The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.
Barbara Castle (1910-2002), Labour’s Red Queen, is remembered for her staunch commitment to gender equality, her achievements in three large Departments of State—Transport; Employment and Productivity; and Health and Social Services—and the way she inspired generations of women to get into work and politics. She is celebrated for her radicalism but she understood that sometimes change can only come about incrementally. For example, in 1968, she met the striking female machinists at the Dagenham Ford plant who were demanding recognition of their skills and the proper grade for their work, and warned that they would need to wait to achieve equal pay. The machinists agreed to return to work for wages that were 8% less than those of their male counterparts, and full pay equality was not achieved until 1984. However, a marker had been set, and the strike impelled Castle to introduce the Equal Pay Act 1970—ground-breaking legislation in the fight for gender equality that made separate pay rates for men and women illegal. In Parliament, she said, “We intend to make equal pay for equal work a reality.” [Official Report, 9 February 1970; Vol 795, c.914.]
Castle, the youngest of three children, was brought up in a socialist household. Her parents, Frank and Annie Rebecca Betts, were Independent Labour Party members, and she joined the Labour party as a teenager. She graduated in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford University in 1932. Between 1937 and 1945, she served on St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council. She worked as a journalist on the left-wing magazine Tribune until 1942, and in 1944, she became housing correspondent on the Daily Mirror.
Castle was elected MP for Blackburn in the 1945 Labour landslide. She was the youngest female Member at the time, and made a name for herself as a rousing speaker and an advocate of decolonisation and the anti-apartheid movement. She also became involved with the Equal Pay Campaign Committee, and worked on a cross-party basis with MPs Irene Ward, Edith Summerskill and Patricia Ford to introduce an equal pay petition in 1954.
In October 1964, Castle became the fourth woman to hold a position in Cabinet, and the first ever Minister for Overseas Development. She fought Chancellor James Callaghan over the Department’s budgetary allocation and was moved in December 1965 to Transport where she introduced the breathalyser, made permanent the 70mph national speed limit and, most memorably, decreed that all new cars be fitted with seat belts. Although it was almost 20 years before the wearing of seatbelts became law, the effect of the breathalyser was felt immediately. In 1997, the Institution of Alcohol Studies estimated that that legislation may have prevented more than 62,000 deaths.
In April 1968, Castle took on the employment and productivity brief as well as the role of First Secretary of State, placing her at the heart of government. In 1969, she introduced the White Paper “In Place of Strife” in which she proposed reducing the powers of the unions, specifically to force them to vote before striking, pitting her against Cabinet colleagues, including Home Secretary James Callaghan, and alienating some of her friends on the left. Labour lost the election in 1970 and Castle’s most contentious proposals were dropped from the deal that was eventually struck with the unions. The defeat of “In Place of Strife” continues to be a contentious political topic, which still resonates. In 2008, former Labour politician, Patricia Hewitt, reflected in The Guardian that modern politics would have been very different had Castle’s reforms succeeded, saying that “her defeat at the hands of Jim Callaghan and the union barons paved the way for the ‘winter of discontent’ and Thatcher’s landslide a decade later.”
As Secretary of State for Health and Social Services, Castle introduced the mobility and invalid care allowances, reforms in child allowances and the linking of most social security benefits to earnings rather than prices. Among her greatest achievements was the introduction of a new state earnings related pension, which did not penalise women for years spent as carers. Callaghan removed her from office in 1976 when he became Prime Minister, but she formed effectively back bench alliances to ensure that the new child benefit was implemented and was paid to mothers, rather than a tax allowance to married men. Within a month, she was elected to the European Parliament, and was the first former Cabinet Minister to serve as an MEP. An anti-EEC campaigner at the time—she later changed her position, saying that Labour should abandon its opposition to British membership of the EEC— she told The Tribune that, “politics is not just about policies: it is about fighting for them in every available forum and at every opportunity.” True to form, when, at the age of 80, she received a life peerage, she continued to fight for her beliefs in the House of Lords, becoming a vocal critic of new Labour and the refusal to link pensions to earnings.
House of Commons Hansard Writing Team
2nd Reading of Equal Pay (No. 2) Bill:
“Women demand equal pay” Vote 100 blog:
Full description of the role of First Secretary of State:
Debate on Industrial Relations (White Paper):
Labour’s Greatest Hero: Barbara Castle by Patricia Hewitt: