Alice in Westminster: A Labour of love

Rachel Reeves
Rachel Reeves
  • Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon by Rachel Reeves
  • IB Tauris, £20
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In recent times, we are seeing the appearance of many biographical accounts charting the significant role that women played in shaping the direction of the Labour Party. It is to her huge credit that Rachel Reeves MP has written a stunning book about Alice Bacon, the first-ever female MP for Leeds, which has brought to life one of West Yorkshire’s and the Labour Party’s most unsung politicians from the post-war era.

Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon is very much the product of intense and meticulous detective work by Rachel Reeves. As only the second female MP to represent the Leeds South-East constituency, this excellent publication by Rachel Reeves has uncovered the history of her predecessor, who served in the House of Commons from 1945 to 1970.

So who was Alice Bacon? An only child, she originally came from Normanton. The daughter of a coal miner, politics and trade unionism played a massive part in Alice Bacon’s upbringing, who said that supporting Labour was as ‘natural as breathing’. From an early age at the Normanton Railwaymen’s Club, Bacon became involved in miners’ welfare issues, tackling many injustices and severe deprivation – all of which, shaped her views on the importance of community.

During the 1930s, Alice Bacon attended teacher training college in London and returned to Normanton, where she taught at an inter-war secondary modern school, encountering the most shocking child poverty. Many of her pupils were so poorly fed that Bacon helped set up soup kitchens. She also took an active role in the National Union of Teachers (NUT). Her quest fto remove inequality from within the education system led her to advocate comprehensive schools before it was fashionable.

Around that time, Alice Bacon came to prominence in the Labour Party. In 1938, she was selected to contest the Leeds North-East seat, only for war to intervene. Such was the male-dominance of politics that according to Gerald Kaufman, Bacon was only chosen to compete for what seemed like an unwinnable safe Conservative seat. At the 1935 General Election, the Conservatives held the seat with majority of over 10,000 votes. However, the Second World War and social changes that emanated from it, gave rise to a landslide Labour Party victory at the 1945 General Election, which helped propel Alice Bacon to Westminster.

Throughout the book, Rachel Reeves portrays Alice Bacon as a practical politician who like Denis Healey, Hugh Gaitskell and Charles Pannell, took her constituency matters very seriously. Bacon’s surgeries were held at the Leeds Corn Exchange and advertised under the banner ‘Any Problems?’

The political views of Alice Bacon were situated on the right of the Labour Party. This often brought her into conflict with the left. Bacon became the ‘Terror of the Trotskyites.

During the post-war era, Alice Bacon forged a very close relationship with Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, up until his death in 1963. However, it was through working for his arch rival Harold Wilson, that Bacon came to prominence.

In 1964, Alice Bacon was appointed Minister of State at the Home Office, second to Frank Soskice (1964-5) and then Roy Jenkins (1965-1970). Under Jenkins, Bacon’s hard work helped frame groundbreaking measures such as the legalisation of abortion, decriminalisation of homosexuality and abolition of the death penalty. She also spoke out on issues including race relations and the war on drugs. After leaving the Home Office in 1967, Alice Bacon served as Minister of State for Education and Science.

When Labour lost the 1970 General Election, Alice Bacon retired from the House of Commons and served in the House of Lords where she was highly-critical of monetarist policies adopted by Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Overall, Rachel Reeves MP has produced a superbly written book about Alice Bacon, which recognises her contribution to public life in Leeds and the role she played in shaping the Labour Party.