Barbara Betts, the daughter of a tax inspector, was born in Bradford in 1910. Her father was a member of the Independent Labour Party and she was converted to socialism at an early age. Castle was educated at Bradford Girls' Grammar School. Barbara wrote that "the girl's parents were all rich, and the dainty frocks that the pupils wore did credit to the school's reputation of beauty and culture throughout."
Barbara became friends with Mary Hepworth, a cash-desk girl who shared her committment to socialism. "Barbara had some sort of an intellectual battle with her father, who never felt that she did her brains justice. I think he expected too much from her at her age."
In 1929 Barbara and Mary attended the Independent Labour Party conference in Derby. That year she was the school's Labour candidate in the mock election to coincide with the 1929 General Election. Her campaign was highly impressive and one girl said that "she made you want to listen to her". She became head girl and later that year won a place at St. Hugh's College.
One of her best friends at Oxford University was Olive Shapley. She pointed out that she was very popular and had "a comet-like tail of men in pursuit". Olive later recalled: "She was small and pretty, and I think she disliked being pretty. She had these beautiful fine features, lovely little nose and beautiful skin and hair, and I think she would rather have been more dramatic looking."
In 1932 Barbara began an affair with William Mellor. As Anne Perkins, the author of Red Queen (2003) has pointed out: "Mellor was already forty-four, only six years younger than her father and exactly twice Barbara's age. He was glamorous, confident and married, with a baby son. He became her mentor, her alternative father, a man who loved her totally and compellingly." Castle later admitted "Mellor was in many ways much like my father. They were of that same bigness. He was about my father's generation, a bit younger than my father but considerably older than I was."
William Mellor introduced Castle to Stafford Cripps, the leader of the left-wing of the Labour Party. Other members of this group included Aneurin Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson, Frank Wise, Jennie Lee, Harold Laski, Frank Horrabin, Barbara Betts and G. D. H. Cole. In 1932 the group established the Socialist League.
With the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, Castle and Mellor became convinced that the Labour Party should establish a United Front against fascism with the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Independent Labour Party. In April 1934 Mellor had a meeting with Fenner Brockway and Jimmy Maxton, two leaders of the ILP, "to talk over ways and means of securing working-class unity". He also had meetings with Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
William Mellor told Castle in 1934: "In the end I am a socialist and an agitator because I want a free world in which human relationships shall be free from the constrictions and restraints imposed by... and taboos that spring from, religious... fears. I'm a politician only because this world as it is kills individuality, destroys freedom and fetters human beings... We may have to go through hell to get there but even that wouldn't be too big a price to pay."
In the 1935 General Election Mellor, was the Labour candidate in Enfield. Mellor wrote to his mother that Barbara Castle was of great help in his campaign: "Barbara is working like a trojan and speaking like an angel." Mellor was defeated but Castle pointed out that he added five thousand to the Labour vote on "a 100% left-wing programme".
Castle continued to attack the leadership of the Labour Party for not establishing a United Front with the Independent Labour Party and Communist Party of Great Britain and along with William Mellor and Stafford Cripps established the Socialist League. This upset the leaders of the Trade Union Congress and as they still controlled the Daily Herald Mellor was warned that he was in danger of losing his job. When he refused to back-down he was sacked in March 1936.
William Mellor now established the Town and County Councillor, a journal for Labour supporters in local government. He appointed Barbara Betts, on £4 a week, as one of the journalists on the paper. He also gave work to Michael Foot, who had just left university.
In January 1937 Stafford Cripps and George Strauss decided to launch a radical weekly, The Tribune, to "advocate a vigorous socialism and demand active resistance to Fascism at home and abroad." Mellor was appointed editor and others such as Barbara Betts, Aneurin Bevan, Ellen Wilkinson, Harold Laski, Michael Foot, Winifred Batho and Noel Brailsford agreed to write for the paper.
William Mellor wrote in the first issue: "It is capitalism that has caused the world depression. It is capitalism that has created the vast army of the unemployed. It is capitalism that has created the distressed areas... It is capitalism that divides our people into the two nations of rich and poor. Either we must defeat capitalism or we shall be destroyed by it." Stafford Cripps wrote encouragingly after the first issue: "I have read the Tribune, every line of it (including the advertisements!) as objectively as I can and I must congratulate you upon a very first-rate production.''
Barbara continued to support the idea of a United Front against fascism. On 17th May 1937 she said at a meeting in Leicester: "The Socialist League stands unrepentant before the Labour movement for its action in entering into agreement with the Independent Labour Party and Communist Party of Great Britain to conduct a campaign for unity of the working class against the National Government. It stands unrepentant because it believes the workers of Great Britain cannot at this crucial moment afford the luxuries of apathy, drift and division.... Driven into a corner by the weakness of its own arguments the National Executive has resurrected as its one objection the finances of the Unity Campaign."
In October 1937, Barbara was sent by The Tribune to report on the situation in the Soviet Union. "Many a short-sighted visitor to Russia has been shocked by external evidence of poverty... But the Russians don't get alarmed. The coming of the luxurious they know is all a matter of time. And in the meanwhile they enjoy what capitalism can't offer its workers: security today, hope of abundance tomorrow... here is no shadow of slump and unemployment - only an insatiable demand for more and yet more workers."
Stafford Cripps declared that the mission of the Socialist League and The Tribune was to recreate the Labour Party as a truly socialist organization. This soon brought them into conflict with Clement Attlee and the leadership of the party. Hugh Dalton declared that "Cripps Chronicle" was "a rich man's toy". Threatened with expulsion, in May 1937 Cripps agreed to abandon the United Front campaign and to dissolve the Socialist League.
By 1938 Stafford Cripps and George Strauss had lost £20,000 in publishing The Tribune. The successful publisher, Victor Gollancz, agreed to help support the newspaper as long as it dropped the United Front campaign. When William Mellor refused to change the editorial line, Cripps sacked him and invited Michael Foot to take his place. However, as Mervyn Jones has pointed out: "It was a tempting opportunity for a 25-year-old, but Foot declined to succeed an editor who had been treated unfairly."
William Mellor now concentrated on editing the Town and County Councillor. Rumours about Mellor began to circulate. Barbara wrote to her mother claiming that Victor Gollancz was behind these stories: "Gollancz, we have every reason to believe, is spreading fairy stories about the matter all over the country, and we are helpless."
In April 1942 Mellor wrote to Barbara: "I have loved you since the first day I saw you. And after ten years - it's nearly that, sweet - rich with lovely memories and black with the recollection of my own cowardice in not following the course love set, I know now that my love is deeper, more compelling, more understanding and finer, I hope, than at any time." However, he still refused to divorce his wife and marry Barbara.
In the summer of 1942 William Mellor was told by his doctor that he had a stomach ulcer. He was told that he must take six months rest or to have an operation. Mellor felt that his job was too insecure to take too much time off so he opted for an operation. At first it seemed to go well, but then complications set in. On 8th June, 1942, two weeks after the operation, William Mellor died.
In 1943 she made her first speech at the national conference of the Labour Party. This included an attack on the leadership of the party for not doing enough to force the government to implement the Beveridge Report. In July 1944 she married the journalist, Ted Castle.
Castle worked as housing correspondent of the Daily Mirror during the Second World War and in the 1945 General Election she was elected to represent Blackburn in the House of Commons. Soon afterwards Stafford Cripps, the Minister of Trade, appointed Castle as one of his aides. Over the next few years she was associated with the left-wing of the party led by Aneurin Bevan.
Castle was Chairperson of the Labour Party (1958-59) and after the party won the 1964 General Election the new prime minister, Harold Wilson, appointed her as Minister of Overseas Development (1964-65) and Minister of Transport (1965-68). In this post she introduced the 70 mph speed limit, breathalyzer tests for suspected drunken drivers and compulsory seat belts. Wilson pointed out in his autobiography: Memoirs: 1916-1964 (1986): "Barbara proved an excellent minister. She was good at whatever she touched. I doubt if any member of the Cabinet worked longer hours or gave more productive thought to what they were doing."
In 1968 Castle became Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity (1968-70) and attempted to introduce the government's controversial prices and incomes policy. The publication of the white paper, In Place of Strife (1969) brought her into conflict with the trade unions and the left-wing of the Labour Party. Her critics were particularly hostile to the proposal for compulsory strike ballots. As Anne Perkins has pointed out: "Barbara's stock crashed to earth. But the ramifications went far beyond personal disaster. The episode accelerated a renewed alienation between party activists and the Labour leadership."
Castle lost office when the Conservative Party won the 1970 General Election. When the Labour Party returned to power in 1974 she became Secretary of State for Social Services (1974-76). In this post she introduced child benefit and established the link between pensions and earnings. She also attempted to bring an end to pay beds in the NHS. This led to doctors taking industrial action which closed accident and emergency wards in hospitals. When Jim Callaghan replaced Harold Wilson as prime minister he sacked Castle by claiming she was too old too serve in the cabinet.
Castle was a member of the European Parliament (1979-89) where she served as vice-chairperson of the Socialist Group (1979-86) and in 1990 joined the House of Lords. Over the next few years she successfully campaigned to restore the link between pensions and earnings. As The Times pointed out: "Lady Castle of Blackburn, a passionate socialist of the old school, kept up her scrutiny of government well into her eighties. At the 1999 Labour Party conference she savaged ministers for tying pensions to inflation, a move that led to the infamous 75p increase."
Castle published her political diaries and an autobiography, Fighting All the Way (1993). Barbara Castle died at her home in Buckinghamshire on 3rd May 2002.