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The best of Old Labour

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
Alex Callinicos looks back on the life of Barbara Castle
Issue 1799

TWO LEADING Labour women were in the news last weekend. One was Barbara Castle, who died on Friday of last week. The other was Mo Mowlam, interviewed at length on Channel 4 about her gripes with Tony Blair’s government.

It’s hard to have much sympathy with Mowlam. She was a New Labour ‘moderniser’, very much a politician in the Blair mould, for whom what mattered wasn’t policy but the expression of personality. Now she’s whining because she got knifed in those petty intrigues that pass for politics under Blair.

Barbara Castle, by contrast, died a hero among the rank and file of the labour movement. In her last years she campaigned for the government to combat old age poverty by restoring the link between the rate of increase in state pensions and that of earnings. For more than 50 years Castle was a leading figure on the left of the Labour Party.

She summed up both the strengths and weaknesses of that tradition. Castle was born into a socialist family in Bradford. She participated in the great wave of radicalisation that swept Britain in the 1930s in reaction to the Great Depression, the collapse of the Labour government in 1931, and Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933.

Like many on the Labour left at the time, Barbara Betts (as she then was) was attracted towards the Soviet Union under Stalin as an alternative to the chaos and poverty created by market capitalism in the West. She wrote a number of enthusiastically pro-Soviet articles in the early issues of the Labour left weekly Tribune during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

But she made her name for a powerful speech at the 1943 Labour Party conference demanding the immediate implementation of the Beveridge report, laying the foundations of the modern welfare state.

As a Labour backbencher under the Attlee government of 1945-51, she first forged what proved to be a long alliance with Harold Wilson. Both of them sided with Aneurin Bevan when he headed the Labour left revolt against the right wing leadership of Hugh Gaitskell in the 1950s. But by the time Wilson became prime minister in October 1964 he had forgotten whatever socialist principles he might ever have had.

He was, however, still hated and feared by Labour right wingers such as Roy Jenkins and James Callaghan. Castle was one of Wilson’s key cabinet allies in a government that faced a series of severe financial crises culminating in the devaluation of the pound in November 1967.

She was promoted to Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity in a subsequent reshuffle. The government was striving, in alliance with big business, to increase British competitiveness.

The City demanded that, as part of this strategy, the law should be used to reverse the rising curve of shopfloor militancy. So in January 1969 Castle issued the White Paper ‘In Place of Strife’, which proposed legislation imposing compulsory strike ballots and fines for trade unionists who defied the law.

These proposals anticipated the anti-union legislation of the Tory governments of Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher. ‘In Place of Strife’ provoked a storm of protest from the top to the bottom of the trade union movement.

The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, led by the Communist Party, organised unofficial strikes. The cabinet split, with even right wingers such as Callaghan joining opposition to the bill.

Wilson was forced to back down. Castle became, for a while, a hate figure on the left. After Labour went into opposition in 1970, she was even voted off the shadow cabinet.

Thanks to Wilson’s support, Castle became Secretary of State for Social Security in the 1974 Labour government. But when Callaghan succeeded Wilson in March 1976 one of his first acts was to sack her.

It was during the final quarter century of her life that Castle really rebuilt her reputation as a champion of the left. She became the fearless defender of Labour tradition against both the Tory governments of 1979-97, and successive Labour leaderships that followed them further and further rightwards.

What ran through Castle’s politics at both its best and its worst was a belief in the benevolent power of the state. She believed it should advance women’s rights, as in the Equal Pay Act that she introduced in 1970, but also to curb rank and file militancy.

‘Comrades,’ she told the TUC in 1969, ‘this government has got to control forces in this society. It has to control the City, industry and the trade unions.’ For Socialist Worker, by contrast, change can only come from below. But we can still admire Barbara Castle as a doughty fighter for socialism as she saw it.

Alex Callinicos is the author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx and a contributor to Marxism and the New Imperialism. Both are available from Bookmarks-phone 020 7637 1848.

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