In this interview, members of the Trades Club in Hebden Bridge, in the north of England, explain their unique origins in the early twentieth century co-operative, socialist and labour movement. While quite different to many of the other social centres in this booklet, its history and politics give a unique insight into the diversity of ways people have tried to self manage their own political spaces over the decades.
Can you say a bit about the origins of how the Club was founded?
The building itself was built in 1924, and it was built by the trades unions of the Calder Valley. Calder Valley at that time boomed with textiles and obviously the different trades had their unions, and they got together to build a headquarters for the local union branches. It was also to be a place of education and recreation.
The Calder Valley was also very much involved in the development of the cooperative movement; Hebden Bridge was at the heart of that. I’ve been told that at one point 70% of the property in Hebden Bridge was cooperatively owned, it was one of the biggest in the world. This is the kind of atmosphere that it was built around. So, we are rooted in the labour and trade union and cooperative movement, which goes right back of course to the later 18th and early 19th century as well. The textiles and tailoring industries virtually disappeared in the 60s and 70s, and the club closed down. The building ended up being owned by the local Labour Party branch.
That was something over a quarter of a century ago, but we are not part of the Labour Party, we are an independent socialist club. So 25 years ago, a group of people got together, and decided to rent the top floor of the trades club as a social and socialist venue, independent of any political party, but with a set of principles which were based on those who built it in 1924, which was commitment to the labour, cooperative, and trades union movement.
Now over the years our constitution has changed a bit because the members have changed, so we’ve got anti-racist elements, and anti-fascist elements built into the constitution. We’ve got anti-sexism, pro-equality, so the constitution has evolved to a certain extent.
What are the activities today?
Essentially, the club now is a music venue. It reached the stage where it was doing three live gigs a week, and it needed more and more volunteers. It was entirely volunteer run. They used to have to have a whip-round at the committee meetings to buy another barrel of beer, I mean, that’s how hard it was. I mean now the place has got a turnover of a quarter million pounds a year and we’re still never free of money problems. We were one of the first music venues in Britain to embrace African music and start becoming a multi-national music venue.
We do a lot of benefit concerts, these can be for purely political causes, or for other good causes that our members want. Every year we have a membership of around 1200. Local political groups, whether it’s Calderdale Unite against Racism and Fascism, Calderdale Against the War, Calderdale Palestine Support Group, the local Amnesty International Group – the place hums with those local groups. Up until a couple of years ago we had three BNP councillors in Calderdale. UNITY, Calderdale UNITE, Unite against Racism and Fascism, for who we raise funds, is more or less based here and I’m part of that. There are no bloody BNP councillors in Calderdale now, and a lot of that is down to the group and organisational work that we’ve done here.
As well as the direct political heavyweight stuff, there’s also a lot of day to day community stuff – we’ve got a chess club, a walking group as well that goes off to the Pennines every Sunday, we have activities for kids. So it’s not all big politics, it’s day-to-day stuff as well. It’s playing, it’s political, it’s educational, it’s agitational, it’s organisational as well.
Tell me about how you organise?
Now, I know about the social centre movement and how it’s developing, and we’re not like that. I know that a lot of the social centres are more horizontally run, you don’t have a structure or a hierarchy, now we do. That we’ve inherited, you know, that’s how it was. You elect a committee, you elect a president and you elect a secretary. We have 14 people who are officers or committee members and they are elected each year, and all members can attend all committee meetings.
But I mean originally like it was just a guy with a long beard that came and stood by the bar who did all the stuff. Until you get to a certain size, a certain scale, and you think we better employ somebody, and then you get an entertainments manager and so on. And then you end up having a committee. So it’s not like it’s set up as a hierarchy, it just evolves that way. It might change one day to become a co-op, but running it as a co-op would be a massive step, wouldn’t it?
Well what we’ve got is ten members of paid staff, five full-time and five part-time. Bar staff, office staff, a couple work part time running the gigs, a couple who are sound engineers, a manager who has to take responsibility for the whole operation… and then we’ve got the volunteers. We generally have anything from 20-30 volunteers running the doors, you know charging on the doors, But, the key thing is they’ve all got this commitment to the place. The Trades is an institution that’s fantastically well known.
There are those who have done their couple of years on the committee, and you know, they’ve done their bit, so they can move on to something else. The thing is, if there is anything that needs doing, there is a fair few membership and ex membership. We’ve got works of every skill going represented amongst membership and ex-membership. We’ve got membership base, you know, on computer. We want something doing we know exactly who to go to.
So in terms of politics, what do you think you are trying to achieve by being here over the years?
Helping us to take action. And when I say taking action, I mean, action here, not in Africa. I suppose with issue politics, you know we tend to look at climate change or direct action, with these kind of places there are lot of people in it that would respond to a challenge, you know mobilising for the anti-war movement – that took spontaneity and the trade club played a part in that. When the Iraq invasion happened, there was 120 people in the square out there, and when they had that meeting they came back in here to organise, you know, organise what protests were going to take place.
We are a safe haven aren’t we? A non-racist, non-sexist place, you know. There area a couple of the pubs around here that are more racist, some places where you wouldn’t want to go into. Here, it’s always been a safe place to go. You know, more and more, there have been gay people living in Hebden Bridge. At the roots of that, I mean not so much now, but a lot of those original groups were coming in here.
How do you communicate all this stuff to the outside world?
No, I think people turn up and like what they find. I think one of the problems we’ve got is New Labour, people think we are upmarket you know, and the kids are not brought up interested in socialism. So what we do in reality is work with lots of groups that younger people are involved in. We’ve just got this ethical presence in the community.
What about publicity and outreach?
I mean you’re having to explain it yourself, when you’re involved in an organisation like this you spend so much bloody time running the place, the physical side of stuff, it’s sometimes difficult to find time to sit down and debate, where are we going?
What plans have you got for the future?
We’ve got to become financially secure. We have got to make it into a place that is self-financing and secure, for the whole community, and be an asset to the community. Politically, we will go on doing, fighting, the struggles that we have been doing. The BNP are here for a long time, we need to keep it going.
Well, you’ve been here for a lot of years so you must be doing something right. Thanks.
The Trades Club is at Holme Street, Hebden Bridge. Tel 01422 845265 and see the website at http://home.btconnect.com/tradesclub/trades