EVENT REVIEW: Rachel Reeves and John Tomaney: Labour in the North

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Sunday 8th October

Palace Green Library

Review by Julia Atherley 

Rachel Reeves and John Tomaney have both recently written about Labour politicians who played a part in shaping the political atmosphere of the North East in the 20th century. Reeves’ book Alice in Westminster documents the life of Alice Bacon, a Labour MP elected for Leeds South East. Bacon campaigned for legislation after the Second World War and was fundamental to policy change in the laws concerning homosexuality, abortion, and the death penalty.

Tomaney was commissioned by the festival to write a piece on Labour’s history in the North East. He focussed on the life of Peter Lee, a miner’s leader, Durham county councillor, and Methodist preacher in the early 20th century. Lee was passionate about practical change in the North East and his reforms saw drops in infant mortality and poverty across the region. The event took on a discussion style format, with both writers finding similarities between the two chosen subjects.

Reeves provided an interesting perspective as an MP discussing the history of female MPs in Westminster. She described how, after the 1945 election, 24 women were elected to parliament but only 7 desks were then available for them. Reeves told us how the practical conditions of being a woman in parliament have changed however prejudices still remain.

Tomaney’s account of Peter Lee’s career described how Lee was fundamental to a rise in living standards in the North East from 1919 onwards. Despite coming from a background of drinking and fighting, Lee became a hugely influential figure who was motivated by his Christian morality rather than political ideology. Tomaney told the audience how Lee would work six days a week then spend his Sundays preaching in a Methodist church. Tomaney engaged us with the local history of Durham, stressing the importance of understanding our past to improve our future.

When the floor was opened to questions, audience members asked about the links between Alice Bacon and Peter Lee and the current state of the Labour Party. There was an emphasis on finding localised solutions rather than relying on national government.

The event was a detailed insight into the origins of the Labour Party in Durham, told through two very different figures that propelled forward social change.

Cuckoo Review is an arts journalism programme for young writers aged 15-23. Through the Cuckoo Reviewers in Residence programme at Durham Book Festival, young people have reviewed festival events and books, and have interviewed featured authors. For more information about Cuckoo Review visit