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A place for our movement to call home: The Red and Green Club

31 March 2014

Many traditional Labour Clubs have disappeared in recent years, but this needn’t be the end of such spaces. Paul Salveson reports on a venue bucking the trend and successfully reaching out to new layers of trades unionists and community activists, supported by TSSA.

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The early labour movement understood the importance of having your own place. Whether it was the radical clubs of London, the socialist rooms in the industrial North and the Clarion clubs of central Scotland and Lancashire, they were a key part of building a new politics in the years leading up to the First World War. It’s one of the great tragedies of the modern labour movement that so few survive. Many ‘labour clubs’ long since became nothing more than cheap drinking dens and most have succumbed to competition from the even cheaper booze at supermarkets.

Thanks to help from TSSA, at least one club is prospering. One of the oldest surviving socialist clubs in Britain, at Milnsbridge in the Colne Valley near Huddersfield, is at the heart of a revival of a new radical politics. After coming close to collapse, the club is developing as a popular venue for trades unionists and socialists as well as providing a much-needed venue for local bands, poets and writers. It has been re-christened ‘The Red and Green Club’.

Its history is fascinating. The original Milnsbridge Socialist Club was once surrounded by a thriving textile industry; the town had dozens of mills employing thousands of workers, many of whom flocked to the new socialist organisations that sprang up in the 1890s. The club opened in 1892 and hosted speakers including suffragette Christabel Pankhurst, Independent Labour Party pioneer Kathryn Bruce Glasier, socialist MP Victor Grayson and Philip Snowden – Labour’s first Chancellor of the Exchequer and the area’s MP up to 1931. The club even had its own socialist brass band, which used to perform at trade union and socialist demonstrations and on the annual May Day procession. A photograph of the band still adorns the club’s concert room. Milnsbridge was one of many socialist clubs in the Colne Valley. Their programme included social events, regular speakers and discussions and provided a base for Clarion cyclists and choirs – all essential infrastructure for the hugely successful socialist movement. Britain’s first socialist county councillor, George Garside, was elected in Colne Valley and Grayson’s 1907 victory sent shock waves through the establishment.

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But heritage on its own is no guarantee of salvation. Milnsbridge Socialist Club faced all the same problems that social clubs have had to deal with in the last few years: changing habits, an inability to appeal to a broader market, rising debts. It closed its doors last June and the future looked bleak. However, a group of local socialists, greens and community activists have got together to save the club and create a new and more inclusive venue for a wider area – one that can attract much greater community involvement. A co-operative has been formed (technically, an industrial and provident society) to buy the building which the club, now ‘The Red and Green Club’, is currently renting. That gives the new co-operative a breathing space to raise £100,000 to buy the building and raise further funds for renovation and access improvements.

That’s no easy task and the co-op has launched an appeal to the labour and socialist movement, with some good early results. TSSA has already made a substantial donation (£2,500) to get the club up and running and has agreed an even bigger investment in the co- operative which will own the club. Other unions are showing serious interest in matching TSSA’s support. The co-op has already benefited from free advice from the national co-operative movement, through The Co-operative Hub. TSSA’s initial contribution allowed the club to commission a much-needed building survey and business plan. Fortunately, no major structural problems were found but the cost of doing everything the members want – including full disabled access and opening a canal-side cafe? and bar in the basement – comes to a hefty £300,000. The club isn’t deterred by this and is looking at a staged approach, once ownership of the building is secured. “This project will take years to complete,” said secretary John Goodwin. “Buying the building is just the start. We want to develop an asset that people – and organisations like TSSA – will want to invest in, not just make donations to”.

The first public event organised by the new club was an afternoon ‘People’s Party’ on Bank Holiday Monday, last August. Committee member Sohail Khan, who was dressed up as a robot for the event says, “There was live music, free food and stalls from a dozen community and socialist organisations – over 200 people took part and I entertained the kids with my slightly surreal costume. It was fantastic!” A few weeks later a social with the local trades council attracted a capacity audience to help build support for the TUC march during the Tory Party Conference in Manchester. Since then, the club has gone from strength to strength, with at least two events happening each week. And it’s all done by volunteers.

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Unison member Eddie Hughes is events co-ordinator. “Plans over the next few months include world music events, poetry sessions, and film nights. The club is running a series of political discussions, open to anyone interested,” he said. During March it hosted an event on the 30th anniversary of The Miners’ Strike, with members bringing along their memories of local solidarity and ephemera including badges, banners and newspapers. The club was the starting point for a ‘Suffragette Walk’ on International Women’s Day on 8 March organised by the club-based ‘Radical Valleys’ history group. The Colne Valley was a hotbed of suffragette activity, with hundreds of women textile workers involved in marches, picnics and social events to demand the vote. The club has a small display of women’s suffrage memorabilia in its Concert Room.

The club describes itself as a place for the left and the wider community in the Colne Valley. “We are not tied to any one political party,” said club activist and Green Party member Charlie Fairbank. “We are working positively with friends in the Labour Party as well as non-aligned socialists”. Local GP Hester Dunlop, of Colne Valley Labour Party, echoed Charlie’s comments. “It’s long overdue for the left to work together positively. Having a base makes such a difference, giving people space to come together on a wide range of common concerns, not least the future of the NHS.” The club is being used as the regular meeting place for the area’s ‘Keep Our NHS Public’ campaign.

Creating a lively, inclusive and financially viable centre for the left is no easy challenge. But it’s vital to the job of rebuilding a radical and democratic politics. “It’s partly about having somewhere friendly and accessible to meet,” said Hester. “But it’s also about networking with people from other political groups and working together and running joint campaigns”.

The next few months will decide the future of this exciting venture. The support from TSSA has been the single most important outside contribution to the club’s renaissance. “We are looking forward to hosting a visit of TSSA activists during the union’s annual conference in Leeds – they can be assured of getting a warm Yorkshire wielcome!” said Hester.


The Red and Green Club has a Facebook page ‘The Red and Green Club Milnsbridge’ which TSSA Journal readers are invited to ‘like’. TSSA members who are not Conference delegates are welcome to join the gathering at the club, which will be held over the second weekend in May. For more information email paul@paulsalveson.com.
 

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