A Terrible Pool of Human Misery and Unhappiness

Ella Staddon, Co Chair-Elect MT22

In 1967, David Steel brought forward the seventh attempt in 14 years to decriminalise abortion in the UK. Nearly word-perfect to the four attempts that had been introduced since 1965, it had been co-sponsored and drafted by Labour MP Renée Short, whose crusade to reform abortion law had begun upon her election. The act legalised abortion on certain grounds following authorisation from two registered practitioners in England, Wales and Scotland, with a conscience clause to allow doctors to refuse treatment on grounds of religious belief.

In October 1964, one of Labour’s most notorious feminist left-wing MPs Renée Short was elected to Parliament. Immediately taking up the cause of abortion law reform, in June 1965 she introduced a 10-Minute Rule Bill to decriminalise abortions. The Guardian reported that the bill had government backing, and was likely to pass through the Commons with little controversy, particularly due to widespread support for reform throughout the country. It passed unanimously with cross-party support in its first reading, and it would’ve passed its second reading unanimously had Labour MP William T Wells not blocked it. Later that same day, mere hours after backing Short’s bill at its second reading, the Home Secretary Sir Frank Soskice and the Minister of State for Home Affairs Alice Bacon decided to back Wells. The pair were adamant that the Home Office would not reform the law, and that they would only support reform if it was introduced as a Private Members Bill, claiming that as a 10-Minute Rule Bill it would not be properly debated. Their announcement made reform tricky, as Short and her allies now had to find people who had been balloted for a Private Members Bill to sacrifice their bill for the cause.

Unsurprisingly for the Labour party, Soskice and Bacon’s sudden change in attitude probably had less to do with wanting the issue to be debated, and more to do with factionalism. Soskice and Bacon were staunch Gaitskellites, as was Wells, who would later defect to the SDP. Short, on the other hand, was a notorious left-winger with known sympathies for nations within the USSR. It was rarely acknowledged that these sympathies were down to herself being the daughter of Russian, Hungarian and Romanian Jewish refugees, and her husband being a Romanian Jewish refugee himself.

By the end of 1965, support for abortion reform increased following the BBC’s Up the Junction, where the main character Rube becomes pregnant and seeks out a backstreet abortion which goes wrong. Abortion was depicted graphically, horrifying the nation. Of course, had Short’s bill not been blocked, the scenes depicted in the series may have been very different.

Short worked alongside all those who gave up their Private Member’s Bills to pursue the cause of abortion law reform. All the bills were co-sponsored by Short, who drafted most of them, and all were almost word-perfect to her own bill from 1965. Finally, in 1967, David Steel’s Private Members Bill passed on a free vote.

After the bill had passed, it took until April 1968 to be brought into law. It was only applicable to England, Wales and Scotland, and as Short discovered, regional differences in NHS care meant access to abortion services could be postcode dependent. Equally, many doctors used the conscience clause of the Act to refuse to perform abortions, making it difficult for women to access the healthcare they needed. Short repeatedly brought up the issue in the Commons, and in one instance was told by the Health Secretary she was talking nonsense, to which she retorted “it is not nonsense if a woman dies”.

Despite the promise of most political parties to remain neutral in the case of abortion, in 1975 Barbara Castle went against this after an attempt by anti-abortion MPs to heavily restrict the law. Going against an order from Harold Wilson to hide in her office and not speak her mind on the issue, she backed the Abortion Act in the house, fearing that the government’s silence on the issue would result in the law being revoked altogether. Since then there have been seven serious attempts, and many other less serious ones, to either repeal or reform the act to restrict abortions, most recently in 2022, when the government attempted to scrap at-home early medical terminations. Thankfully, each attempt has failed, in no small part due to the work of Labour MPs from all wings of the party.

The Abortion Act was not extended to Northern Ireland until 2019, and still to this day no abortion services are available in the country, having been blocked by the Northern Irish Health Secretary. When put to a vote in the Commons, 99 MPs voted to keep abortion illegal in Northern Ireland in 2019. Some of those same MPs currently sit at the highest levels of our government, including the Attorney General. In Scotland, no health board provides abortion services to the 24-week limit, forcing women to travel hundreds of miles to England to receive care. Regional differences in healthcare access across England and Wales, particularly in rural areas, result in people struggling to access any healthcare, let alone abortion services. Austerity cuts to the NHS mean that even in urban areas, everyone struggles to simply book a GP appointment, with the most low-income areas being the worse affected. On the Abortion Act’s 10th anniversary, Renée Short informed Parliament that the Abortion Act’s only scandal was the failure “to provide the necessary facilities for equitable treatment throughout the country, and it is a failure that needs a remedy.” 44 years on, her words still ring true.

It is easy to look at the United States, Poland or Malta and think how lucky we are to live in a country where the right to choose is protected by the law. But the law is merely empty words unless it is enforced across the country, providing access to abortion care to everyone who needs it. America has learnt the hard way what political complacency, ignorance, apathy and cynicism leads to. The Tories are counting on it keeping them in power, and it is our duty to make sure this does not happen.

“It has been estimated that there are about 100,000 illegal abortions a year, a terrible pool of human misery and unhappiness. The figure may well be higher, for there is a considerable amount of camouflage on medical certificates. Some of these abortions are brought about by women themselves using terrifying instruments to bring abortion about. Can the House stand a recital of the desperate lengths to which frightened women will go to prevent the continuation of an unwanted pregnancy? I quote from a report published in 1939 by the Government Abortion Committee: Things inserted in the womb, often with disastrous consequences, including knitting and darning needles, crochet and button hooks, pencils, scissors and hairpins, disinfectants, washing soda and other irritants, drugs which frequently damage the foetus without killing it, and other violent methods. Then there are those women who go to back-street abortionists and who have similar terrifying interference carried out in ghastly and dirty conditions. Damage is done to the unborn child, deformed babies often result, and sterility, and very frequently death.” -Renée Short, 1965


Hidden Disabilities

Anas Dayeh, Disabilities Officer TT22

On the 30th of April, I was on a podcast by Left Whingers (@Left_Whingers on Twitter) to talk about hidden disabilities and the experiences I’ve had throughout my life as a result of having dyslexia.

I’ve always found academic life difficult. If you were to say to 14-year-old Anas that he would be studying at Oxford in a few years’ time, then he would have said that you’re lying. I had incredibly poor performance in school, getting 50/100 in Chemistry and barely passing other subjects. As I was living in the Middle East at the time, where awareness about Dyslexia and ADHD wasn’t widespread. If you’re performing badly at school, then it’s just your intelligence level to blame.

A few years later I moved to the UK. I spent one year studying BTECs, then switched to A Levels. For the first 2 years of my education managing my dyslexia was certainly still difficult. I knew there was something wrong with my ability to spell correctly, focus on my assignments, and finish my essay within the time limit. One of my teachers constantly mentioned my spelling mistakes and even factored them in the marking of essays. That resulted in grades of D, E and Us, something which seriously brought down my academic confidence. These low grades, my spelling mistakes, and my reduced motivation added to the perception some teachers had of my educational ambition, with one directly telling me a few weeks before the Oxbridge application deadline “Anas, I don’t think you’re the Oxford type”.

The reason dyslexia wasn’t part of the college’s consideration was that an assessment hadn’t yet been carried out. Since Year 12, I asked multiple times for any sort of assessment to find the reason behind the educational problems I was facing. I was told that I’m ‘too old’ to have one, as ‘those sorts of assessments are usually done in primary and secondary school’. My Sixth Form simply did not have the facilities or the administrational capacity to assess any student for Dyslexia.

Later in Year 13, just before my A-level exams, my sixth form finally agreed to do a ‘special circumstances’ assessment. This gave me 25% extra time in exams, and meant I could type my exams instead of handwriting them. With that, my performance improved massively. My slow handwriting and spelling difficulties were finally addressed, and these extra adjustments helped me be on an equal playing field with other students in my class.

So why should it take so long? How many students out there are finding studying difficult simply because of conditions they have no control over? This is not just a matter of passing an upcoming exam, it’ll have consequences on an individual’s long-term future. If students couldn’t get the grades they need, then they might miss out on university places. In turn this can result in lost opportunities, such as not having the qualifications to make it to a career they enjoy and are talented in.

To solve this, and to make sure young people can harness their full potential, the government should provide assessments of all hidden disabilities. Waiting lists should be brought down for ADHD assessments, and the process itself should be made easier.

It is important that the government acts now, as otherwise there will be many students losing out, and blaming themselves for something they have no control over.

Personal experiences give really valuable insight into how we can open up access to people of all abilities. As the disabilities officer, I’ve been committed to applying this to our wonderful club, as I’m sure the next officer will. If you want to share any ideas, concerns or problems you may have faced then please feel free to get in touch.

You can listen to the podcast episode on all the following platforms:



8 Labour Women You Should Know About

Ella Staddon, Treasurer TT22

Originally written for Women’s History Month (although in my world, every month is women’s history month), I wanted to put to good use my knowledge of Labour women’s history to highlight eight Labour women MPs of the 20th century who should be better known. Despite making massive contributions, these women rarely if ever get mentioned by the Labour party or historians. It’s high time they get written back into our history, and I am pleased to say that there are historians like Nan Sloane and Paula Bartley who are making massive contributions in this field. I would happily have written pages on each of these women, and I recognise that I have only just scratched the surface of their achievements here.

Dame Leah Manning (Islington East, 1931; Epping, 1945-50)

After gaining and losing her Parliamentary seat in 1931, Manning turned her attention to fighting fascism. Going against Labour policy, and even facing the threat of expulsion, she became Secretary of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. On the 27th April 1937, she travelled to Guernica to organise the evacuation of 4,000 children and 200 adults to Britain. That same day, Hitler sent the Luftwaffe to carpet bomb the city. She narrowly survived the massacre. Undeterred by the threat to her life, she continued to travel to Spain to aid the republicans. In 2002, Bilbao Square was renamed ‘Plaza de Mrs Leah Manning’ in her honour. Closer to home, Manning was known for loudly singing The Red Flag while walking the corridors of Parliament. She had no time for women who did not support other women and despised Jean Mann for undermining her socialist sisters. Like many Labour feminists, she had a soft spot for Ellen Wilkinson and Barbara Castle. Her unfaltering support for her female comrades, rather than her bravery in Spain, is what she is often remembered for.

Lena Jeger (St Pancras and Holborn, 1953-59; 1964-79)

Once dubbed “the most influential politician to never become a minister”, Lena Jeger turned St Pancras and Holborn into a Labour safe seat. Having vocally opposed Macmillan’s plans to partition Cyprus, it was her speech at the 1957 party conference that forced the NEC to adopt a policy of self-determination for the island. Following the Turkish invasion in 1974, Jeger travelled to Cyprus regularly to support the Greek Cypriot majority and joined the Women Walk Home marches into the occupied North in 1975, 1987 and 1989. Her finest moment, however, was on equal pay. In 1968, Jeger tabled an equal pay amendment to Roy Jenkins’ prices and incomes bill and threatened to lead a backbench revolt of Labour women MPs unless Jenkins agreed to Barbara Castle’s equal pay bill or the amendment. Castle, sat next to Jenkins on the front bench, gleefully threatened to join the revolt. The threat worked, and two years later the Equal Pay Act became law. There is no doubt that had Jeger not tabled that amendment, we would not have had the 1970 Equal Pay Act. She also gets extra brownie points for being from the South West.

Dame Judith Hart (Lanark, 1959-87)

From a single-parent working-class household to cabinet minister, it’s always a shock that Judith Hart was so quickly forgotten. A fighter for a world free of nuclear weapons, Hart never shied from being controversial or opposing her own government. An incredibly quotable MP, she once called a Tory minister a “male chauvinist pig” and informed the nation on Question Time that she took the future of the Labour movement “rather more seriously than what horses you want to bet on.” Her appointment to Cabinet in 1968 was a triple first- the first woman Paymaster General, the first mother appointed to Cabinet, and the first time more than one woman was appointed to the Cabinet. While her speciality was foreign aid, her lasting legacy is Chile. She dedicated her last 15 years in Parliament to demanding Chile be subject to sanctions, and immediately following the 1973 coup co-founded organisations that promoted human rights in Chile. At the same time, she organised and funded escape routes for refugees, hosting many of them in her own home. One such family was Allende’s widow and children. When Labour returned to government, she used her department to create official escape routes to the U.K. for Chilean refugees, saving thousands of lives. Her final speech in Parliament was dedicated to the plight of Chilean refugees, who had been treated like economic migrants by the Tory government. In 1991, she was the first non-Chilean to receive the Chilean Order of Merit, awarded posthumously- she had died days before she could receive it in person.

Renée Short (Wolverhampton North East, 1964-87)

If an issue was unpopular and vaguely left-wing, it’s highly likely that Renée Short was somehow involved. Having been an MP for less than a year, she introduced a private members bill to decriminalise abortions. The bill failed, but a year later she drafted the Abortion Act, which became law in 1967. She was one of the first people to use the Race Relations Act when she (rightfully) accused Enoch Powell and his campaign of putting up racist and antisemitic posters about her in her constituency. Believing the lack of women MPs to be “scandalous”, Short campaigned for family-friendly working hours for MPs and universal childcare in the hopes it would make politics, and the world of work, more accessible to mothers. She was the first Chair of the Social Services committee where she challenged the government on medical research, abortion, HIV/AIDS, prisons, cancer treatment, nursery provision and pensions. She retired in 1987 following threats from her CLP to deselect her on the basis of being ‘too left-wing’, and turned to breeding poodles.

Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough 1966-83; Eccles 1987-97)

Known as ‘the Darling of the Labour Conference’, Joan Lestor was a lifelong campaigner for education and against racial discrimination. Active in the anti-apartheid movement, she used her role as an Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office to pursue anti-apartheid causes, including refusing embassy receptions and facilities abroad for sports teams that agreed to compete in or against South Africa. Education was another passion, and in 1987, she was made shadow minister for children and families where she spoke out against the impacts of Thatcherism on young people. At the 1993 conference, she pointed out that Thatcher’s ‘success’ was judged by the number of yuppies rather than the number of children whose life opportunities had been snatched away from them. Ill health forced her to stand down in 1997, and both sides of the Commons was packed to listen to her final speech.

Joan Maynard (Sheffield Brightside, 1974-87)

Joan Maynard was the first Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, and most well known for her advice to newly elected MPs in 1983. “If both front benches agree, the workers are losing out. And if a minister ever gets up and says ‘we’re going to have to take some tough choices and some tough decisions’, it’s a disaster for the working class.” In 1950, she became the youngest Justice of the Peace in Yorkshire, where she shocked colleagues for criticising the law rather than upholding it. A keen supporter of land nationalisation, Maynard believed that ‘socialism could not be achieved as long as private ownership of the land remains’. Despite representing a city constituency, Maynard continued to focus on agricultural issues and in 1976 secured the passage of the Rent (Agriculture) Act which regulated tied cottages.

Jo Richardson (Barking, 1974-94)

A typist by training and left-winger by nature, Richardson was the first MP’s secretary to be elected to Parliament. Supportive of nuclear disarmament, Richardson was a founding member of CND and stalwart supporter of the Greenham common women, regularly visiting their camp. In the 1980s, she became Labour’s spokesperson on women’s rights, becoming the first chair of the NEC’s women’s committee. It was Richardson who ensured that motions passed at the women’s conference were accepted as party policy, and ensured that all parliamentary and government shortlists included a woman. She introduced a minimum quota for women on the Labour frontbench and created the Minister for Women, a post she held in the shadow cabinet at a time there was no Minister for Women! Her concentration on women’s issues resulted in her being voted off the NEC for not focusing on so-say ‘true’ left-wing issues. In spite of this, Richardson forced Labour to change for women and recognise its systemic misogyny. Despite suffering from ill health at what was to be her final party conference, in 1993 Jo Richardson introduced All Women’s Shortlists, without which countless Labour women would never have stepped foot in parliament. As Dame Margaret Beckett said of her, “All of the women of this generation owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Jo Richardson who was the first person to devote all her political endeavours to transform the position of women and laid the foundations for everything that followed.”

Dawn Primarolo (Bristol South, 1987-2015)

When Primarolo was elected in 1987, she was the only Labour MP in the South West and the youngest woman MP. Her maiden speech focused on Bristolian school leavers, whose only post-18 option was exploitation as cheap labour in ‘low-skilled’ and low paid jobs. This was particularly relevant to Bristol, whose main industries had been decimated by Thatcherism. Later, she would send her civil servants to her constituency to prove that even cities considered ‘affluent’ and ‘vibrant’ could suffer from extreme poverty. An unapologetic feminist, Primarolo launched the ‘Off the Shelf’ campaign with Clare Short and once asked Thatcher at PMQs if the only hope for young, low-paid women was ‘to follow her example and find a wealthy husband’. Primarolo’s main successes in Cabinet was the reduction of the Tampon Tax from 17.5% to 5%, and the introduction of tax credits, which contributed to the 26% drop in childhood poverty between 1997-2010. Later, she changed the law to give same-sex couples parental rights and reworded the law to state that children did not legally require a father. After 5 years as Deputy Speaker, she retired in 2015.


Dale, I. & Smith, J., 2018. The honourable ladies. Volume 1, Profiles of women MPs 1918-1996, London.

Castle, B., 1993. Fighting all the way, London: Macmillan.

Bartley, P., 2019. Labour women in power: cabinet ministers in the twentieth century, Basingstoke.

Joyce, G., 2018. No Ordinary Woman: A Memoir of Jo Richardson, London

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https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1982/dec/08/the-economy-impact-on-women#S6CV0033P0_19821208_HOC_359 (accessed 26/03/22)

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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.


Fighting the Age War: A One-Sided Battle

By Danny Leach, Co-Chair

It was reported in the i newspaper earlier this week that the Government is understood to be planning a change to the terms of student loans. The repayment threshold will be dropped to £25,000 from the already long-frozen £27,295 and, even worse, the length of time over which graduates will be expected to repay their loans will be extended from 30 years to 40. Finally, they also plan to add a GCSE and A-Levels requirement – a slap in the face to the many thousands of working class and neurodivergent students who only found the atmosphere and support with which they could thrive at university. 

We should call this what it is: a new frontier in the war on the young. While relentless cuts have slashed provision for everyone in the last decade, the young have faced the worst brunt of them. Sure Start centres have closed up and down the country, real school spending per capita is down 9% on 2010, and tuition fees have trebled. And that’s all before we even leave education. Into the ‘real world’ we emerge to find starter salaries that have barely changed in 15 years, rents that have been steadily increasing in the same period, and house prices which make ownership no more than a pipedream for a majority of the under 30s. 

These changes will significantly increase the amount one could be expected to pay on student loans. Loans are paid at a rate of 9% above the threshold. 9% of the difference between the planned increase and the current threshold is £206.55, which would now be paid over 40 years instead of 30. That means repaying £6200 more over the 30 year period alone, never mind what you pay back in the extra decade of payments. Let’s imagine that post university, and towards the end of your career, you’ve done quite well for yourself, and now earn a nice round £50,000. The additional decade of payments at a lower threshold will cost you as much as £22,500. 

Yet, all this will still do little to reduce the treasury’s liability for Cameron and Clegg’s enormous accounting trick. The dirty secret of student loans is that repayment has always been out of reach for the average student. Let’s consider again our fairly high earning future scenario, where we average a £50,000 income in our career. Assuming no inflation above wage growth at all after 40 years you would have paid back £90,000 if you took a fairly average £50,000 loan, and still have an outstanding balance of £73,101. Under the old system, you would pay back £61,303 over your lifetime, and leave a balance of £60,060 for the state to clear. To be clear, I do not believe the current system of loans is any fairer. However, this comparison demonstrates that what is billed as a minor adjustment to student repayment thresholds is really a significant tax hike on the young specifically. You might notice that the written off amount increases by extending the period. For some reason, the Chancellor is much happier to commit some unfortunate successor to write off £70,000 than to simply pay the initial £50,000. We mortals can only imagine why this might be the case.

It should be noted that this is not just an unrealistic scenario, but an idealistic one. The borrowing rate on student loans is tied to the Retail Price Index which measures inflation. This is already a cynical move by the Government, as the RPI is always higher than the inflation index they use to calculate benefit and pension increases. In theory inflation measures price increases in all areas of the economy, and as a result your student loans are supposed to only increase in ‘real’ terms by between 0% and 3% depending on your income. That means aside from interest, the value of your loan should be the same as it was when you borrowed it, in terms of goods you could buy with the money. However, in reality, average wages are projected to rise by just £150 a year in money terms. This isn’t enough to even cover inflation. This means debts will probably be rising at a much higher rate than incomes for the next few years at least. 

It is often, and correctly, said that student loans are not really loans. They are in effect a graduate tax. However, we would never accept a tax implemented in such a ridiculous and unfair way. Firstly, it is a flat and therefore regressive tax. Someone on £30,000 pays the same proportion of their income above the threshold as someone on £150,000 despite the vastly different welfare effects this may have. Secondly, it creates a very high marginal income tax rate for young graduates. A graduate on £25,000 may soon be paying a marginal tax rate of 42.5%. Thirdly, it is a dishonest tax. Income tax and national insurance, regardless their merits in my view or yours, are plainly taxes, and everyone knows what rate they are paid at. Student loans are not advertised as taxes because, fourthly: if you can provide £27,750 and living expenses in cash before or shortly after you graduate, you can exempt yourself from a 9% tax your peers pay. So as a final insult, the wealthy are thus exempt from the most unfair, poorly thought out, and least progressive tax which Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs see fit to levy. 

As I said, this is a war on the young. However, it isn’t being fought by the old. Instead, wealthy people have increasingly argued that it is cultural signifiers which make one working class, or otherwise. Liberally minded, city dwelling young people have been swept up and declared elites, and therefore an attack on their living standards is justified as progressive levelling up. Look deeper though, and it is clear that the younger generations in the UK contain some of the most underemployed and underpaid people in the country. In addition, they are the least property owning section of society and the most extortionately rented to. Tightening the screws on some of the most precarious in society while leaving untouched massive stockpiles of wealth and the incomes of the very richest isn’t just war on the young- it’s the new frontier in a class war. 


The Not-So-Radical Case for a Universal Basic Income

By Sharon Chau, Communications Officer

Capitalism is crumbling. Income inequality is sky-high, and has been increasing across the board in both developing and developed countries. Automation will lead to a disastrous displacement of labour – 47% of all current jobs in the U.S. might be fully automated by 2033,[1] while a staggering 85% of jobs in Ethiopia are “at risk”.[2] Given the unprecedented problems which threaten the economic wellbeing and fabric of our society, we need a radical solution.

A Universal Basic Income (henceforth “UBI”) might just be what we need. Originally proposed by philosophers Thomas Paine and John Stuart Mill,[3],[4] it involves the regular, equal and unconditional payment of all adults with an amount sufficient to cover basic needs and to enable them to participate in social life, regardless of income level or employment status.[5] It has been promisingly implemented in numerous pilot schemes around the globe. In India, UNICEF carried out an 18-month programme of UBI in eight villages in Madhya Pradesh in 2011.[6] The results demonstrated that UBI improved child nutrition, increased productive work, and raised investment in education, particularly for girls. A similarly unconditional grant given to a large part of the population in Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and India does not rule out working to complement and augment income, and co-exists with informal work. This suits a shifting economic climate, which is especially crucial when many in developing countries rely on the informal “gig economy”. Back in 1974-1979, Canada’s ‘Mincome’ Programme paid a monthly supplemental income to 1000 poor families in Dauphin, Manitoba.[7] Poverty virtually disappeared, high-school completion rates rose and hospitalisation rates fell. Interestingly, productivity also increased. The work rate fell only among new mothers, who spent more time with their children, and teenagers, who gave up part-time jobs for schooling. These tangible results demonstrate the likelihood of a UBI’s success and its potential optimistic outcomes.

Many criticise UBI as an unrealistic utopia which would heavily burden governmental finances. However, multiple studies have demonstrated its feasibility. In the U.K., the introduction of a modest UBI scheme is projected to cost around £200bn;[8]government expenditure and the welfare bill was £814bn and £153bn respectively in 2017. [9],[10] As UBI would be a complete replacement of the current welfare system, it would only require a small rise in taxes and a streamlining of governmental bureaucracy. Hence, UBI is a highly feasible program with minimal increase in public spending.

UBI brings a plethora of benefits for multiple stakeholders, especially for the most vulnerable. Firstly, it reduces the coercive aspects of capitalism. Currently, workers have to take up employment because they lack alternative means of subsistence. UBI provides a baseline capacity for sustenance, allowing people to refuse exploitative labour. This makes work less coercive and also increases wages for unpleasant work, which leads to higher compensation and an incentive for employers to eliminate such tasks. UBI further liberates people from working or seeking work due to the unconditional cash grant,[11] which creates a society no longer hostage to the rule, “No matter how it dulls the senses and breaks the spirit, one must work”.[12] The grant thus challenges an anchoring principle of capitalism that “tethers social citizenship to waged labour”.[13]Additionally, UBI increases workers’ collective power, as unions can use it as an unlimited strike fund to bargain against conditions, compared to limited funds from members that would run out rapidly in a prolonged strike. UBI also grants citizens more autonomy,[14] as the reduced labour time creates room for autonomous activities and production which is not subordinated to the goal of maximising profit.[15],[16] Lastly, UBI provides enough security to enable retraining and job-seeking. Hence it has radical emancipatory potential for the most vulnerable in the capitalist system.

Secondly, insecurity would decrease. UBI provides a dependable, unconditional stream of revenue which many can factor into their worst expectations. It massively reduces stress when one knows that money would appear in their bank account every week if they ever have a rainy day. This security also means additional incentives for individuals to invest in themselves through education, vocational courses or products to increase their productivity. Many people currently save up to prepare themselves in case of financial hardship, but this would be unnecessary if there existed a UBI. Increased security improves mental health – generous unemployment benefits have been shown to offset suicide from losing jobs,[17] and life satisfaction among the long-term unemployed increases significantly when they retire and the social expectation of employment is lifted.[18] Both effects are achieved through UBI, which offers an immediate safety net to anyone suffering unexpected hardships, and removes the expectation of employment. 

Thirdly, UBI produces socially desirable outcomes. Empirically, it has led to higher school attendance in poor households, improved child health and greater financial independence for women. This has been achieved through giving previously unpaid housewives a sum of money every week for children’s healthcare and individual investments, such as opening up their own bank accounts instead of relying on joint ones with husbands. It also subsidises and encourages socially utile activities, including unpaid caregiving within families and volunteering.[19] The social economy, a system which serves members on principles of democracy and solidarity instead of obtaining a return on investment, is also subsidised. UBI provides a decent standard of living to volunteers and aids the integration of the social economy into the mainstream system. Economically, UBI follows the Keynesian idea that downward redistribution of wealth increases consumer demand, fueling economic growth and job creation. UBI also reduces poverty and inequality. Evidence from Scandinavian countries indicates that large-scale, universal provision of decommodified services tends to be more successful in these crucial macroeconomic aims.[20]

UBI is especially beneficial when compared to conditional welfare, an alternative solution to the spectre of automation and poverty. There are many problems with conditional systems, the first of which is the bureaucracy. In the U.S., there are at least 126 federal assistance schemes;[21] in the UK, individuals have had until recently to be assessed for unemployment and ill-health. Each conditional scheme generates a bureaucracy of assessment and the need for constant eligibility monitoring at vast expense.[22] Worse, some eligible recipients do not receive much-needed money due to blips in the system. In the UK, one in five Universal Credit applications are rejected because of procedural errors, leading to many weeks with no income.[23] Compare this to the all-encompassing UBI, where the money is universally guaranteed and spent on the people instead of on bureaucracy. Secondly, the conditional system creates a ‘welfare cliff’ for those who were just well-off enough to lose conditional benefits, but still financially constrained. Thirdly, conditions create financial disincentives for the unemployed to take casual work or workers to increase their hours, which would have rendered them ineligible for conditional welfare. UBI removes these perverse incentives, which is also a strong rebuttal against the anti-UBI argument that people would not work when given unconditional grants. Additionally, there will likely be more political support without clearly-defined net contributors or beneficiaries. Many on the left support UBI due to its liberation of the working class, while many on the right support it as it allows massive downsizing of governmental bureaucracy. To take an example, minimum wage legislation could be abolished as UBI reduces the coercive aspects of capitalism. This broad political support is important to ensure that UBI would last throughout different administrations.

In conclusion, the implementation of a Universal Basic Income is the best response to increasing automation, globalisation, job insecurity and income inequality. Those who lose their jobs are ensured financial security, knowing they receive a steady stream of income even if they take up a job or decide to take time off work for upskilling. Workers are more able to refuse demeaning, exploitative jobs or demand higher wages through increased union power. Free time is increased for people to retrain for new jobs in the digitalised economy or spend more time with children. Higher school attendance, decreased inequality and increased economic growth through the stimulation of consumer demand are additional benefits. Instead of being a fantastical utopia conjured up by populist socialists, as right-wing politicians claim, UBI is an elegant solution to a broken system.

[1] Frey, C. B.; Osborne, M.A. (2013). The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?

[2] Oxford Martin School (2016) Impact of Automation on Developing Countries puts 85% of Jobs at Risk. The Future Is Not What It Used to Be.

[3] Paine, T. (1797). Agrarian Justice. Raleigh, N.C.: Boulder, Colo.

[4] Mill, J.S. (1849). Principles of Political Economy with Some of their Applications to Social Philosophy. London: John W. Parker, West Strand.

[5] Allegre, G. (2014). How can a basic income be defended? OFCE Briefing Paper No. 7.

[6] SEWA Badhan (2014). Piloting basic income transfers in Madhya Pradesh, India. SEWA Bharat, UNICEF.

[7] Forget, E. (2011). The town with no poverty. Canadian Public Policy, 37 (3): 283–305.

[8] Nettle, D. (2018). Getting your head around the Universal Basic Income. Hanging on to the Edges: Essays on Science, Society and the Academic Life (pp. 163-180). Open Book. 

[9] Information from: https://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/total

[10] Information from: https://visual.ons.gov.uk/welfare-spending/

[11] Barchiesi, F. (2012). Liberation of, through, or from work? Postcolonial Africa and the Problem with “Job Creation” in the Global Crisis. Interface, 4(2): 230–253.

[12] Terkel, S. (1973). Capitalism, for better or worse. New York Times, 19 March 1973.

[13] Wright, E.O. (2005). Basic income as a socialist project. Paper presented at the annual US-BIG Congress, University of Wisconsin, Madison

[14] Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury.

[15] Gorz, A. (1994). Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso.

[16] Hermann, C. (2015). Capitalism and the Political Economy of Work Time. New York: Routledge.

[17] Cylus, J.; Glymour, M.M.; Avendano, M. (2014). Do generous unemployment benefit programs reduce suicide rates? American Journal of Epidemiology, 180 (1): 45–52.

[18] Hetschko, C.; Knabe, A.; Schöb, R. (2013). Changing Identity: Retiring from unemployment.

[19] Nettle, D. (2018). Getting your head around the Universal Basic Income. Hanging on to the Edges: Essays on Science, Society and the Academic Life (pp. 163-180). 

[20] Huber, E.; Stephens, J. (2012). Democracy and the Left: Social Policy and Inequality in Latin America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; Korpi, W.; Palme, J. (1998). The paradox of redistribution and strategies of equality: Welfare state institutions inequality and poverty in the Western countries. American Sociological Review, 63 (5): 661–687.

[21] Standing, G. (2017). Basic Income: And How We Can Make it Happen. London: Penguin. 

[22] Marais, H. (2018). The Employment Crisis, Just Transition and the Universal Basic Income Grant. The Climate Crisis: South African and Global Democratic Eco-Socialist Alternatives (pp. 70-106). Johannesburg: Wits University Press. 

[23] The Guardian (2018). Complex rules for universal credit see one in five claims fail. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/may/12/one-in-five–turned-down-for-universal-credit-rules-too-complex


The Ultimate Barbara Castle Reading List

By Ella Staddon, Women*s Officer

Castle in 1965

As you may have noticed, last term the annual Barbara Castle lecture was unfortunately not included on the OULC term card. But as your Women*s Officer and local Barbara Castle fangirl, I feel sufficiently qualified to write an article detailing the various books, articles, online lectures and podcasts that might make up for the missing lecture, and convert everyone to the Barbara Castle fan club. 


Online lectures

The obvious place to start in accounting for a missed Barbara Castle lecture is with… a Barbara Castle lecture! In this case, the Fabian Women have got you covered, with this excellent “Celebration of Barbara Castle”. It’s around an hour long and features Rachel Reeves, Dame Angela Eagle and Kate Hollern, all covering different aspects of Castle’s long and impressive career. Probably my favourite bit of this celebration is Eagle’s contribution, which includes the story of the pair of them stood by Emmeline Pankhurst’s statue outside Parliament, complaining about how much they disliked Jim Callaghan. 

Women of History: A Celebration of Barbara Castle, Fabian Women

Historical dramas

Unfortunately, no one has yet written a ten-season series about Barbara Castle detailing every aspect of her life. She has, however, featured in The Crown season 3 (episodes Aberfan, Bubbikins, Coup and Tywysog Cymru) and briefly appears in episode three of The Trial of Christine Keeler. She also, obviously, appears in Made in Dagenham: “Credence! I will give credence to their cause, my God! Their cause already has credence! It is equal pay! And equal pay is common justice, and if you two weren’t just a couple of egotistical, chauvinistic dunderheads you would realise that! God my office is run by incompetents- and I am sick of being patronised, spoken down to and generally treated like the May Queen. Now set up the meeting!” (Go watch it, and check if I got that monologue correct from memory, like the true Castle fangirl that I am).


Unfortunately, a lot of Castle’s interviews are now lost to the ages, but some survive on YouTube and are listed below:

Barbara Castle | British Labour Party | Open house with Gloria Hunniford | 1998

Barbara Castle talks about her Anti-Apartheid Work

Nelson Mandela: Lady Barbara Castle remembers Mandela

Sex, Drugs and Politics, the Lord Lambton Scandal, Part 3/3


Much like the interviews, there is not much footage of her speeches left either. The only two that I could find on YouTube were both on the EU/EEC.

Barbara Castle Maiden Speech in the House of Lords 14 November 1990

Oxford Union debate EEC referendum 1975 Barbara Castle

British Pathé/Associated Press videos

Barbara Castle features in quite a lot of British Pathé videos, so I have not included all of them. If you want to find any more you can look up ‘Barbara Castle’ on the British Pathé’s YouTube channel. 

Barbara Castle Visits Docks (1967) 

Labour Party Conference (1968) 

(Red) Queen Opens New Tyne Tunnel (1967) 

Minister of Transport Visits BR Research Centre (1967)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9p29-d1qtZ4  (there is also footage of Dame Margaret Beckett visiting this same factory nearly 50 years later. I am also in the Margaret Beckett fan club… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZpDoCJMnRc )

Severn Bridge- New Gateway to Wales (1966) 

Mrs Castle Opens The Blackfriars Underpass (1967) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JizwyrXSPsU

Labour Party Conference (1969) 

Vic Feather New TUC Leader (1960-1969)

Labour Meet at Blackpool (1956)

Castle also features in…

Kinnock the Movie (perfect to watch in advance of Kinnock speaking with us later this term!

Political Heroes: Emily Thornberry on Barbara Castle https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-43925289

Harold Wilson tribute (this includes Castle comparing Wilson to an eel about 2 mins in)


Barbara Castle, Desert Island Discs
Could this be the best Desert Island Discs ever recorded? Probably. Anyway, Castle gets into a squabble with the host for telling her she’s only allowed to take one poem to her desert island. It’s hilarious.

Sylvia Pankhurst, Great Lives
If anyone needed any proof that Castle is a massive suffragette fangirl, this is it. This is also hosted by Joan Bakewell, so it’s basically two amazing feminist socialists talking about another amazing feminist socialist.

Barbara Castle, Great Lives 

This is a brilliant radio documentary on Castle, and features my all-time favourite Castle quote too! (‘You will not set free all the dynamic capacity of our country if this little masculine self-contained club of government is going to be able to continue to keep women out.’) 

Women’s Hour Power List 2016 (This has an excellent bit with Harriet Harman talking about Castle)

Made in Dagenham The Musical


Barbara writes!

Historian Charlotte Lydia Riley once tweeted that Barbara Castle was the only good journalist-turned-politician, and proof can be found in the numerous books she published! Castle’s memoir Fighting All the Way, written in 1993, is a fantastic read and the Castle Diaries are hilarious, although you may start questioning how the Wilson government ever got anything done when they’re all falling asleep during the budget, tripping down stairs and getting very drunk. She also wrote a very short book on the Pankhurst sisters, thus demonstrating once again that she was a massive history nerd and suffragette fangirl.

Barbara is written about!

I haven’t actually read either of the biographies of Castle written by Anne Perkins and Lisa Martineu, however I am aware they are supposed to be very good. They are both available in the lower Rad Cam. She gets two chapters in Paula Bartley’s Labour Women in Power (a book I highly recommend- it is incredibly well written and researched) which can be found in the Upper Gladstone Link, and a chapter in The Honourable Ladies vol.1 1918-96, which is available online on library computers. An alternative to tracking down half a ton of books is reading articles that have been written about Castle, which I have attached below. 

Barbara Castle: Obituary

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Barbara Castle, Labour heroine and champion of women’s rights, dies at 91

Political leaders pay tribute to Baroness Castle

Harriet Harman: ‘We feminists don’t go in for heroines much, but Barbara Castle is mine’ (this article is fantastic, particularly if you want to read about Castle telling Harman “Harriet, there is one thing you need to remember: all prime ministers are bastards.”) 

Labour’s greatest hero: Barbara Castle

Barbara the brave – a woman to reckon with

The red Baroness 

How Barbara Castle Fought to Expose the British Empire’s Shame in Kenya

The Return of the Tribune Rally 

Red queen in the pink 

Barbara Castle: Transport Minister 

‘Committing Political Suicide’: Barbara Castle, ‘In Place of Strife’ and the Battle to Save the Trade Unions 

Labour’s Turning Points: The Unions and ‘In Place of Strife’ https://tidesofhistory.com/2020/12/29/labours-turning-points-the-unions-and-in-place-of-strife/

1970 Equal Pay Act: Barbara Castle’s Fight For Equality

‘Another Historic Advance’: The Equal Pay Act at 50

Happy Birthday Equal Pay? (A bit of self-promotion since I wrote this article last month for the blog!) 

100 years of Suffrage: The Labour Women That Made History https://tidesofhistory.com/2018/02/05/100-years-of-suffrage-the-labour-women-that-made-history/


Happy Birthday Equal Pay?

Ella Staddon, Women’s Officer HT22

The fight for equal pay can be traced back to the 19th century, culminating in the 1888 TUC conference which endorsed the principle of the same wages for the same work. While there was some campaigning during WWI, it was during WWII that the first moves to legislate equal pay began. In 1945, Thelma Cazalet Kier and Meghan Lloyd George introduced a bill which launched equal pay for teachers. The bill passed, however Winston Churchill turned it into a vote of confidence and as a result the bill was dropped. Many thought this political manoeuvre was a frivolous waste of time, especially when women workers had kept the country going. Unsurprisingly, the majority of women did not vote Tory in that year’s election.

Unfortunately Labour’s track record on equal pay was not much better. Agreeing in theory, but opposing in practice, Chancellor Hugh Dalton claimed that he couldn’t introduce equal pay for women due to the unstable economy. The vast majority of the Labour party agreed with this sentiment, however the young backbencher Barbara Castle openly criticised Dalton, saying women ‘would be deeply disappointed at the suggestion that they alone should be expected to forego any satisfaction of just claims owing to inflationary pressure.’ In response to Castle’s rebellion, Jennie Lee wrote in Tribune that women and equal pay could not be a government priority during the post-war crisis, and that equal pay should not be introduced while miners wages were so low. Castle retorted, ‘in that case, we will wait forever’.

It wasn’t just the Bevanites who disapproved of equal pay – in 1951, Hugh Gaitskell claimed it would drive up prices and increase demands on public spending. He also blocked female Hansard reporters from gaining equal pay, resulting in Irene Ward describing Gaitskell as ‘a little dictator’. Meanwhile, Gertrude Horton, the Secretary of the Equal Pay Campaign Committee, decided to change tactics to appeal to a wider proportion of the population. This included selling badges and pencils with equal pay slogans and endorsing Jill Craigie’s documentary ‘To Be A Woman’.

In 1954, Barbara Castle brought forward a petition with over 80,000 signatures to demand equal pay for women, and was delivered to parliament by Castle herself, Dr Edith Summerskill, Patricia Ford and Irene Ward. The Gaitskellites Alice Bacon and Elaine Burton criticised Castle for teaming up with women from other parties and going against Labour policy, although interestingly their criticism did not extend to Summerskill, a fellow Gaitskellite. The women kept up the pressure and by budget day Rab Butler offered to open discussions about the theoretical introduction of equal pay in the civil service. Ward described the move as being a ‘crumb’ that ‘is already disintegrating’. In 1955 Butler announced that equal pay for non-industrial civil servants would be introduced by 1961. 

By the 1964 general election, Hugh Gaitskell was dead and Castle’s reputation began to improve. She used this influence to ensure equal pay was included in the manifesto, although upon entering government discovered that her colleagues had little enthusiasm to act on their promise. Dr Edith Summerskill accurately told parliament that, ‘in the 30 years I have been in Westminster, each successive Minister for Labour tells us how his heart bleeds at the gross exploitation of women, but explains, with crocodile tears that this is not the moment to remedy the grave injustice’. In Cabinet, Castle repeatedly warned that government inaction would result in women turning militant, and at one point was quoted saying, ‘we have behaved with an inertia worthy of the Northern Ireland government!’. In 1966, she attempted to persuade the unions to push for equal pay to be included in the prices and incomes policy (P&I), however they made it clear that their focus was getting men into employment.

In April 1968, Barbara Castle was appointed Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. Less than 2 months later 187 women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham factory went on strike. The women claimed that they had been unfairly graded as ‘B’ (unskilled), while men doing the same work elsewhere in the factory were graded as ‘C’ (skilled). The (largely male) union officials did not know what to do with the women, many of them arguing that they should go back to work before men lost their jobs. By this point, Castle decided to intervene and negotiate directly with the women. Having called them into her office, she negotiated a pay rise to 92% the male rate of pay, and promised that she would introduce an equal pay act. Interestingly, the film Made In Dagenham credits the machinists with pushing for equal pay during these negotiations, however it was actually Castle who suggested it. It would take a further strike in 1984 for the women to achieve their initial aim of being re-graded as ‘skilled’ workers.

Despite this progress, later that same year women were deliberately excluded from the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers’ (AUEW) pay negotiations. While men’s wages would increase to £19 a year, women’s were to remain at £13, and General Secretary Hugh Scanlon secured a pay grading structure that had women as a separate category from skilled, semi-skilled and labourers. There is a delightful entry in her Cabinet diaries where Castle absolutely lost it with the AUEW management after discovering Scanlon’s betrayal. She credits this incident with her decision to go about introducing equal pay without union support. 

Not only was she at odds with the unions, she also found resistance from her own Cabinet. Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland and Dick Marsh publicly opposed the bill, and argued that it would be electorally damaging. Although she had by now written the bill, the whips continued to postpone it.

To aid Barbara Castle in forcing equal pay into law, Lena Jeger tabled an equal pay amendment to Jenkin’s Prices and Income bill. Labour had a majority of just 1, and if the bill did not pass it would likely bring down the government. Sat next to Jenkins on the frontbench, Castle threatened to vote the bill down unless he agreed to her Equal Pay Act. The threat worked, and would later inspire Harriet Harman’s tactics when introducing her own Equality Act, which was just as unpopular as Castle’s Equal Pay Act with the PLP for being ‘too radical’.  

The unions and the CBI were still not convinced. In September 1969, the CBI claimed that equal pay was a ‘luxury’ the country couldn’t afford. In early 1970, Wilson sent Castle on a tour of the unions to rally support for the bill with little success, although it did result in a drunken karaoke session with TUC boss Vic Feather where she sang ‘we shall get [equal pay]’ to the tune of ‘we shall overcome’.

On the 9th February 1970, the Equal Pay Bill was brought to Parliament, and Castle proclaimed:

‘There can be no doubt that this afternoon we are witnessing another historic advance in the struggle against discrimination in our society […] While other people have talked—lots of people have talked—we intend to make equal pay for equal work a reality, and, in doing so, to take women workers progressively out of the sweated labour class.’

Lena Jeger spoke out in support of the bill, stating that it would ‘ensure that the women who do the lowest paid, most drudging jobs in society at last get a measure of social justice.’ Meanwhile, Dr Shirley Summerskill argued that we also needed a sex discrimination act ‘to create a climate of opinion and alter people’s views about what is permissible behaviour. Not only must women be paid the rate for the job, but there should not be such low rates for what is known as women’s work.’ Margaret Thatcher was one of the few Tory MPs who came out in support.

On the 29th May 1970, the Equal Pay Act received royal assent, and on the 29th December 1975 it became law. 

But that is not the end of the story. One of the issues that Castle faced was the definition of equal pay. The unions pushed for the EEC’s definition of equal pay for work of equal value, however Castle pointed out that until women’s work was valued equally it would make very little difference. She also pointed out the union’s original definition of the same wages for the same work would not benefit women working in similar- but not the same- industries. She aimed to strike a balance with ‘equal pay for equal work’, and the law was strengthened when we adopted the EU’s definition in 1984, which, alongside the Sex Discrimination Act, covered the majority of women workers. 

However, it would take the introduction of the National Minimum Wage – another piece of legislation which was unpopular at the time of its introduction – by Dame Margaret Beckett to substantially increase women’s wages. It is the NMW that is credited with closing the gender pay gap the most of any piece of legislation or government action since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act.

It has now been 51 years since the Equal Pay Act received royal assent, and 46 years since it became enforceable by law, and yet we still have a long way to go. The pandemic has exacerbated already existing inequalities, and recent data has suggested that the gender pay gap is widening. Now, more than ever, we need ‘deeds not words’, because – as Castle once said – ‘equal pay for equal work is so self-evidently right and just’.


https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/29/gender-pay-gap-at-uks-biggest-firms-is-growing-data-suggests(accessed 29/12/2021)

https://tuc150.tuc.org.uk/stories/dagenham-womens-strike/ (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://tidesofhistory.com/2020/06/16/another-historic-advance-the-equal-pay-act-at-50/ (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://ukvote100.org/2017/11/09/women-demand-equal-pay/ (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://tidesofhistory.com/2017/05/29/of-course-i-am-opposed-to-equal-pay-how-barbara-castle-bounced-the-labour-party-into-equal-pay/ (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1970/feb/09/equal-pay-no-2-bill (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/11/harriet-harman-barbara-castle-heroine (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/sep/19/labourconference.labour (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://www.cheerfulpodcast.com/rtbc-episodes/first-they-ignore-you-part-4-the-fight-for-a-minimum-wage (accessed 29/12/2021)

Jill Craigie, To Be A Woman equal pay documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4f68SaDqBU

Harriet Harman, A Woman’s Work, (2017)

Barbara Castle, Fighting All The Way, (1993)

Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1964-70, (1984)

Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1974-76, (1980)