Monday, 2 May 2011


The Unity Club was the appropriate setting for this year's May Day commemorations for Bridgwater Trades Unionists, Labour Party members, Socialists and Community activists with 6 varied speakers bringing messages of solidarity  through their own experiences ranging from workplace struggles to the imminent Local Government elections.

The high point of the event was a presentation by Trades Council Secretary Dave Chapple about Labour activist Fred Phillips who built up a  socialist labour presence in the town that changed the face of Bridgwater politics in the 1950's and 60s.

The event was chaired by Labour Councillor Brian Smedley, a member of the UNITE union, a Trades Council delegate and a Labour candidate for the new town centre Bridgwater Westover ward.  
"Workers Struggles"
Glen Burrows RMT

Glen Burrows, a member of the RMT union and the Senior citizens forum opened the evening and mentioned the history of May Day events going back to the workers struggles in America at the end of the 19th century and stressed the Internationalist nature of workers struggle.

"Student Fightback"

Rob Thompson -student activist

Rob Thompson, a student from Taunton, spoke about the disastrous policies of the Conservative-LibDem coalition on working class communities and especially the young, who were, as a consequence now at the forefront of the fightback against them. He had personally spoken at 3 Somerset MayDay rallies over the May weekend.

"United Front"

George Goodenough, a GMB member who worked at Hinkley point, talked about his fears for the Environment and how he had become involved in  the Socialist Party .He  stressed the need for a United Front against the ConDem Government.

George Goodenough GMB & Dave Chapple

"Local politics"

Ian Tucker-Bridgwater Forward
 Ian Tucker is standing for the Labour Party in the Town & District Elections and talked about how he had become involved in politics during the times of Thatcher who had dessimated the merchant fleet in which he worked at the time. His involvement in the seafarers union 'Nautilus' turned him into a Labour supporter and he became personally involved in local politics with a passion when the Sedgemoor Tories closed down the Sedgemoor Splash. He had joined the campaign group Bridgwater Forward and the Labour Party at the same time and was a regular speaker at Council meetings.

"Union Activist"

Leigh Redman FBU
Leigh Redman is standing for Labour at the elections alongside Ian and talked of his work in the Fire Service and how his own involvement deepened through his hands on dealings with management and thereby his increased work as a Union Activist with the FBU.

"Ideological Tory war"

Ricky Hopkins UNITE
 Ricky Hopkins was standing for Labour in the key marginal seat of Highbridge, and fighting hard to win it from the divided and hopeless LibDems who the people wanted rid of. Ricky was 22 years in the National Union of Mineworkers including 20 years at the coalface. He spoke passionately about the actual affects of Thatchers destruction of mining communities and how Cameron and his LibDem stooges were doing the same today to communities with the closing of libraries and youth facilities which he saw as the continuation of an ideological Tory war against the working class and the welfare state. He emphasised the fightback had to be led by the Labour party and the Trade Unions working in Unity.

"Municipal Socialism"

Dave Chapple, a socialist historian and postman, talked about the work of one special individual in building up the Bridgwater Labour party after the second world war and taking it to a position of control in the borough bringing about some of the main achievements in the town until the abolition of the Borough in 1974.

Fred Phllips was from the Carpathian region of the former Czechoslovakia and was a socialist and anti fascist activist who escaped to England from a Nazi concentration camp and eventually found himself in Bridgwater where he became the Labour party agent. Fred's work and dedication created a large membership based Labour party in the town with a strong presence on the Town council of active Trades Unionists who eventually took control from the Tories and Independents. The Bridgwater Labour Party of Fred Phillips from 1952 to 1974 was a fine example of municipal socialism in action and had been responsible for such achievements as the Lido and the West street Housing project which the Tories (led by Margaret Rees) had tried to scupper.. 

Dave Chapple & Brian Smedley

"the Red Borough"

It was the case that Bridgwater was known as 'the red borough' around the south west and at one point when virtually the rest of the region went Tory, only Bridgwater remained true to it's socialist roots. Nye Bevan, the famous socialist instrumental in setting up the National Health Service, had opened Bridgwater's 1,000th Council House, at Adscombe avenue on the  Sydenham Estate  . Hugh Dalton had been received in the towns Charter Hall to present an award to Fred's wife Elizabeth for recruiting 2,000 Labour party members during a single year.

"2,000 members"

Freds hard work had even built up the party in rural locations where Labour supporters- largely farm workers -were afraid to put up Labour posters for fear of eviction. Dave explained how Fred travelled by motorised bike far and wide in his work and mentioned one single incident where he cycled to Withycombe and recruited 86 villagers in one evening! Dave also spoke of Fred's second in command, Don Beard, who was a CND activist and whose enthusiasm for the Labour Party included social outings including the popular 'Weymouth Excursions' which by 1958 numbered some 8 coaches. at a period when Labour Party membership never dropped below 2,000 and affiliated Trade Union membership running at some 3,000..

"50% turnouts"

Fred Phillips & Harold Wilson
 It was also the case at the time that the perpetual danger of apathy was being conquered as turnouts at elections had gone up from 30% to 50% as people had the feeling at last they had something worth voting for.

"Tory dominated Sedgemoor"

The Bridgwater Borough Council was abolished in the local government reforms of 1974 and the town was thereafter cast into a minor role within the new Tory dominated Sedgemoor District Council. In 2000 the Labour Government restored Bridgwater Town Council which labour has controlled for the ensuing years. The town council is up for election on Thursday as well and a lesson from the hard work of Fred Phillips showing what could be achieved is a timely reminder.