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  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.
—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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