British labour history

This video from Wales says about itself:

Annual Chartist Conference – Newport, 2008

* Organised by the Society of Labour History, the Chartist Study Group and the South Wales Centre for History and Interdisciplinary Research (SWCHIR) …

This video clip records the conference procedings:
– from the lecture theatre, to:
– Newport city centre, a walk of Chartist sites including the Chartist Memorial at the Westgate Hotel, site of the 1839 Newport Chartist Rising, and the soon-to-be-demolished Chartist Mural in John Frost Square
– and Sunday’s Chartist Tour which started at the Ridgeway, Newport, which provided a military observation point and was occupied by armed special constables on the eve of the Rising, 3 November 1839; proceeding north through the Monmouthshire valleys to the Chartist exhibition and information centre at the Salem Chapel, Blaina, and the Nantyglo Chartist Round Towers at the site of the Coalbrookvale iron works.

By Peter Lazenby in Britain:

Preserving our past for our future

Tuesday 18 December 2012

It says a lot about Professor Keith Laybourn that his contemporaries have elected him to a post held for years by much-respected Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died in October.

Prof Laybourn has been made president of the Society for the Study of Labour History (SSLH). For the past year he has been the society’s secretary, working alongside Hobsbawm.

Laybourn, who teaches at the University of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, is well aware of the prestige of the shoes he has been elected to fill.

He is also aware of the importance of the task he and the society face. He believes recorded histories of Britain’s labour and trade union movement are in danger, as seen by the recent destruction of records at Ruskin College.

And he sees the actions of the current government as a greater threat to the institutions and achievements of the working class in Britain than those posed even under the Thatcher government of the 1980s.

Laybourn is well qualified for the challenges ahead.

His roots lie deep in Yorkshire’s coalmining communities. Coupled with that he is a respected academic who has written 45 books including several on the history of the labour and trade union movement.

Keith Laybourn was born in Barnsley in 1946, one of five children – a sixth died at birth.

His father was a miner in the pit community of Monk Bretton. His uncles were miners, and his grandfather’s job was caring for the underground pit ponies which provided the subterranean transport system of coal mines before mechanisation. His father left the pit aged 57 in 1983, after two bouts of rheumatic fever. He died not many years after retirement.

Childhood was steeped in working-class culture and organisations. Apart from work, life was dominated by working people’s clubs and the co-operative movement. There was also the Labour Party of course.

“It was a Labour stronghold with a 25,000 majority,” he says. “Labour Party politics were taken for granted.”

Was it a hard life? “When you’re a child you don’t think of that,” he said.

Early memories include day trips to the coast.

“Twenty-six coach-loads would set off from Monk Bretton for some poor, unsuspecting coastal resort – 1,000 people descending on places like Bridlington.”

Football was important.

“The Reds – Barnsley – had a three-man defence whose names were Short, Sharp and Swift. Later I thought that was a wonderful guide to doing my lectures.”

His university background starts in 1964 studying history and geography at Bradford University, followed by a postgraduate certificate in education at Manchester, Master of Arts and a doctorate at the University of Lancaster and employment at the University of Huddersfield from 1971.

Taking over the prestigious position held by Hobsbawm, he says of his predecessor: “To follow someone like Eric Hobsbawm, I am immensely honoured. He has to be one of the greatest writers since 1945 in many areas, not just labour history. He stands alongside EP Thompson.”

He sees his election as coming at a time of enormous importance to the labour and trade union movement.

“We are facing some of the greatest dangers we have had in my lifetime in terms of the challenges to our rights. I thought Margaret Thatcher was bad enough. I could not stand Thatcher, but at least I knew where she was coming from.

“But this government? I am not sure where this lot are coming from other than their own personal interests. Everything that was valued is being diminished.”

He spoke recently at Bradford Trades Union Council and was shocked at its decline – once based on a thriving textile industry and public sector.

Trades councils and their nationwide network were the backbone of trade union organisation, bringing unions and workers together in hundreds of towns and cities.

“I am absolutely alarmed at the extent to which trades union councils have collapsed,” he says. “I had not realised how they were struggling.”

More positively, he sees moves to reactivate trades union councils.

A call to revive the trades union council in Rochdale in neighbouring Lancashire was made at the Bradford meeting. “If it happens in Rochdale I’ll be speaking there,” he says.

Activists in Halifax-based Calderdale district in West Yorkshire are also relaunching the district’s trades council.

A key role of the SSLH is the preservation of documents and archives collected on labour history, some of which Prof Laybourn says are in danger.

“One of the other things that worries me is that a number of labour history documents and others associated with them are under pressure,” he tells me. “Not long ago the TUC’s records were looking for a new home. They finally found one in Warwick.

“But women’s history records are under pressure. There was concern about the Ruskin college records.”

There were reports that the records at Ruskin, the Oxford college associated with the labour and trade union movement, were being shredded. The college later said that “only” student records were being destroyed due to legislation in the Data Protection Act.

The college has been the educational cradle of some of 20th-century Britain’s most influential socialist and trade union leaders. Laybourn argues that the Act provides protection for such records and says its use to justify destruction was “misleading.”

“This is our heritage. If we do not protect our heritage there really is nothing left, and that is the function of the society – to preserve and record our history and make it available.”

Laybourn, who quit the Labour Party in 1994 when it dropped its commitment to public ownership and control – clause four of the party’s constitution – said: “The message I am presenting is that labour history is vital.

“We must preserve it in all its forms. I am not bothered whether it is the Communist Party of Great Britain, Trotskyists, Labour or trade union records. All these should be preserved.

“They are our history and our future. Academics or activists – our brief is preservation of labour history. That means a close working relationship with all appropriate groups.”

The Society for the Study of Labour History was founded in 1960 and today has hundreds of members. It is Britain’s principal organisation dedicated to the study and preservation of labour history and publishes a journal, The Labour History Review.

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