Why the story of Alice Bacon still matters for today's politicians

Rachel Reeves was the second woman to represent Leeds in parliament. Now, she's written a book about the first.

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When Rachel Reeves was elected as the MP for Leeds West in 2010, she became only the second woman ever to represent the city at Westminster. The first was Alice Bacon, the pioneering Labour parliamentarian and subject of Reeves’s new biography.

As a minister of state for the Home Office under Harold Wilson, Bacon was at the centre of some of the most tumultuous debates that raged during the 1960s – over immigration, education and the economy.

“I say that this country of ours ought to be able to absorb one million immigrants,” she told delegates to the 1965 Labour party conference, defending the government’s liberal stance on immigration and race relations. However, she also cautioned against ignoring overstretched resources: “I would ask the conference to recognise that these immigrants are concentrated in those very areas where the supply of houses, schools and teachers is already inadequate.”

Today, these questions have returned and are even more acute. Seen in the light of the Brexit vote, her attempts to marry Labour’s reform agenda with an acknowledgement of the problems facing working people have rarely appeared more prescient – not just in preventing supporters feeling alienated, but in winning others over to the government’s wider, more tolerant vision of society.

To Reeves, Bacon is certainly worthy of renewed acclaim. “Practical yet progressive politics in action”, is how the author describes her shepherding of the Abortion Act 1967 through the committee stage. Yet the matter of exactly how far Bacon’s precedent has informed Reeves’s politics adds intrigue to this timely book.

“Our Alice”, as she was known in her Leeds South-East constituency, entered the Commons in Clement Attlee’s 1945 postwar government, at the age of just 36, and went on to outperform Labour’s national swing at each election from then until 1970. A miner’s daughter from Normanton in West Yorkshire, Bacon is best known for her role in introducing comprehensive education and ending selection at secondary-school level. As a former grammar-school girl, she believed that the advantage of such an education was a privilege to be ­extended to the many, not protected for a minority. “We were the lucky few, the few who got through,” she reminded the House of Lords.

This commitment to improving daily lives informed her wider politics – in her roles as the chair of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC), as a minister of state, and finally as Baroness Bacon of Leeds and Normanton in the West Riding. At a time when the Labour Party was yet to embrace consumer society, Bacon, inspired by the plight of her constituents, advocated a softening of wartime austerity. In foreign affairs, while colleagues such as Barbara Castle sang the praises of Stalin’s USSR, Bacon could be found visiting the battlefields of southern Russia, noting the hardships of its people and singing not “The Red Flag” but “On Ilkley Moor Baht ’at”.

Such positions sometimes put her at odds with the more left-leaning members of her party. Bacon’s efforts to prevent the communist infiltration of the NEC, for instance, led Denis Healey to describe her as the “Terror of the Trotskyites”. Her delight at Harold Wilson’s defeat in the 1960 leadership contest was clear to all. “The defeat of Harold! The defeat of Harold!” she cried, glancing at a picture of the Battle of Hastings that hung over the banners in the room where the result was announced.

Yet even though her sympathies lay with the leaders of the Labour right – most notably her friend Hugh Gaitskell – her loyalty to the party appears to have been paramount. When Wilson eventually became prime minister in 1964, he found in Bacon a slick spin doctor and master of legislative practicalities. Trust in Bacon, especially among the more conservative elements in parliament, helped to push through groundbreaking change, from removing the death penalty to decriminalising homosexuality.

“He would always say, and still would today,” she recalled of Wilson during a 1986 radio interview, ‘We understand each other, don’t we?’”

In Reeves’s emphasis on pragmatism, there is perhaps something of a marshalling of historical troops to the cause of the Labour right. There is also, at times, a recourse to namechecks and procedural detail that opens up the rabbit hole of Westminster insularity. But such aspects of the writing are more than excusable, for what elevates this highly involved narrative – written “in between shadow cabinet jobs, electioneering and having two children” – is precisely the sense of shared experience between two political insiders.

Reeves’s curiosity about how a woman of Bacon’s background became a politician and what she did with that position still strikes at the heart of politics today. And the wealth of research here – including interviews with Bacon’s ex-constituents, friends and colleagues – allows her words to whisper across the decades, reminding us that although politics may be “in the blood”, it is also in the books.

The result is a compelling piece of Labour history and the story of a determined, witty and straight-talking woman, whose attempt to bridge divisions in her own party seems more apt now than ever before.

Alice in Westminster: the Political Life of Alice Bacon by Rachel Reeves is published by I B Tauris (264pp, £20)

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 15 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2016