Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Nothing too good for the workers!

It is not everyday you get the chance to become a shareholder in a stately home! On the May Day Bank Holiday I was with friends at the wonderful Chesterfield TUC May Day festival with its combination of a march, speeches, first class entertainment and solidarity market stalls.

One stall caught my eye. I had first been to Wortley Hall longer ago than I like to admit it was the venue for the weekend schools of the old Midland Section of the Co-op Party. So I was delighted to see a stall for the upgraded Wortley Hall.

Wortley Hall, between Sheffield and Huddersfield, set in 26 acres of formal gardens and woodlands, is the Workers Stately Home having belonged to the labour movement for over fifty years. Originally the ancestral home of the Earls of Wharncliffe, we cannot be exact about when the hall was built but we know that Sir Thomas Wortley, born in 1440, lived at the Manor Wortley until 1510.

Sir Thomas, on the wrong side during the English Civil War, was taken by Parliamentary forces to the Tower of London. The hall fell into decay until the mid eighteenth century when Edmund Wortley commissioned its rebuilding. The family’s new wealth coming from coal mining in the South Yorkshire area, during the war the Hall was occupied by the Army, but after 1945 the hall once again fell into decline.

This all changed at a meeting in May 1950. Vin Williams, a former miner, proposed to local labour movement activists that Wortley Hall should become an education and recreation home for workers who would be the owners and on whose behalf the Hall would be run.

It was in semi-derelict condition and it took a great deal of voluntary work of South Yorkshire supporters to carry out repairs and restoration but on May 5th 1951 it was opened as an education and holiday centre for the trade union, labour and co-operative movement.

For over fifty odd years, successive generations have maintained the commitment and built on the sacrifices of those workers to keep Wortley Hall as the Workers Stately Home. Support has been drawn from across the labour movement, no one person or organisation can have overall control of the Hall, a member of the Co-op Union and registered as a Friendly Society. Wortley Hall has always been run on co-operative principles.

Today, with four stars from the English Tourist Board, the Hall is looking better than ever. The effort that has gone into bringing the accommodation and grounds up to the very highest standards has really paid off. The grounds laid out in an Italinate style on an eastward facing slope enjoy magnificent views over the vale of Worsborough are absolutely glorious.

The Hall can host conferences for up to 150 delegates, with seven conference rooms and 49 en-suite bedrooms, all equipped with direct telephone lines and internet connections. The most recent to be upgraded is the ballroom, paid for mainly by Unite branches, will be formerly re-opened as the Unite Ballroom later in the year.

Another recent development has been the creation of two holiday cottages set in the old stable yard. The area has some excellent cycling and walking as the Hall is not far from the Peak District and for those wishing to travel further afield there is the ‘last of the summer wine country’ of Holmfirth.

The grounds are also the home of the South Yorkshire Festival, celebrating workers worldwide, which takes place on Saturday 4th July this year, an excellent day out, in a delightful setting. If you are a member of a Trade Union, Labour or Co-operative organisation you are eligible to become an individual shareholder. This entitles you to participate in the running of Wortley Hall, attending the AGM, voting for the Management Board or standing for election having been nominated by your organisation or another shareholder.

Organisations and individuals can apply for shares which are in £5 units. So for a small sum you can have a share in the Workers Stately Home! For more information go to:

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Well Done Wolves!

I must say I was delighted that Wolverhampton Wanderers won the 1st Division Championship. My delight was strictly for the fans! As someone who was a Wolves season ticket holder for many years and having lived in Wolverhampton I know how important the club is to the identity of the town.

When I was a fan they where riding highish in Division 1 - well top half of the table we had a good side in the early seventies (from memory, Parkes, Parkin Shaw, Bailey,Munro,McCall,Hibbit, Mcalliog, Richrds, Dougan, Wagsaffe) which did not have the success they deserved - and then I had the misfortune to follow them down to the fourth division and back to the present Championship.

The strong fan base the club have deserved a moment of success for all the support they have given the club. After years of having managers who said this club is too big for the championship they seem to have last had a manager who tried to win the division the club was actually in rather than assuming that promotion was a formality.

It is rather sad however that they will be changing places with West Bromwich Albion as it would have been good to have the Black Country derby games in the premier ship.

When I was a kid I lived on the Yew Tree Estate in what is now Sandwell and would go to Wolves, Albion and Walsall to watch the football. Mind in those days it was a cheap afternoon out!

Those where the days of Astle and Dougan, Alan Buckley and Mike Bailey, Bomber Brown and Waggy! We didn't realise that we where experiencing a golden age for Midlands football! Highlighted on Star Soccer with Stoke, Blues, Villa, Albion, Leicester, Derby and Notts Forest all brightening Sunday afternoon with Huge Onds! As we called the commentator Huw Johns!

Sadly modern football is no longer my thing. But nonetheless I wish the Wolves the very best.

Does rural Britain have to be a no go area for the left?

Every summer I like me to spend sometime visiting delightful rural spots to thank those who came before us in building our movement. I listen to fiery radical speeches of labour struggles of days gone by. I am not alone many of you will have been to places like Tolpuddle in Dorset or Burston in Norfolk home of the famous strike school or maybe to Burford in the Cotswolds to mark Levellers day.

There was a time when the left held its own in rural areas and there was the Country Standard in which to read about the struggles of working class rural dwellers and we had something to say to rural communities.

With the collapse in house prices and economic changes generating huge increases in food prices it is now time for us on the left to think again about rural life and the agricultural sector. Just because agricultural policy is the property of the European Union does not means that we have to give up thinking about what the shape and type of agriculture we should have here in the UK.

Despite being true blue on the electoral map ironically rural Britain is a bastion of the co-operative movement. The erosion of the co-operative sector in the cities has not been matched in agriculture where co-operation seems to have gone from strength to strength.

Each year Co-operatives UK publish an overview of the UK co-operative economy with a table of the UK’s top 100 co-operatives. At least half of them are agricultural co-ops.

The retail Co-op itself began farming in 1896 when it bought its first farm to grow spuds for its stores and a big expansion took place between the wars when food was scarce so it should be no surprise to find that the Co-op is the UK’s largest farmer with 70,000 acres across England and Scotland.

There are at least ten agricultural co-ops with a turn over of more than £100 million! There are some real giants like the Dairy Farmers of Britain Co-operative with two thousand farmer members turning over half a billion pounds. This in some way reflects the consolidation of the sector with the severe challenges the agricultural economy has faced over the last few years with poor prices and terrible weather that put farm incomes under massive strain.

The collapse in rural farm work has contributed to the pressure to close rural schools and post offices, although there are still around 135,000 workers employed in agriculture in the UK.

In fact the Rural and Allied Workers Trade Group of Unite continues to represent workers with the Agricultural Wages Board as well as in the growing sectors of horticulture and forestry. Many of the problems of rural work, of migrant labour and gang masters would have been familiar to Thomas Hardy and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

There are still many opportunities for co-op’s and social enterprises to contribute to the rural economy as the Plunkett Foundation which provide seed corn finance and advice to support the start up and development of rural co-ops and social enterprises have shown. This helps the growth of small scale businesses such as community shops for example which large scale business is simply not interested in.

Successive UK Governments have followed a policy of managed decline reflecting their attitude both to the manufacturing and agricultural sectors here in Britain however with global warming affecting production the issue of food security will soon become a real one. We will face the challenge of having to put more land under cultivation, as well as issues such as that of low carbon agriculture, the hopes of organic farming, animal welfare and movement as well as the impact of climate change on soil quality.

With DEFRA seeming to believe that the UK can import huge quantities of food out of the mouths of those in the developing world for evermore. Frankly I feel the government have given too much ground to the Countryside Alliance. We have been lead on a huge wild fox chase over country sports whilst missing out on the real debate over the future of the land over which the chase takes place.

UK agriculture is a vitally important asset to our country and it needs to be expanded and developed not sentenced to lingering death under the common agricultural policy. I do not believe a one size fits all agricultural policy is appropriate in these changed circumstances and this is another vital issue that NO2EU - Yes to Democracy should be raising in the European Elections.