Thursday, 25 January 2018

100 Years of Labour in Reading

Nikki Dancey (GMB), Cllr Sarah Hacker (UNITE), Chris Reilly (RMT),
Keith Jerrome (UNITE) and Ray Parkes (UNITE) - RTUC's
speakers at the Reading Labour Party centenary event
On 25 January 2018, members of the Reading labour movement - trade unionists, Labour Party members and fellow-travellers - assembled at the Reading International Solidarity Centre to celebrate 100 years of the Labour Party in Reading. Although Reading had a strong labour and socialist tradition stretching back to at least the early nineteenth century and while political organisations such as the Social Democratic Federation, the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society flourished from the 1890s onwards, it was in 1918 that individual membership of the Labour Party was created. Towns and cities across the United Kingdom - including Reading - founded Constituency Labour Parties which acted as local coalitions of trade unionists, cooperators and socialists with the primary objective of achieving labour representation in all elected bodies, from the Boards of Poor Law Guardians and Parish Councils to County Councils and Members of Parliament. The significance of the trade union movement in the formation of the Reading Labour Party can be noted in the party's original name - the Reading Trades Union Council and Labour Party.

Cllr Sarah Hacker (UNITE) [foreground], following her address
on the pre-history of the Labour Party in Reading
The evening began with Cllr Sarah Hacker, RTUC delegate from UNITE, speaking on the background to the formation of Reading Labour Party. Sarah told the story of nineteenth century workers' struggles, noting the significance of agriculture in the make up of Reading's social stratification and the importance of national events such as the persecution of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the 1830s, the Merthyr Rising of 1831 and for the formation of the Trades Union Congress in 1868 for the formation of a Reading working class consciousness.
Nikki Dancey (GMB) telling the history of the socialist women's
movement in founding the Reading Labour Party
Following Brian Morley's telling of the foundation of the Workers' Educational Association in Reading, Nikki Dancey, the GMB delegate to the RTUC, educated the meeting on the importance of women in the formation of the Reading labour movement - a silent history only just being explored in recent years - giving special attention to the successful women's strike at Huntley & Palmers' Biscuit Factory in 1916. The strike broke with the industrial truce of the Great War and eventually led to wage rises for all factory workers - men as well as women.

Banner remembering the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War
Commemorative attire for the Spanish Civil War
Two presentations, by Tom Lake and Cllr Tony Jones, looked at the significance of Dr Somerville Hastings, Reading's first Labour MP, and Thora Silverthorne, a veteran nurse of the Spanish Civil War, in the formation of the National Health Service.
Ray Parkes (UNITE) retells the history of Reading's
Spanish Civil War volunteers in flying the flag of socialism
abroad - as well as fighting for an NHS at home

Ray Parkes, a UNITE delegate to the RTUC, then spoke on Dr Reginald Saxton, another Reading veteran of the Spanish Civil War, who pioneered blood transfusions in the field hospital of Spain. Ray met Reginald and their correspondence was important in inspiring Ray - along with Keith Jerrome and others - to form the Reading International Brigades Memorial Committee. The Committee raised funds to pay for the creation of a memorial to Reading's veterans of the Spanish Civil War, presently situated in the Forbury Gardens and used as a gathering place for the Reading labour movement to this day. Ray also co-authored two publications - You Cannot Park on Both Sides (with Mike Cooper, 2000) and Defending Democracy: Reading's International Brigades Memorial (with Keith Jerrome and Mike Cooper, 2015).

Chris Reilly (RMT) telling the story of Labour's
nationalisation programme, 1945-1951
Following Ray, Chris Reilly, President of the RTUC and RMT delegate to that body, remembered possibly the Labour Party's greatest parliamentary achievements - the nationalisation programme of Clement Atlee's government of 1945 to 1951. Atlee brought the 'commanding heights of the economy' into public ownership, including the railway industry and such utilities as gas, electricity and water - a programme largely replicated in the current Labour Party manifesto.

Banner of the Reading Branch of the RMT
Following Chris, Christine Borgars spoke on Ian Mikardo, a much under-researched politician in Reading's history. Mikardo is, however, remembered nationally for at least one thing - Reading Pads! Multiple carbon copy lists of supporters used by activists to record voters and determine who to 'knock up' to ensure the maximum number of voters are encouraged to the polling station.

Keith Jerrome (UNITE) expatiates on the organisation
of the labour movement in Reading
Closing off the historical accounts, Keith Jerrome, a UNITE delegate to the RTUC, spoke of the organisations of the labour movement in Reading, including the Reading Trades Union Council and its affiliated and non-affiliated trade unions, the cooperative movement and the various socialist societies which antedated and have also affiliated to the Labour Party.
Martin Salter, former Labour MP for Reading West, cuts
the birthday cake with the centenary event's speakers
Bringing the story to the present, Cllr Jo Lovelock, the leader of Reading Borough Council, spoke about the current Labour council and its place in the history of the movement. Jo pointed us to the future, explained the challenges she and her colleagues face under the cosh of Conservative austerity cuts to local government funding and the daily struggles Reading faces in trying to delivery services whilst also living within its means.

The banner of the Reading South Constituency
Labour Party (in existence 1974-1983)

The evening was both educational and inspirational - though leaving attendees under no illusions about the struggles that lay ahead on both the industrial and the political fronts. The event was organised by Reading Labour 100 - a joint committee made up of delegates from the Reading Trades Union Council and the Reading & District Labour Party - and ably chaired by Louise Hill of RDLP. Reading Labour 100 will be organising more events during 2018 to mark the centenary of the Reading Labour Party - for details, follow RTUC's Facebook page here:

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