ALICE BACON can claim to be one of the most significant figures in the British Labour Movement for over 25 years: from the wartime 1940s to the last years of the Wilson government.
She occupied a position of power within the party hierarchy which she used to promote the brand of socialism in which she believed, practical, commonsensical, the art of the possible, continually beating off the more doctrinaire left wing. Hers was a backroom role, but read the diaries of Benn, Crossman and Castle, and the constant angry references to 'Bacon A' tell the story of her influence. It was the influence of pragmatic moderation which helped produce Labour's successes in 1945 and 1964.
She was an archetypal Yorkshire lass, tough, determined and warm of heart. She came from tough working- class stock - her father was a miner. Like many clever aspiring working- class girls from this background, she saw teaching as the means to further education, and the way ahead. So Alice worked her way through elementary school, up to an external degree at London, and eventually an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Leeds.
To be a member of the Labour Party was, for Alice Bacon, as natural as breathing. Her potential was quickly recognised. That great manager, fixer and relentless right-winger, Herbert Morrison, took her under his wing. She was his devoted disciple.
In 1941, she was elected to the women's section of Labour's National Executive. She was barely 30; she was and still is one of the youngest to have reached such a key position within the Labour Movement. Her youth was used to good effect, and her rousing addresses to young audiences up and down the country are still remembered with admiration.
Labour's great victory of 1945 saw her elected as an MP for Leeds, a former Conservative seat, and she represented Leeds for the next quarter of a century. She was always more of a party politician than a national politician, implacable against Communists and Trotskyists, far-left infiltrators into the constituency parties. Thanks largely to her efforts, Leeds Labour Party became a model after her own heart: the Labour MPs, including herself, were Hugh Gaitskell, Denis Healey and the cockney trades unionist Charlie Pannell ('Show me a Communist and I'll show you a crook'). Denis Healey says that Alice Bacon, the bonny Yorkshire lass, reminded him of Jane Eyre, with sadly no Rochester in her life. But, as he points out, her devotion to Hugh Gaitskell was beyond mere politics. When Gaitskell died a light for many people went out. It undoubtedly did for Bacon. The House of Commons paid its tributes to Gaitskell, breaking with the usual traditional eulogies to dead politicians, and after the leaders had spoken, Alice Bacon was called. Her speech moved many to tears: she described the grief in the poor back streets of Leeds, the dimming down of lights in the little houses, the slow drawing down of blinds.
Bacon stayed on. She served Harold Wilson loyally in government as Minister of State at the Home Office and as Minister of State at the Department of Education. She thwarted him famously in the appointment of a Labour Party secretary; Wilson wanted his left-wing crony the elegant Tony Greenwood to get the job. Bacon, manoeuvring with Morrisonian skill, secured the nomination for a safe trades unionist; and she remained as she had ever been, a thorn in Bevanite flesh.
Honours had come: a CBE and membership of the Privy Council. There had also been a long sentimental friendship with the head of the Press Association's parliamentary office, 'Stacky' Stacpole: the two sitting cosily gossiping, or just silently together in the corridors of the Commons, was a touching sight.
In 1970 Labour was defeated. Alice Bacon was nearly 60, a woman's retirement age. She took a life peerage, but she became more and more remote from politics. The Yorkshire lass did not seem to fit into the House of Lords. Her old chum Charlie Pannell, who had accompanied her thither, did not like it either. He died and she liked it even less. Hugh Gaitskell's successor in Leeds, Merlyn Rees, Northern Ireland Secretary, managed to interest her in women's charities in Northern Ireland, across the religious divide. Other charities took up her time, and she raised money with carol concerts, and events including showbiz people and minor royalty. She became Deputy Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire. None of this was quite her scene, but then the Labour Party, as it had become in the early Eighties, was not her scene either. She did not defect to the SDP, but was sympathetic towards those who did, admitting that the Labour Party then was not the one she had joined. She was happy to settle in Leeds, and to pursue what was still, to her, the accepted duty of an unmarried daughter or niece, the care of much-loved aged relatives.
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