Tribune, 11 June 1993
The most prominent Labour woman of the twentieth century is still as active as ever. As her memoirs are published, she talks to Paul Anderson
“We’re too honourable,” says Barbara Castle. “I’d like us to fight a bit more dirtily in the gutter, to counteract the sort of Tory lies that have smeared Labour over the years and made the capture of power almost impossible.” Castle is 82 now and has been a peer since retiring as a Manchester MEP in 1989. But she has lost none of the combativeness for which she was famed as a Labour Cabinet Minister in the sixties and seventies. It is clear, however, that she thinks that the party these days could do with a dose of her old fighting spirit.
“I think the Labour Party’s problemis psychological,” she says. “We haven’t got the killer instinct. We should study the Tories’ techniques. Their parents didn’t send them to public school for nothing. They taught them to rule, to manipulate the facts, to lie. The Tories are brilliant at it. Their approach is: ‘Never apologise, always attack.'”
Labour, however, seems to be on the defensive now, even though the government is in an appalling mess. “We are suffering from a surfeit of blandness,” she says of Labour’s current frontbench team. “I think Robin Cook is the most effective fighter among them. Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and the others, they’re all very able but they’re too bland for me. The public has an enormous admiration for someone who is prepared to be unpopular.”
Castle should know. In her time as a minister in Harold Wilson’s governments she spent long spells as a media hate figure, particularly as the employment minister responsible for In Place of Strife, the first Wilson Government’s abortive attempt at trade union law reform. In the 17 years since she was fired from the Cabinet by James Callaghan, however, her reputation has been transformed.
Even lifelong Tories now tell her that they respect her for standing up for what she believes, she says.
The last couple of years she has spent writing her memoirs, aptly titled Fighting All the Way, which are published this week. They have already caused much comment in the media for the frankness with which she discusses her personal life, in particular her affair with William Mellor, the journalist who became the first editor of Tribune, in the late thirties. (She also castigates Michael Foot for telling a story that implied that he and she had a dirty weekend in Paris in 1938: they didn’t, she says.)
But there is an ulterior motive at work here. “I made the book as racy as I could in order to get people to read the solid stuff,” she says with a disarming smile.
And there is plenty of “solid stuff”, particularly on the periods before she became a minister and after she was fired (her time in office is covered more fully by her published diaries), including some trenchant remarks on the Labour Party since she left the House of Commons in 1979.
She is a fan of Neil Kinnock, although she reckons that his advisers drummed his passion out of him, and reckons that John Smith is “a man of very good political instincts”.
“I like his doubts about proportional representation, for one thing,” she says. “I’m so concerned to keep our first past the post system, It gives each elected MP the feeling of status, independence and authority that doesn’t exist in Europe.”
Nevertheless, the policies that Labour’s current leader and his predecessor have foisted on the party leave Castle cold. On the economy, she says, “We have robbed ourselves of some of our best weapons of attack with the orthodox policies that have been followed. We have always tended to attach too much importance to a limited range of orthodox economic indices.”
Labour’s policy in the run-up to the last election of defending the pound’s value in the European exchange rate mechanism was just the latest example of Labour’s tendency to economic conservatism, she argues. “We threw away the attack we could have made on the Government over the ERM. That sort of linking of currencies from highly divergent economies in Europe was a recipe for disaster. To tie us into the ERM at that ridiculous value of sterling was madness.”
Before the ERM there were other, equally pernicious, orthodoxies that tempted Labour: the Treasury line that was swallowed by Philip Snowdon and Ramsay MacDonald after the great crash of 1929; Wilson’s obstinate refusal in the sixties to devalue until forced to; Callaghan’s “obsession with inflation”.
Now what is needed, she goes on, is a “whole change of approach” to economic policy: “We will not win again until we put ourselves at the head of a movement which makes high employment and good wages its gools. Why should the rights of people to work and a decent standard of living be sacrificed to purely financial goals?
“When we criticise the government’s economic policy without that big change in approach, we are frolicking on the margin. Is it not possible for highly advanced industrial economies in the west so to organise and to plan that they create an economic system which does put people to work?
“We’ve got to go back to winning the voluntary consent of the trade unions in the economic planning that’s really going to guarantee the social wage in the form of the health service, a good state education system, a transport system that isn’t just a continuous misery. We need an informed alliance with the trade unions and their self-discipline. I’ve operated a statutory incomes policy and, believe you me, it’s diffcult.”
Economic policy is not, however, the only area in which Labour’s recent performance has not been up to scratch in Castle’s eyes. She was a leading anti-Common Market campaigner in the seventies and barely relaxed her antipathy to the European Community as the leader of the British Labour Group in the European Parliament between 1979 and 1985. Unsurprisingly, she is now a fierce critic of the Maastricht treaty. She made a robust speech against the government bill on the treaty in the Lords this week — and she has no time for the Euro-enthusiasm that engulfed Labour in the eighties.
“My position on the pro-Europeanism that has swept the party is not that I want us to withdraw now,” she says. “We’ve got to live with what previous defeats have left us with. But the whole approach of the Maastricht treaty is institutionalised deflation. The conditions for economic and monetary union are purely financial. And the idea that economic and monetary union can be democratically controlled is a mirage.”
The European Parliament, she says, is simply too multinational, too big and too unwieldy to keep the EC’s executive bodies under control. “I am telling you, laddy, you cannot get democratic control from such a parliament. It’s logistically impossible. I still believe that we should fight on the basis of a wider and looser confederation of nation states. Let unity grow from the small but important things that bring people together — exchanges of students, subsidising language lessons, MPs’ visits. That is a far cry from imposing from above an economic and financial straitjacket.”