Sunday, May 05, 2002
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By Hasan Suroor
Hailed as Labour's "Red queen" for her fiercely left-wing views, Baroness Castle dominated Britain's political life for over 50 years, continuing to argue and provoke passions in the party long after she formally retired from active public life more than a decade ago. In her last appearance at the Labour Party conference less than a year ago, she attacked New Labour for its ideological drift prompting the Chancellor, Gordon Brown to call her "my mentor and tormentor".
An uncompromising campaigner for women's rights, Baroness Castle single-handedly broke the glass ceiling in British politics becoming the first woman Labour MP in 1945, and later the first woman Minister. She once famously recalled that when she joined the Labour back in the Thirties, women activists were confined to the party kitchen, making tea for the male grandees. It is to her that British women owe the equal-pay-for-equal work principle though she lamented recently that the Equal Pay Act, which she introduced as a Minister in the Sixties, was still not strictly observed.
It is not widely known that it was Baroness Castle who was first labelled Britain's Iron Lady, almost 30 years before the Tories got their own Iron Lady in Margaret Thatcher.
She was liked and hated in equal measure but no one was indifferent to her. For 30 years she represented the Blackburn parliamentary constituency now held by a former aide and the country's present Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. She first became Minister in Harold Wilson's Cabinet in 1964 and was known as his "little minister".
For an all-red left-winger, ironically, her downfall was prompted by her clashes with trade unions.
Her move to reform them was fiercely opposed by the powerful trade union movement and the party leadership failed to back her proposals when confronted with angry street marches.
She never quite recovered from the setback and when James Callaghan sacked her from his Cabinet ostensibly on the ground that he wanted to inject new blood, she knew the truth was different.
In 1979, she stepped down as MP but became a member of European Parliament which she served for 10 years. As one of her former aides noted she "never retired".
The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, whose policies she consistently opposed, described her as "one of the dominating figures of the Labour movement of the last 50 years... and an extraordinary pioneer for women in politics."
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