Alice Bacon was one of the twentieth-century’s most remarkable female politicians. Born and raised in the Yorkshire town of Normanton, she defied the odds to be elected Labour MP for Leeds North East in the 1945 General Election. Famed in her home town for her unlikely love of sports cars, she was a much-respected, no-nonsense, hard-working representative for her beloved Yorkshire home in Westminster. Nick Shepley interviews author Rachel Reeves about a remarkable and – until now – unfairly sidelined woman.
Alice Bacon has had virtually no mention by historians of post war Britain, but her contribution to social reform in the 1960s in significant. Why do you think this is?
I think there are three main reasons for this.
First, it is to do with the sort of politician Alice was. She wasn’t an intellectual, necessarily, and she certainly was not a ‘political insider’, coming from a working-class background in West Yorkshire. The world of Westminster and the ‘establishment’ was not something she would have taken to naturally, compared to Hugh Gaitskell or Anthony Crosland, for instance, who went from public school, then Oxford, and were very comfortable straddling the worlds of academia and politics. There are people who naturally start with some advantages – like getting noticed in politics early, or having a lot of contacts in Parliament and in the media. Alice really didn’t have those advantages. She was someone who did the hard graft behind-the-scenes, making things happen. She was essential to modernising the party’s approach to the media in opposition and driving through some really groundbreaking reforms – on education, homosexuality, abortion and the death penalty – in government. People like Alice don’t normally get the credit for making change happen but they are every bit as important.
Second, I think there is a question of gender. Alice was far from the only woman to be denied the sort of credit that men often get. I think part of that is the issue that history has tended to be written by men. There’s a really proud tradition of women historians writing forgotten women back into history. I like to think my book is part of that.
Third, I think it’s important to remember how divided Labour was in the post-war period. Alice’s political career was closely tied to Hugh Gaitskell as leader. She adored Gaitskell and was absolutely committed to the party’s Gaitskellite wing in the struggles with the Bevanite left. When Gaitskell died and Harold Wilson became leader, Alice’s prospects did decrease significantly. Alice still achieved so much, but I’m sure that had Gaitskell lived to become Prime Minister – and he is often thought of as perhaps the greatest Prime Minister we never had – then Alice would have been by his side and made cabinet rank.
Alice Bacon’s more famous contemporary was Barbara Castle. Were their careers and struggles similar?
In some ways, inevitably. They were two of a very small number of women in parliament. Both were almost certainly selected as parliamentary candidates on the basis that Labour were never expected to win in their seats – and both overcame big majorities to win, in the great Labour landslide of 1945. Of course they faced some of the same challenges in parliament. That meant the day-to-day experience of casual sexism, but it also meant a lot of more seemingly mundane, practical problems. For instance, the Lady Member’s Room when they came into the Commons in 1945 was tiny and cramped, with just seven desks in it, meaning that most women members were forced to work in the library or on benches across the parliamentary estate.
And both of them, at least initially, were determined that they should not be judged as ‘women MPs’. Castle told her selection meeting, ‘I am no feminist, I want you to judge me only as a socialist.’ It was a different time, and Castle’s attitude at least changed considerably, but they really felt they had to fight not to be seen exclusively as women.
But they were also very different women and had very different politics. Castle was firmly of the left. Alice, by contrast, was stridently of the party’s right. And personally, Castle was glamorous, attractive, confident and even a bit flirtatious. Alice, by contrast, was not glamorous and remained single throughout her life. I don’t think they would personally have identified strongly with one another.
As a female MP in Westminster, has your research shown similarities between Alice Bacon’s experience and your own?
Some things have changed a lot, for the better. When Alice came into parliament, there were only 38 women who’d gone before her. That wave of women who came into parliament in 1945 were real pioneers. It’s a bit different now – there are currently 100 women in the Parliamentary Labour Party, for instance, and trailblazers like Alice, Betty Boothroyd and Harriet Harman have made a difference. There’s still casual sexism but I don’t think most people think it’s acceptable.
But some things also don’t change – especially some of the old assumptions. When I went to collect my spouse’s pass when I first became MP, the man in the pass office still assumed my husband was the MP. Likewise, a male MP once reprimanded my colleague Stella Creasy for using a lift while the division bell was ringing – he didn’t believe she could be an MP.
These sort of assumptions play into the roles women are expected to fill in parliament too. Herbert Morrison, who was Alice’s mentor, thought women should stick to women’s issues. And that attitude still exists to some extent. Margaret Beckett was the first woman to be foreign secretary, but we’ve never had a female chancellor, or even shadow chancellor. While women are given briefs to do with health or education, foreign affairs or the economy are still all too often seen as ‘men’s issues’. I’m pleased to say that a lot of women MPs are very happy to defy these stereotypes: Alison McGovern, for instance, is doing great work on Syria and foreign policy. I like to think that women like myself, Yvette Cooper and Angela Eagle, who’ve been responsible for economic briefs, have played our part too. But these sort of false assumptions and expectations still exist.
A lot of women MPs in the period – Alice, Barbara Castle and Jennie Lee, for instance – had no children. While things are better, I think there’s still a much too prevalent sense that women should have to choose between a successful career and motherhood. There was even a Conservative MP who suggested that being a mother meant that I would be unable to ‘handle’ being a cabinet minister and a mother because I would be unable to give the job my ‘full attention’. So yes, there are similarities – and the outcome of the US election felt like an awful setback – but I’m optimistic. We’ve come a long way in the past half century.
In the mid 1970s Margaret Thatcher made much of her role as a home maker, wife and mother. Did Alice Bacon’s single life work in her favour politically or against her?
I don’t think it’s clear-cut and I would be reticent about drawing hard-and-fast rules about this sort of thing. I certainly haven’t seen anything to suggest it hurt her ‘politically’, per se, although having a supportive husband could go a long way – as in the Barbara Castle example. Equally, though, not having caring responsibilities may have been an advantage, in terms of time.
Roy Jenkins is popularly credited with abolishing the death penalty and decriminalising male homosexuality. Should credit really go to Alice Bacon?
Politics is often viewed as being about ‘great men’ making history. But really, it’s a team sport. Of course Roy Jenkins deserves credit. So do the MPs who actually brought forward the private members bills that ended up changing the law – Leo Abse, David Steel and Sydney Silverman, who introduced the bills on homosexuality, abortion and the death penalty respectively. So do the people who guided those bills through the parliamentary process – and Alice was absolutely key in doing that. It isn’t an either-or question, of whether ‘all’ of the credit should go to Roy Jenkins or Alice Bacon. They both deserve enormous credit. What I hope my book does is to begin to redress an imbalance where we’ve seen all the credit go to a few men. People had to work together to achieve change – and history should reflect that.
Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West. She was a member of Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet from 2013-2015.
Nick Shepley is a writer, book reviewer and creator of the Explaining History Podcast – a weekly discussion of modern history now with 200,000 subscribers. For more information, contact Nick at email@example.com.
Alice in Westminster is available now, and can be ordered from our website here.