A number of celebrations are taking place this year of Eleanor Rathbone. In Liverpool recently a thousand people attended a lecture about her.
Why this fascination with an MP who died 70 years ago, never held Ministerial Office and died before the reform to which she devoted her life was introduced?
I believe it is because the causes she espoused are still with us today. The conditions may have changed, but the arguments remain the same. Her principle campaigns were for family allowances, refugees and women’s rights.
Eleanor Rathbone was – literally – a big whig. She came from a wealthy and well –established Liverpool Quaker shipping family.
After Oxford, she returned to Liverpool. There she produced a significant Report on an Inquiry into the Conditions of Dock Labour at the Liverpool Docks. Her argument was not a socialist-class based analysis – her concern was that wages did not reflect family size. She campaigned tirelessly for family allowances to make up the needs both outside Parliament and when she was finally elected at the age of 57, within Parliament; recruiting powerful allies such as William Beveridge, John Maynard Keynes and Hugh Dalton, until finally the FA Act of 1945 was passed. Arguments about universality verses means testing and whether payments he made to the fathers or mothers foreshadowed current debates on Universal Credit and tax credits.
Her comments over child malnutrition are echoed in our own worries over the 1 million people accessing food banks. She spoke in a debate in 1935 highlighting anaemia and bone conditions as a consequence of malnutrition among children and mothers, telling the government to introduce a family allowance and stating that, “There is no form of social service that would bring a richer return than one which would secure a greater supply of cheap or free milk for mothers and children.”
And the criticisms she faced were exactly the same as those we heard, when opposing this government’s cuts to child tax credits:
“it was the Malthusian contention that wage-earners should beget only such children as their existing incomes would allow them to support adequately and unaided… unsupported by the contention that the nation’s children were in fact adequately nourished by current civilized standards” (Mary Stocks, Eleanor Rathbone, 1949)
Her combination of moral outrage and statistical evidence provide a template for the work on child poverty undertaken subsequently from Barbara Castle’s introduction of child benefit to the Child poverty Act introduced by the last Labour government.
Rathbone took over from Millicent Fawcett as President of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (later renamed NUSEC), campaigning first for the vote and then for equal rights.
Her feminism was ground-breaking – she went beyond seeking parity with men for policies to meet women’s needs.
She was very interested in the practicalities of ensuring women were educated in how to execute their new voting rights. And this too is something to which we should pay more attention. In the 2015 general election, only 44% of women aged 18-24 turned out to vote.
Finally she undertook a huge amount of work on behalf of refugees – first from the civil war in Spain, in the concentration camps in South West France, later from Germany and the fascist occupied territories.
She founded the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror to Lobby the Home and Foreign Office for policy change and to take more migrants, did a huge amount of what we would call casework. She supported Churchill’s anti-appeasement believing political solutions a well as humanitarian were needed. But because of her gender she was not recognised or rewarded for these efforts.
Eleanor Rathbone was not someone who could be controlled, or compromise with the male dominated party machines of her era. Fortunately for her and us, she found an opening as the independent MP for the Combined English Universities (elected by the MAs who still retained 2 votes!) seat for 1929-1946.