I will fight for what I believe in until I drop dead, and that’s what keeps you alive

Ella Staddon, Treasurer TT22

Twenty years ago today, Labour’s Red Queen Barbara Castle died of pneumonia, a cause of death she had predicted nearly 25 years earlier joking about her inability to dress appropriately for British weather. A pioneer for women in politics, Castle’s legacy can be seen on the Labour benches in the women who she continues to act as a role model for. The first to do many things, she is still the only woman to have served as First Secretary of State, and it took 28 years after she left the Commons for her record as the longest-serving woman MP to be surpassed.

Born into a politically active family, it’s unsurprising Castle would become an MP. Her mother was a Labour Councillor, and her father secretly ran the Bradford pioneer and directed local left-wing plays. At five years old, she wrote her first manifesto for the 1916 general election, and by her teens she was an active member of the Labour party, standing in her school’s mini-elections as the Labour candidate and informing people that she was going to be a journalist or an MP one day. Her 21st birthday was spent attempting to interview her favourite MPs for the Bradford Pioneer and the OULC’s newspaper at a Labour conference.

Her rebellious tendency flourished in Oxford. Becoming the first woman treasurer of the OULC, she would climb out of windows and over fences to avoid the chaperone rules that would’ve prevented her involvement in the club. She would later define her difficult relationship with Oxford as a ‘love-hate relationship’, struggling to fit in due to systemic misogyny and classism, but enjoying the OULC and historical buildings.

After graduating during the great depression, she was sacked from her first job for giving ‘advice’ to the management and attempting to unionise her fellow women workers. She went to work for the Labour party, and in 1936 was sent to the USSR to investigate the treatment of women. On the way back, she faced down Nazis when her train stopped in Berlin. They were so horrified by the number of shoes she had in her suitcases that they missed the mini Lenin statue she had bought in Moscow.

In her first party conference speech in 1943, she shamed the NEC into backing the immediate implementation of the Beveridge report. Breaking wartime censorship rules to talk about jam (a rationed food item), she ended up on the front page of the Daily Mirror as the ‘voice of youth’. It also landed her in trouble with her boss in the civil service, only getting away with her political activities because of wartime staff shortages. The speech resulted in her meeting her husband, Ted Castle, who was the night editor of the Mirror who put her on the front page. They decided to team up to campaign for the Beveridge Report, and after a year of yelling at people on bombed-out street corners, they married.

Meanwhile, in Blackburn, the women who ran and funded the CLP threatened a revolt if a woman was not included on the selection list. Castle was recommended by Herbert Morrison, who was impressed by her conference speech. Having spent days in hospital with shingles and appendicitis, she travelled across war-torn Britain, against the recommendations of her doctor, to stand for parliamentary selection. Blackburn’s double constituency meant she was selected as their second candidate, with the men in the CLP thinking they wouldn’t get enough Labour votes for her to become the MP. Labour’s 1945 landslide meant their prediction was wrong, and she remained the MP for 34 years.

Immediately appointed Sir Stafford Cripps’s PPS, and later Harold Wilson’s PPS, she spent her early years in Parliament working at the Board of Trade on issues ranging from rubber to food. Despite being one of the most vocal Bevanites, Bevan didn’t particularly like her and excluded her from Bevanite meetings. This unintentionally resulted in Castle befriending Clement Attlee in the canteen, and they would regularly have lunch together.

In 1951, Castle became the first woman elected to the NEC not from the women’s section. Heavily involved in the Bevanite battles of the 1950s, she was despised by Gaitskell who accused her of having a “third rate mind,” and threatened to strangle her at a party conference. In 1954 she led a petition with 80,000 signatures demanding equal pay for women. In 1957, she became involved in the fight to end colonialism in Cyprus. Her work in Cyprus became controversial when she correctly accused the British army of committing crimes against Greek-Cypriot civilians. Having persuaded Makarios to give up Enosis, she travelled to Turkey to get them to agree to drop Cypriot unity with Turkey, and drew up plans for a united, independent Cyprus. In 1960, Cyprus became independent on those terms, although, unsurprisingly, she never got any credit.

In 1957, Castle and Tom Driberg had their chairmanships of the NEC swapped around, with Gaitskell believing Driberg to be more of a liability in an election year. 1959 was the year Castle defended the Mau Mau, criticised the actions of the British government in Kenya, organised campaigns against apartheid and was sued for her comments about the British army in Cyprus. Despite few people across the country actually caring about Castle’s battles, Gaitskell publicly blamed her for Labour’s election loss.

In 1963, Gaitskell died and was replaced by Harold Wilson. A year later, Labour came into government and Castle became the fourth woman cabinet minister in history. She quickly established herself as the most capable minister in Wilson’s government, setting up the Ministry of Overseas Development, securing its budget and negotiating interest-free loans for developing nations.

In 1965, she was made Minister of Transport, outraging a significant proportion of the population that thought a woman who didn’t drive ought not to be left in charge of the nation’s roads. She successfully prevented public transport from being sold off in favour of an American style system, she did save a few railways from the Beeching cuts. Famously she introduced permanent speed limits, seat belts and the breathalyser. For this, she is credited with saving the most lives of any government minister in history.

By 1968, she was widely regarded as the Prime Minister in waiting. Wilson considered moving her to the Department of Economic Affairs or even making her Chancellor, a plan that was put to bed by Roy Jenkins who didn’t want to be shown up for incompetence and laziness. Wilson also considered appointing her Home Secretary, which was opposed by Jim Callaghan. She instead got what was effectively a demotion to the Ministry of Labour, renamed the Department of Employment and Productivity. Richard Crossman was so outraged at Wilson’s treatment of her that he gave up the role of First Secretary of State, informing Wilson that if Castle were a man, she would’ve been the one having a reshuffle.

The DEP brought about Castle’s most significant failure and success. Tasked with finding a solution to wildcat strikes and stand up to trade union leaders who tried to dictate Labour party policy, the white paper In Place of Strife was born. Mild by today’s trade union legislation, it proposed a two-week conciliary period, the setting up of a neutral party to investigate claims that resulted in strike action, and the registration of all trade unions. It would also introduce compulsory redundancy payments, force all employers to recognise trade unions, and made trade union membership a statutory right. Publicly opposing the measures, and supporting them privately, trade union leaders admitted to Castle that had it been a man negotiating with them, they probably would’ve agreed. Michael Foot’s 1970s industrial relations policies proved they weren’t lying.

In 1964, Castle persuaded Wilson to include equal pay as a manifesto commitment, and in 1966, she unsuccessfully attempted to force it into the prices and incomes policy. In June 1968, the Dagenham machinists organised a walkout over a pay-regrading structure. Unable to get them regraded, Castle negotiated a pay rise to 92% of the male rate of pay and promised to legislate equal pay. With the help of Lena Jeger, Castle threatened to bring down the government unless she was allowed to introduce her Equal Pay Bill, and in 1970 the Equal Pay Act became the last law passed by that government.

She returned to Cabinet in 1974 as Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, the largest governmental department. Here she increased nurses’ salaries and began to abolish pay beds in NHS hospitals. She replaced family allowances with child benefit, stopped abortion from being re-criminalised, and made prescriptions for children, pensioners and benefit claimants free of charge. Contraception was also made free via the NHS. Famously she introduced SERPs, or State Earnings Related Pensions, which lifted thousands out of poverty and was the first pensions scheme that allowed married women to have a pension in their own right. She also introduced a mobility allowance for the disabled. In 1976, Callaghan sacked her for being ‘too old.’ She retorted that he ought to sack himself, pointing out he was the same age.

After 34 years in the Commons, in 1979 she stood down to “raise hell in Europe” as an MEP. Originally a Eurosceptic, the introduction of the social charter changed her stance and she encouraged the Labour party to do the same. As an MEP she was involved in agricultural policy, and managed to ban leghold traps and introduce a basic standard of animal welfare across all EU countries.

In 1990, she entered the House of Lords. Largely supportive of Kinnock, Smith and Beckett’s leadership, she set about causing havoc for Tony Blair by campaigning against the New Labour plan for pensioners. Sticking to her promise to fight for what she believed in until she dropped dead, at her final party conference in 2001 she insisted on speaking after Gordon Brown to criticise him for refusing to link pensions with average earnings. SERPS was never reintroduced.

No matter how much Harriet Harman argues that feminists and socialists are not supposed to have heroines, it would be hard for me to say that Barbara Castle is not a heroine of mine. It’s easy to get caught up in her achievements and forget that she came from a background where women like her were not supposed to succeed. Her opportunity to go to university was almost thwarted by cost. Had her mother not been as determined as she was to send her daughter to university, it is perhaps unlikely that we would be celebrating all the achievements listed above. It took her 10 years of selection committees to finally be selected for a seat, and even then she was selected for that seat because no one thought she could win it. Unsurprisingly, therefore, she battled daily with crippling self-doubt and a fear that she would be found out to be a fraud. Despite being known for her speeches of fierce conviction and confidence, she wrote in 1975 that ultimately, she just wanted “to get through [the speech] somehow and not look afraid.” In spite of this, she managed to not only succeed but change the world around her so permanently that we still benefit from her work to this day. How many single mothers from the past 50 years would’ve been destitute without child benefit and equal pay? And by extension how many more children would’ve grown up in absolute poverty, with no chances in life at all? How many of those in the past 50 years who have lost their jobs relied on statutory redundancy payments in order to survive? The pandemic and subsequent economic crisis has demonstrated for all to see that this battle is not over. Just the other day the Guardian reported that single mothers are facing the worst of the current economic crisis, and the political choices of the current government are plunging millions of children and pensioners into poverty in the sixth largest economy in the world.

Castle’s definition of socialism as the extension of “the privileges of the few into the rights of the ordinary citizen,” is just as true now as it was 63 years ago when she proclaimed it to the party conference. Those of us, like Castle, who have by luck been granted these privileges in spite of our backgrounds have a duty to ensure that those opportunities are available to all those who follow after us. This is not a duty we can give up, it is something we must fight for until we drop dead.

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