Rachel Reeves: On Alice Bacon - From mining community to Westminster

Alice Bacon campaigning in Leeds.
Alice Bacon campaigning in Leeds.
Have your say

IN the first extract of a three-part serialisation, Rachel Reeves explores the early life of pioneering MP Alice Bacon.

IN 1929, a young boy called Geoffrey was taken on the back of his teacher’s bike round to the house of Benjamin Bacon in Normanton.

Miss Ada Oakley, a teacher at North Featherstone Primary School and Alice’s aunt, must have noticed that her pupil’s boots were in a very tattered condition. Benjamin Bacon, miner, West Yorkshire county councillor and local Miner’s Federation president, ran a fund that provided boots for children in need – Boots for Bairns.

Geoffrey Lofthouse’s father had died that year and his mother was chronically disabled through rheumatoid arthritis, so Geoffrey was certainly a child in need. Benjamin, not being at home that day, was ably represented by a young Alice Bacon.

Sixteen years later, on October 10, 1945, Alice stood to deliver her maiden address in the House of Commons. As Alice Bacon began, she was speaking of those formative years. “I have always lived among miners,” she told the House. “My home has always been one to which men have come with their difficulties and troubles.”

As Alice said in 1986 in an interview with the BBC: “Everybody would come to our house for various things. Some would come to pay their union money if they hadn’t been able to get to work. Some would come for the little pension that was paid to the miners from the union. At one time I remember we had a room full of ‘boots for bairns’, after one of the strikes.”

The house was a local hub. It was where Alice learnt her trade. Benjamin Bacon was Alice’s early political guiding light. Later she would have Parliamentary mentors in the shape of Herbert Morrison and Hugh Gaitskell, but it was her father who stimulated Alice’s interest in politics and the world around her. “When I was only 12 years old, I went down the mine into its inner workings and almost terrifying darkness,” Alice told her fellow MPs in her maiden Commons speech.

Alice was an assiduous local MP and her local surgeries are fondly remembered even today in Leeds and were made much of at the time. In 1964, when Alice was about to enter government, her election leaflets reminded voters that ‘as MP for Leeds Miss Bacon has made a great reputation in her constituency’.

Her regular monthly interviews, on the first Saturday of each month, at the Corn Exchange with constituents wanting advice have become well known. In the street, constituents recall, everyone called her Alice and referred to her as “Our Alice”.

Another constituent also highlighted the down-to-earth nature of her dealings: “Alice Bacon had a surgery in a small shop at the top of Bayswater Row, Harehills, where I was brought up. I remember my mother … used to take her hot drinks because there weren’t any facilities in the shop. My friends and I used to do our bit by skipping on the pavement to the tune of [American Civil War anthem] Tramp, Tramp, Tramp the Boys are Marching, singing the words ‘Vote, Vote, Vote for Alice Bacon, She fights for Labour evermore’.”

Alice was always recognisable, even before she set foot on the pavement in Leeds, as she arrived in her red Rover. “Alice liked convertible cars,” former constituent Frank Pullan notes, and bought one as soon as “she could afford to get one”. The car became a trademark: first voters saw her in a Hillman, and later a maroon Rover. As former Leeds city councillor Bernard Atha remembers, whenever Alice would arrive at a meeting by some other means, voters would tease her ‘Where’s your car?’

The Leeds Labour Party held bazaars each November, taking over the whole of the ground floor of the Corn Exchange, the venue for Alice’s surgeries. Bazaars weren’t just for the local activists or Christmas bargains – local members remember fellow Leeds MP Hugh Gaitskell addressing the bazaar with great speeches to the faithful.

There was the Leeds Women’s group too, of which Alice was vice chair. Activities included the annual Yorkshire women’s rally which attracted upwards of 2,000 people to Leeds Town Hall, Filey, and other venues across the region.

It was in the party’s women’s section that a young Betty Boothroyd first came across Alice Bacon when she started attending the women’s section with her mother who was a party stalwart in Dewsbury. Betty’s first encounter with Alice was when Alice presented her with a signed copy of a book by Clement Attlee, for winning the rally’s ‘beauty contest’. Boothroyd remembers Alice being ‘very much in demand’ in the women’s section and after a week in Westminster would spend weekends on the platform at meetings, rallies and bazaars touring the Yorkshire region and the country with sandwiches, a flask and a rallying speech.

Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West and the author of Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon. The launch takes place on Thursday at 6.30pm in Waterstones, Leeds. Tomorrow: Alice the MP.