Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Terror of the Trotskyites

Exclusive extracts from Rachel Reeves’ book on the first woman MP for Leeds reveal Alice Bacon as a fiercely loyal reformist

Alice [Bacon], a young woman, a miner’s daughter and teacher, was elected as a member of parliament at the age of 35. The first female MP in Leeds, the first (with Muriel Nichol), in fact, in Yorkshire. An article by Alice in the Labour Woman reflected the great burden on Nichol, herself and others, as well as the joy of the time:

‘My most moving memory of 26 July [1945] was of old people weeping unashamedly in the streets of Leeds. As one said, “All my life I’ve worked for this and at last it’s here!” Yes, at last we have a Labour government of such strength and power that we can put into operation the policy which has for so long been a dream to those who have given their lives to the cause of socialism. At the first meeting of Labour MPs it was a great thrill for me to meet so many young people I had known in the League of Youth and had met at weekend and summer schools. It so happens that it has fallen to the young men and women of my generation to translate into reality the hopes and visions of the pioneers of the Labour party and to be the custodians of the future.

‘This parliament includes 24 women, 21 of them members of the Labour party. No longer will a mere five or six be regarded as an oddity in the House of Commons, although even 21 is a small proportion compared to the men.’

In later life Alice would again reflect on the happiness of 1945:

‘The first few months it was euphoric, it really was. And as a member of the National Executive [Committee] of the Labour party during the war years, I had been a member of the various committees that were producing our policy for the next election. It was so exciting to see these being put into operation. That really was a great thing – to have been on that committee and then to be in the House of Commons when that was put through. We ended the old Poor Law, there was the industrial injuries bill, there was nationalisation of the mines. It was really terrific the amount that was done. I remember on one occasion the saying, “we hadn’t talked the bill through, we’d walked the bill through” because we’d walked all night through the division lobbies.’

Social Democratic Centralism

Following Labour’s defeat in 1951, Alice, as chair of the NEC, took charge of the annual party conference at Scarborough. The party was drifting leftwards. In the elections to the constituency section of the NEC, the left’s candidates – Aneurin Bevan, Barbara Castle, Tom Driberg and Ian Mikardo – all managed to get elected. The casualties of the left’s gains were Alice’s friends, Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison. Throughout the 1950s, Bevanite left and reformist right wrestled for control of the party.

Denis Healey recalled how Alice used her position on the NEC to forward her agenda:

‘As chairman of the party’s organisation sub-committee, which was responsible for discipline, she and the national agent, Sara Barker, another Yorkshire woman, were the terror of the Trotskyites. They expelled some members of my own constituency party during [Hugh] Gaitskell’s most difficult period.’

Healey was of the right, and fully backed Alice’s campaign against the radical left:

‘The small attendance at constituency party meetings makes it easy for a tiny group who are well organised to capture the constituency as a whole, even when they belong to a body outside the Labour party and hostile to its objectives. In my early years such groups were usually communist, often from front organisations, such as the innumerable societies for peace and friendship with the Soviet Union or the satellite states. Following the Hungarian rising [in 1956], various Trotskyite organisations took their place. However, Alice Bacon and Sara Barker succeeded in getting rid of the infiltrators.’

The regional office of the Labour party in Yorkshire had a reputation of being both for the right and a rigid enforcer of party discipline. The number of proscriptions and expulsions in Yorkshire was disproportionate. ‘Social Democratic Centralism’ as it was known was the dominant ideology in the regional party – with a premium on loyalty and discipline, learnt in the trade union roots of the local party and enforced by characters including Alice.

Challenging Khrushchev

Her friendship with Gaitskell was quite symbolic, containing as it did Leeds, Transport House and Westminster dimensions.

That said, Alice was capable of challenging her great friend. During a visit in 1956, addressing Labour’s NEC in the Commons, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made a blundering speech rejecting the idea of disarmament controls in the divided Germany. Having asked the premier about the conditions of Jews in Russia as per NEC instruction, Alice was angry that Khrushchev had said nothing regarding recently imprisoned social democrats in the Soviet Union. Passing a note along to Gaitskell whilst Khrushchev was still talking, Alice told him ‘I think you will have to reply to this at once’. Gaitskell did so, as he later noted, in his own words, in a ‘conciliatory’ manner, only to be met by a ‘silly speech’ – after Khrushchev had left – from Alice. Leader and backbencher were certainly close, but Alice was never without her own mind or opinion.

But the personal dimension was most obviously seen at moments of personal difficulty, particularly when Alice was hospitalised in November 1961. Shortly after returning from a gathering of the Socialist International in Rome, Alice suffered a minor heart attack. Out of the public eye for months – she did not speak in the Commons again until 29 March 1962 – her spirits were lifted by the visits of her friend Gaitskell.

The lost prime minister

As well as occasional chauffeur, Leeds deputy and local organiser, Alice was useful to Gaitskell in his role of party leader. As Denis Healey pointed out, Alice was ‘immensely valuable to [Gaitskell] since she was … a member of the women’s section of the National Executive Committee’.

But Gaitskell would not become prime minister. In December 1962, Alice visited Gaitskell in hospital, and was charged with delivering his Christmas presents to party officials, and to let them know he would soon be back to work. He died a few weeks later. Alice gave a moving tribute in the House of Commons, commenting on the ‘curtains [being] drawn in the small houses in the streets of South Leeds, not just for a member of parliament but for a very dear friend whom they knew and loved’. ‘Those of us’, Alice later wrote, ‘who knew him best mourn the loss of a dear friend. Hugh was warm-hearted and emotional, and his friends, loyal, trusted friends, meant a great deal to him.’ Hugh Gaitskell’s successor as MP for Leeds South, Merlyn Rees – for whom Alice helped secure the seat – recalls her words ‘reaching the heart of that hard-bitten audience’.

Ending of the 11-plus

As Alice had told the Commons in 1954, she might now be ‘a politician but, I taught children from the ages of 11 to 15 for some years before I came [to the Commons], and my belief in the comprehensive school is derived, not from my membership of the Labour party, but from my experience with children.’

A few months after [Anthony] Crosland’s appointment as education secretary he started encouraging local authorities to establish comprehensives in their areas by offering financial assistance to build new schools and classrooms – if, and only if, they moved towards ending the 11-plus. The deal was set out in Circular 10/65, released by the [then] Department of Education and Science in July 1965. It was a piece of tactical mastery, broadly reflecting the twin objectives Alice Bacon had been campaigning on for the previous 20 years: overcrowded lessons taking place in dilapidated buildings, and the drive for comprehensive education to end the spectre of a life-defining exam at the age of 11.

Even Margaret Thatcher, as education secretary, did not roll back the process set in train by Crosland, and turned down less than 10 per cent of the proposals for schools to go comprehensive. The proportion of pupils attending such comprehensives thus rose again from the 32 per cent Alice had left behind in 1970 to 62 per cent by 1974. Consistently arguing for the end of the 11-plus and helping achieve the roll-out of comprehensives in the late 1960s was arguably Alice’s greatest personal and political legacy and certainly the reform she was most proud to have been part of.

At the 1969 party conference, Alice told the delegates that she was pleased to promise that ‘in the next session of parliament, we shall introduce a short bill dealing with this one specific subject [of the comprehensive]’. The intention of this bill would ‘make selection illegal’ and continue the expansion of comprehensive schools seen under the Wilson government. The resolution was passed unanimously. But a year later, Labour was out of office. Without power, Labour could not make the changes they wanted to schools and education policy.


Rachel Reeves is member of parliament for Leeds West. She tweets at @RachelReevesMP

Rachel’s book, Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon, is published on 1 December. You can buy your copy here


Photo: Yorkshire Post

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Rachel Reeves MP

is member of parliament for Leeds West and former shadow secretary of state for work and pensions


  • Bevan was a proper socialist. But even the Party’s right-wing couldn’t be described as “Tory-lite” in those days. The rot set in in the early 90s when Labour was infiltrated from the right.

    Thank heavens those terrible New Labour days are behind us. Support Corbyn for victory in 2020!

  • An interesting extract .

    There are so many connections here with the state of the Labour Party as it currently is.

    ‘Alf’ asserts that Bevan was a ‘proper socialist’. Of course he was but so were many others . Invoking such phrases does not help debate-at any time-and we can be sure that there will be jabbing fingers at CLP meetings alongside some of those who mouth such words. The number of actual trotskyists in the L P has always been tiny ,and it still is. Unfortunately however very few socialists indeed understand their tactics and methods.For example , I wonder how many active members know of the notion of ‘transitional demands’i.e. political demands meant to discredit not only ‘capitalism’ but parties such as Labour? Very few I suspect.

    There are clearly those in the party ,at all levels, who ,though not trotskyists or marxist-leninists themselves ,are quite prepared to play along with those who have nothing in common with the politics of those who would admire Nye Bevan.

    It is easy to talk of some Labourites being ‘tory-lite’.I have not been impressed by a fair few over the years myself. But the phrase is meant to be an insult and such language ,again, does not help.

    At the root of the matter lies the fact that Labour were out of power for 18 years from 1979 .Members were prepared to support virtually anything that would enable us to win. But we didn’t have a coherent social -democratic philosophy or ideology behind that electoral success. It also has to be said that Mr Blair seemed to take delight in distancing himself, presidentially as it were, from the party. This may have ‘helped’ but it did nothing to help the mainstream Labour members in the party. And it helped create a power vacuum that has led to unintended consequences.

    ‘Alf’ believes Labour was infiltrated from the right. If so he wasn’t very astute in stopping it. It is sadly the case that some ambitious people follow
    the party they think is going to get into power. We have certainly seen some ‘characters’ passing through Labour on their way elsewhere. But all these MPs were selected as candidates by the likes of ‘Alf ‘and myself.

    In my admittedly limited experience as a party member of 47 years most members do not want to ‘come out’ for this faction or this or that ‘tendency’, this MP or that MP, and don’t like alignments they may be forced to have to take. Many of us have views that will inevitably be ‘heretical’ to others. Policies come and go.Leaders come and go. No doubt I have ploughed a funny furrow over the years ; but if everybody resigned and subsequently rejoined every time the party changed its view on ,say ,Europe or unilateralism there would not have been many members left.
    According to polls something like 90-93% of Labour members voted Remain. In as much as one can re-write history one has to suppose that Mr.Gaitskell would have been a Leave voter! And the ‘moderate’ Shirley Williams. and David Owen were on different sides of the fence over Brexit.

    Labour is currently some 14% or 16% behind the tories in the polls. I suspect ‘Alf’ does not like opinion polls. Who does when they bring bad news? His enthusiasm for Mr Corbyn is not shared by the public. Only time will tell what will happen in 2020. Neither ‘Alf’ nor I will have much to do with it.

  • David Beere.

    Rachel Reeves believes social inequality should be addressed by being “tougher on welfare than the Tories”. She also thinks Labour “doesn’t represent the unemployed”.

    Would you call her Tory-lite. If not, why not? Does she sound like someone you’d want to vote for?

  • The extract was about Alice Bacon , not Rachel Reeves. However I wouldn’t call any Labour MP or member ‘tory-lite’.

    And ,to be fair, I wouldn’t call any MP a trotskyist either .I am afraid that ‘name calling’ isn’t going to get us anywhere.

    I have always voted Labour .I wonder if ‘Alf’ has ? I have voted for the odd Labour candidate that I have thoroughly disapproved of. To be honest I have not scrutinised Ms Reeve’s politics with the attention to detail that ‘Alf’ has but it would interesting to see if Ms Reeves actually said that social inequality should be addressed by being tougher on welfare than the tories. ‘Welfare’ has become a much abused term. When ‘Alf’ says Labour” doesn’t represent the unemployed’. one would want to see the context of the statement. Is what is meant that Labour should not only be seen to represent the unemployed or is it that about doesn’t represent the unemployed , but it should do. At risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious (as Alf Garnet used to say ) there is a difference between the two uses of the phrase.Of course Labour should be for the whole country ,most especially for the hard up and that includes not just the unemployed . We have to examine why it is that many of the public are hostile to welfare and try to change attitudes for the better.The debate will continue .

    Still Alf Garnett did wear the right colours at football. Same it was West ‘am. Unlike Mr Cameron I really am a Villa supporter -and if you think sticking with Labour is from you should have followed Villa last year.

    I expect ‘Alf’ supports a team that wins all the time! ‘Alf’ may need a nom de plume for good reasons but at least he could tell us the name of his team. If it is ,say.Chelsea, I promise not to call him a ‘blue’.However if it is Birmingham City….

  • Perhaps the problem is that the Tories always attack our social security system and New Labour abandoned the field of argument during the 90s; thus they allowed Tory myths and lies to dominate the national political discourse. The voters now believe the lies because they never heard any countervailing arguments. Quite the opposite: they see that Labour’s Tory-lites actually agree – so the lies, they reason, must be true!

    As I say, the rot set in during the 90s when the party was infiltrated by right-wingers – a trend which was, of course, applauded by the media. You may be surprised to learn that the hated ESA tests and benefit sanctions were actually New Labour initiatives. With a Labour party like that, who needs the real Tories? No wonder our voters feel abandoned!

    Forcing young people to work for nothing on the New Deal; cutting benefits; massively increasing student debt; and opening the borders to cheap labour are very effective ways of applying downward pressure on wages – and increasing the in-work benefits bill!

  • It appears any one to the left of progress is a trot. This would include Bevan, Castle, Mirkado, Wilson, Crosland, Harold Mac Millan and probably Edward Heath.

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