“Bandiera rossa la trionferà evviva il socialismo e la libertà!” So sang the Red Notes Choir as they led 200 people around Wells on the first Saturday in May 2018. The Red Flags will be triumphant, long live socialism and freedom. And so it seemed as nearly every Labour Party and Trade Union in the county turned up with their red banners flying as they marched around the Cathedral City of Wells to the Bishops Barn where family fun stalls, tea and cakes, the folk band ‘Seize the Day and even a Blacksmith awaited them.
The rally was addressed by Ruth George, Labour MP for Derbyshire High Peak, Paul Turner, Wells CLP Rural Affairs Officer, Jacky Carter, Wells CLP campaigns organiser and Nigel Costley, South West TUC Regional Secretary.
But the keynote address was by veteran Bridgwater socialist Dave Chapple, organiser of many May Day Rallies back in the 1980’s. Dave is not a member of the Labour Party, as he made clear, but for historical record we relive his speech in full below.
“International Worker’s Day greetings from a life-long Somerset trades unionist, a school-cleaner for 11 years, a postman for 38, a shop steward for 35 of those years, to the Wells Constituency Labour Party for organising this, the first May Day March in Somerset for 24 years.
Solidarity, also, to Wells, from Somerset’s working-class capital: Bridgwater.
Solidarity from Bridgwater
Bridgwater, a town where, today, 14 out of 16 town councillors; 10 out of 15 district councillors, and 2 out of 3 county councillors are Labour.
Bridgwater, home of 17 pub-based workers Carnival Clubs, which organise, at weekly meetings of 10 to 30 members, on November’s first Saturday, the greatest West Country working class cultural event, one enjoyed by 100,000 people from all over.
Bridgwater: The home of Robert Blake, Cromwell’s General at Sea, staunch republican if not a regicide, who personally inflicted some of the first Royalist casualties of the Civil War.
Bridgwater, where, after the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, no member of the Royal Family set foot in the town for over 300 years.
Bridgwater, the town, a century later, that remembered Judge Jeffries sending 800 Monmouth rebels to Barbados sugar plantations, so well, that radicals like John Chubb organised Britain’s first ever petition against the slave trade.
Bridgwater, which, even if the town’s large factories have been replaced by warehouses, still hosts militant trade union organised workplaces, like the Unite union at Refresco-Gerber and ARGOS, who have struck for two weeks and three weeks, respectively, in the last few years.
Like Hinkley Point “C” construction workers, who won back lost bad weather wages recently after a successful and illegal sit-in.
Like my former workplace, the Royal Mail Delivery Office, where, still, national and regional managers are regularly thrown into panic upon rumours of yet another wildcat strike being planned by the CWU Reps and Committee;
But what of the rest of Somerset? What of the Mendip area? What of Wells itself? Well, it seems clear now, 33 years after the epic NUM strike of 1984/5, that Tory Governments planned, starting with the miners, to shut down whole industries in order to weaken or eliminate strong trades unions.
Over the next decades, Thatcher, Major and Blair were glad to wipe out 90% of UK manufacturing, to critically wound trades unionism as a whole. So Somerset, too has been almost completely de-industrialised: we now have hardly any large factories that make things.
Think at all those losses: the dozen or so Somerset Clarks shoe factories; Moorland and Bailey sheepskins; printers and packagers like Butler and Tanner, Mardon, Purnells; Cider makers like Showering; Evercreech dairy; Nutricia; St Cuthberts paper mill at Wookey; and for Wells, skilled engineers like Clares and EMI.
So it wasn’t just the cities, not just the NUM: Somerset has, also, descended, within two generations, from a place where working-class people through their union could negotiate reasonable wages, conditions and pensions, to a dog-eats-dog individual race to the bottom: bullying supervisors, zero-hours, no holidays, no sick pay, no pension no rights at all.
Trades Unions on the march
But why, then, I am proud to announce, in the last few weeks, has Wells hosted the launch of Mendip TUC, the newest local trades union council in the UK?
Because trades unionism still exists in the Mendips, there are reps and stewards and union branch officers in every town and many villages.
Because rural trades unionism can still thrive: in every village school, every small town Royal Mail Delivery Office, every time you see a BT Openreach worker shimmying up a telegraph pole, shop in most supermarkets, try and find a job in one of the few remaining job centres, you will come across trades unionists: in the CWU, in the NEU, NASUWT, UNISON, in PCS, Unite, GMB or USDAW.
If you are a Mendip area trades unionist, join us at our next Wells meeting in the Lawrence Centre, Union St, 6pm on Monday May 21st!
What of the radical and socialist tradition in Mendip, and Wells itself?
Radical Labour History
George Howell was a bricklayer, shoemaker, and Chartist. He was also an auto-didact, a historian, and Secretary of the TUC Parliamentary Committee in the 1870’s and 1880’s. George was born and grew up in Wrington.
Fred Swift was a Writhlington coal miner, an ILP/Independent Labour Party socialist and, with the Bridgwater railwayman James Young, one of the first two socialists elected to Somerset County Council before World War One.
Arthur James Cook: AJ Cook, born at Wookey in 1883, brought up in Cheddar where he worked on Caleb Durbin’s dairy farm, became at 17 a Rhondda miner, a fiery and revolutionary syndicalist orator jailed twice, for sedition and for opposing World War One, and finally, leader of the MFGB during the General Strike and Miner’s Lockout of 1926.
The General Strike, where the local Wells strike committee, led by railwaymen, ordered 200 copies of the TUC’s daily the British Worker during those epic nine days.
Labour victories in Somerset
From syndicalism to Parliamentary socialism: Only two generations ago, Labour and Tory were almost neck and neck in Wells: In the 1945 General Election, the Tory majority over Labour was reduced to only 2,465.
In 1950 Labour polled 18,000 votes to the Tories 20,600 in a turnout of 87.8%.
In 1951, Dai Llewellyn, former Welsh miner and veteran International Brigader from the Spanish Civil War, the Somerset Miner’s Agent, won 21,500 Labour votes and again came a narrow second.
It wasn’t until 1974 that the Liberals overtook Labour in Wells.
You can never tell me, looking back at that astonishing working-class Labour support, in Wells, a Cathedral City for goodness sake, the “Belly of the Tory Beast” that what happened once, a long time ago, could not happen again, but better still, Labour winning Wells!
Why not? People can sometimes change very quickly!
After all, 50 years ago, a fortnight before the French Revolution of May 1968, were not learned Marxist historians predicting decades of working-class subservience?
To start winning, we do need to organise, campaign, show solidarity, on a Somerset county-wide basis.
From Dulverton to Bath, Portishead to Chard, Burnham on Sea to Frome, Keynsham to Yeovil, Radstock to Wellington, Cheddar to Wincanton.
Poor public transport does make this difficult.
You can get a bus from Clevedon or Wells to Bristol up to 10.30pm at night, yet try and get to Bridgwater from Glastonbury, or Burnham on Sea from Bridgwater, after 7pm, and this is the same First Group bus company!
Reason: the Tory Somerset County Council is the only West Country county that cannot be bothered to have a County Transport Forum: then again, how many Tory Councillors have ever caught a bus?
Somerset needs county-wide independent campaigns, supported by the six Somerset Trade Union Councils and all local Labour Parties:
Against Library Closures;
Against cuts and closures to NHS Community Hospitals;
Support teaching and other education unions fighting Academy attacks on their pay and conditions;
Against Tory County Council cuts to children centres, children and adult disability learning services;
Against outsourcing of NHS District Hospital non-medical staff:
The list of dismantled Somerset public services is almost endless.
I suggest that, from 2019, trades unionists and socialists in every Somerset town host an event, such as a public meeting, on May 1st, but for all Somerset towns to come together in Wells, the centre of our County, to celebrate International Worker’s Day on this first May Saturday.
Today, we still honour the sacrifices of those anarchist workers in Chicago who in the late 1880’s suffered state execution for fighting for the 8-hour day, but in dying for our socialist cause, they lit a torch that still, if sometimes dimly, burns.
2018 should be the year that Somerset’s workers get of their knees, learn that if you fight you can win, if you never fight you always lose.
Don’t be a drop-out! Get up, get into it, get involved! Refuse to lose!
Three rap titles from the greatest of all popular musicians, The Godfather of Soul, the Minister of Super Heavy Funk, James Brown.
But, 2018 in Somerset, not Atlanta, Georgia: Get involved in what? Refuse to lose what? Fight for what?
I hope you don’t mind me ending with a personal point of view.
Just remember, I was a Labour Parliamentary candidate a long 31 years ago!
I have been a Somerset socialist agitator for over 40 years, but I’m not tired:
I fight for a country that is run by a radical industrial workplace democracy, that has priority over councils and parliament;
The fundamental units: Community Assemblies (They were called Soviets);
The old and still un-achieved Chartist demand for annual elections with recallable delegates;
An anti-militarist, non-nuclear federation of the nations, where the rotor blades of Westland/Leonardo PLC really are turned into Bristol Channel wind and underwater turbine blades;
Where swords really can become ploughshares;
Where, here in Somerset and throughout the world, the long-suffering working-class, the peasants and the poor are anything but meek, are so bloody-well organised that they really can inherit the earth.
See you in Wells on our very own First May Saturday in 2019?
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