Rachel Reeves

Member of Parliament for Leeds West

We owe a debt to Labour’s bold, pioneering Alice Bacon

By introducing comprehensive schools, she fulfilled her dream of improving working-class children’s lives.

Born a miner’s daughter, Alice Bacon’s experiences as a teacher at an interwar secondary modern put her on a mission to transform education in Britain. Yorkshire’s first woman MP – elected in 1945 – was passionate about how education could radically improve lives in working-class communities such as hers in West Yorkshire. As an MP and as a minister, she got to fulfil her dream.

As Alice saw it, she was one of a lucky few to go to a grammar school but she could see the world of opportunity denied to her friends, a view confirmed by her time as a teacher. It became Alice’s political, social and personal crusade to improve the education of working-class boys and girls. Early political influence came from her father who took his teenage daughter to work, a memory seared in her mind, describing later how she “went down the mine into its inner workings and almost terrifying darkness”.

In 1925, aged 16, Alice joined the Labour party – it was she said, “as natural as breathing”. Her first speech was at the Normanton Railwaymen’s Club and her first advice surgeries were held almost 20 years before she became an MP in Leeds, helping miners fill in compensation forms for industrial injuries. Alice’s politics came from experience, not from grand theories.

Once in Westminster, she spoke more than any of her colleagues about comprehensive education and forced the issue to the top of the political agenda. By the 1960s, as a member of the Labour’s national executive committee, she had transformed the party’s at best ambiguous position towards comprehensive education to one of outright support. As part of Harold Wilson’s government and with Tony Crosland as education secretary, Alice began to see her dream fulfilled.

Wilson made Alice a minister, first at the Home Office, then at Education, where she became responsible for bringing comprehensive schools to children across the country. By the time she left office in 1970, one in three children was taught in comprehensives. It was a tide even Margaret Thatcher could not reverse. The battle had been won – at least that’s what we thought until more than four decades later, another grammar school girl, Theresa May, seems determined to revisit the argument.

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Alice said her commitment to comprehensive education “did not come from political dogma but from the reality of teaching in a secondary-modern school”. She would be deeply disappointed to think we could go back to dividing children at the age of 11, slamming doors in the face of those who most need them held open.

Alice’s politics were practical and formed by a connection with the people she served. Labour peer Bernard Donoughue said: “Alice understood the concerns of working-class communities … and was more able to carry them with her by argument rather than by lecturing them sanctimoniously on their alleged bigotry and prejudices.” He was right.

Addressing the Labour conference in Blackpool in 1965, and understanding the mood of the country and party very well, Alice said: “I say that this country of ours ought to be able to absorb one million immigrants, but 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.

“Of course we know that the immigrants did not create the shortage… but until the Labour government can make good these shortages, to put more on the already over-burdened services could lead to a very serious situation.”

In the 1950s, when some on the left railed against consumerism and “a hell of TV sets and home ownership”, Alice said: “One of the good things in the postwar years has been the fact that ordinary working women have been able to take advantage of appliances which were once considered luxuries. Only those who live among working people know the difference which it makes on washing days when the woman of the house can use a washing machine instead of having to do a weekly wash in the old-fashioned way.” Alice was concerned more than anything to improve the lot of working people – in education, at work and at home.

In Labour party politics, Alice was on the right, a Gaitskellite who believed in tough party discipline, nicknamed by her Leeds neighbour, Denis Healey, as “the terror of the Trotskyites”. But as the party drifted to the left in the 1980s, Alice condemned the “terrible way” the SDP was set up and the “despicable” behaviour of the Gang of Four. Alice was loyal to Labour before she was loyal to any faction in it. SDP co-founder Shirley Williams told me that Alice never considered joining the SDP – she was too rooted in the Labour party. Williams said: “Europe was a key policy for us, but was not an issue Alice greatly cared about.”

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My biography of Alice came about because when I was elected as the MP for Leeds West in 2010, I was only the second female MP elected by the city, 65 years behind Alice. We still have a way to go at Westminster, where there are more men serving in parliament today than the total of women ever elected to the House of Commons.

Although Alice asked people to judge her as “a socialist, not a feminist”, she helped future generations of Labour women, including me, by making being a woman in parliament a little bit less unusual and she fought her own battles. Herbert Morrison told the new female MPs in 1945 to stick to “women’s issues”, while Gerald Kaufman noted that neither Alice Bacon nor Barbara Castle would have been selected if local party members had believed there was the faintest chance they would become MPs; both overturned big Tory majorities.

Alice was a pioneer in the world of education and politics whose success was founded on her determination to stay true to her working-class roots and the people she came into politics to serve. We should be thankful that she staunchly refused to accept a second-class world – neither for school pupils, nor for women in Westminster.

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