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The Labour leadership candidates should turn to Barbara Castle

BarbaraCastle1As the Labour leadership election picks up pace, and some of the dividing lines between the candidates are beginning to emerge, I feel that it is becoming increasingly necessary for the some of the so-called frontrunners to revisit the career of Barbara Castle.

One of the most esteemed figures from Labour’s history, Castle proved that power is not incompatible with principle and providing a real opposition to Tory policy. Her politics in government and opposition always drew the red line of championing the cause of ordinary people. What would she have made of some of the triangulations over fundamentals, like welfare and immigration, on display today? I imagine she would have had stern words for those entertaining the idea of supporting a welfare cap or playing dog-whistle politics about “factories where no one speaks English”.

Castle has a rare place in the Labour Party as a figure who was always of the left (and never forgot she was of the left) but was decidedly unafraid of “getting her hands dirty” in government. In the act of “getting her hands dirty”, she was willing to compromise some of her ideological purity in the name of advancing the left as a whole.

An oft-cited criticism of Castle’s record from the left, sometimes used to dismiss Castle’s legacy as a socialist, is over her approach to trade unions. Castle’s proposal to introduce compulsory ballots before a strike, known as In Place Of Strife, was one episode from Castle’s vast career, and an episode in which she was defeated. To reduce all of her legacy to In Place Of Strife while ignoring her leadership of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, championing of Commonwealth immigration, steering great material and social advances in the rights of women, and pushing to abolish private medical practice, is dangerous and risks sacrificing Castle’s legacy as an important and successful Labour figure from the Labour left.

Castle’s isn’t a story of purity, and that is why I think she is important; hers is a story of achieving and using power to advance socialist causes. To Castle, both the “achieving” and “using” were equally important. Unlike New Labour, who saw the achieving of power as an end unto itself, Castle showed how radicalism could redefine political orthodoxy and make socialist policies, such as the Equal Pay Act, the mainstream.

Castle continued to remain a champion on the left of the party throughout her life, despite the sexist abuse she faced at times from so-called comrades (sexism was never far from her battles with the trade unions). This determined rootedness in the principles of the left, despite reaching the top table of government, show a roadmap of how to negotiate power with principle that the Labour leadership candidates should study.

Castle knew how to win, and electoral success is a raison d’etre of the Labour Party, but Castle should remind any would-be leader that the route to power is not through selling out those who the Labour Party exists to represent. Castle should also act as a reminder that women and minorities in the party are not there to be belittled, and would caution against any attempts from the left to endorse an all male ticket for leader and deputy.

Labour has fewer figures more popular or successful than Barbara Castle – her diaries are worth a reread before any decisions are reached.


  1. Chris says:

    Obviously she never faced “sexist abuse”, but are we so sure In Place of Strife was a mistake? Better Labour regulate the unions than Heath or Thatcher.

    We all know if those strikes of 78-79 hadn’t happened Labour would have won the 1979 election. The economy was improving, Thatcher wasn’t a great opposition leader, there was no reason to lose. Yes, Jim Callaghan’s policies were partly to blame for the breakdown in relations with the unions, but still, the strikes were a strategic error that weren’t in the Labour movement’s interest.

  2. Robert says:

    I remember her and I remember the battles over decent wages back in those days.

    If Blair has been leader back then and done what he did, she would have followed him before walking away. She was a socialist but she did have her own ideas, today when you look at Kendall and Burnham and Cooper Jesus the question is why do these people join a party like labour, it has to be as a career choice it’s not an ideological one.

  3. John P Reid says:

    Kendall came into parliament,when it was clear labour was going to lose,and the Tories be in power for quite a bit,hardly a career move, and Bunham joined in 1984 when labour had just suffered its worse ever defeat, and looked like being out of power forever,hardly a career move.

    Not sure if the winter of discontent never happened,that Thatcher would have won in 79′ there was already a sea change,and it was going to happen sooner or later,but Callghan believing the unions would behave themselves without,in place of strife was a mistake he admitted.

    1. Sue says:

      I take your point John but actually Kendall and Burnham are in power?!

      1. John P Reid says:

        But isn’t big a career politician,about wanting to be in government,

        1. Sue says:

          They’re there earning great money and enjoying generous expenses. Icing on the cake would be a ministerial job in Labour govt but they’ve kind of got it made even without that? As long as they dont lose their seats.

          1. john Reid says:

            it was a reply to the original quote,that they’re career politicians, wanting power, and being in labour the way we’re acting they’re not going to see it for a long time

  4. swatantra says:

    Of course Barbara was the woman Transport Secretary that could even drive. Nowadays that would be completely unacceptable. At least you’d expect a chancellor to know his times table and a Foreign Sec to know where Waziristan was and a Home Sec to know how many illegals we’ve got in Britain. The fact is we have Defence Secs who’ve never fired a rifle except at a Fairground and NI Secs who aren’t even Irish and DEFRA Secs who are Climate Change Deniers. Why? To do the job you surely need some modicum of experience and empathy; we’ve had Education Secs who’ve never faced a class of 35 hostile kids, and Culture Secs who’ve never been to the ballet. Why?

    1. swatantra says:

      … that should have read …’that could NOT even drive a car …’
      So we have a lot of Oxbridge Spad Candidates in the field that have never been in open combat with terrorists, apart from Stella C who briefly was a Boy Scout and must have learnt some survival skills or done bob a job.
      At least Caroline Flint has faced a bit of hardship along the way, she escaped to Essex Uni, was a single mum herself and the indignity of being sacked by Gordon Brown for being ‘window dressing’.

  5. Verity says:

    Surely it is of limited value to us today to transpose figures from one historical period to another in order to try to measure the extent to which they were Socialist. It just gets you into a game of trading the significance of one issue or theme against another in a completely different context. Didn’t Barbara Castle first introduce prescription charges which led to others increasing them afterwards. But who can say how significant that is in the scale of things today. It is difficult to say now how that measures to a rating as a Socialist. I suppose it is a good game for old – timers looking back with nostalgia but can have little meaning for today’s challenges.

  6. Sue says:

    I dont like the idea that maybe we cant have all male leadership as a result of this election? I want to vote for the people I feel are the best to represent my view of what the Labour Party should be? I personally do not care if they are male or female. Anyway it seems a tad trivial to argue we should have one of each when all are white?

  7. David Pavett says:

    Rather that being a left-wing hero Barbara Castle is something of a model for what is wrong with the Labour left (and even the UK left in general). This is not because she recognised that compromise is not incompatible with principle. Not to recognise that is idiotic. Rather it is because it was never clear what those principles were.

    It is true that she had strong belief in the provision of social services and equal pay but her vague ethical socialism meant that she had no critique of capitalism as a whole and therefore her socialism was always a matter of seeking to attenuate the effects of capitalism through such things as the provision of social services and demanding equal pay for equal work. Those things are necessary but there is nothing specifically socialist about them and many non-socialists share those beliefs.

    In Place of Strife was not the only measure of Barbara Castle’s limitations. Her strong support for Labour’s Social Contract speaks volumes about the narrowness of her social analysis. If you need to be convinced about that then listen to her own words on the matter. It could be any New Labour leader speaking, or even a David Cameron.

    Basically her argument was that trade unionists had to make up their minds whether they wanted wage increases or good social services. And that was without the slightest hint of tackling the economic structures of capitalism that constantly regenerate inequality.

    Her weak social analysis was also complimented by her narrow concept of political action. She was of the old school who saw Labour as doing good to the working people rather than leading a battle with them as the architects of their own destiny. And in that she had a tendancy to think of socialism as whatever she happened to be doing at the time. She was famously bad at forming alliances and had little time for people who did not agree with her.

    I really wonder why anyone would want to make Barbara Castle into a model left leader.

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