members bill on decriminalising homosexuality while Bacon was the corresponding minister ‘poured scorn on Alice’s intellectual abilities’, referred to her as a ‘spinster’ and said teaching was ‘all she had to talk about’. Herbert Morrison may have nurtured Bacon and a number of women first elected in 1945, but he ‘also said that they should “stick to women’s issues” in parliament’.
When interviewing her for the book, Shirley Williams told Reeves that Bacon ‘was an administrator, not an innovator’. Williams did not mean it as a compliment, but Reeves says ‘Alice would not have necessarily taken it as a criticism’, understanding that ‘politics needs administrators, you need people to get things done’.
Then again, on some of the issues pertaining to women, such as increasing representation, she was less interested. ‘It is true that Alice didn’t really challenge the status quo, so it took women like Barbara Castle who were willing to do things differently,’ according to Reeves. That would not stop her using [women’s structures] to help her along though: unlike Castle, who also stood as a constituency representative, Bacon would stand in the women’s section for NEC elections ‘partly because it was a power base for her, partly because it was maybe a more friendly environment than the very male-dominated environment both in Westminster and in the constituency’. Despite that, she was adamant that she wanted ‘to be judged as a socialist, not as a feminist.’
For Reeves, both approaches are important. ‘Women like Betty Boothroyd would see someone like Alice as an inspiration.’ ‘She operated in a man’s world and didn’t ask for any concessions to be made. That’s great, but it didn’t really change politics in a way that Barbara Castle helped feminise politics.’ Nowadays, Reeves insists Labour’s women MPs ‘are more willing to label themselves as feminists and socialists’ – a legacy of both Bacon and Castle.
Despite being a peripheral member of the Gaitskellite clique, there was, according to Williams, never any prospect of Bacon joining the Social Democratic party breakaway in the 1980s. Reeves likens Bacon’s decision to Bernard Donoghue, who also stayed put. ‘Most of his friends went over to the SDP. He didn’t. Alice didn’t. I think she had a very loyal loyalty to the Labour party, partly because of the type of community she grew up in.
‘It comes back to the point that she was very rooted in Labour. She said, “there was never a time that I decided to become Labour, joining the Labour party was as natural as breathing.” I think that sums her up. Leaving the Labour party would be like stopping breathing for someone like Alice.’
Bacon fought tirelessly to make the party relevant, to hold back the influence of the far‑left and the entryists whom she saw as ‘not Labour’ and make the lives of working people better. She may not be well known, but she believed that she owed the Labour party, not the other way around. Reeves is confident that she knows how Bacon would have felt about the right course of action in the current predicament and what her message would be for unhappy moderates in 2016.
‘Alice would never have left the Labour party. She loved our party, even when it went through incredibly difficult times in the 1980s. She said, about the people who left to form the SDP, that they “owe everything to the Labour party”. They became candidates, they became MPs, they became ministers … the Labour party is greater than any one faction. Just stay in the party, the party that she loved.’
Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon by Rachel Reeves is published on 1 December. You can buy it here