10,000 memories in Nelson, Lancashire

Here, the old cotton mill workers recall noise, bullying and hunger. Now, in Asia, a new generation

The streets of the Lancashire mill-towns are full of old people now. If there is a certain melancholy as they look out on to the car parks and rectangles of rubble where weaving sheds and houses stood, this is perhaps because their whole working life was spent in a declining industry.

The house where Ethel and Alan Timberlake live is in the shadow of one of the last mills in Nelson. It closed 18 months ago, and is now being demolished; sunlight comes into the front room for the first time, through the roofless building and its broken windows. "The house used to shake with the vibration from the looms," says Ethel. "It was not very pleasant, but the silence is worse." The mill had the most modern Swiss looms, making industrial uniforms for several airlines and Marks and Spencer. It was taken over by Carrington Viyella, who get the work done more cheaply abroad. The looms went to India.

"We used to make sarees for export to India," recalls Dick Howarth, now in his mid-eighties. "Then, when there were labour shortages, they fetched workers from India and Pakistan. They worked the night-shifts, sleeping in beds turn and turn about, just as the Irish did 100 years ago. Now they are bringing in the material from India and Pakistan. It's hard to make sense of it."

"It's a different world," say the old spinners of Bolton and Oldham, the weavers of Blackburn and Burnley. And for them it is; even though that same world still exists, on the other side, the dark side, of the earth, in the slums of Dhaka and Jakarta. To the former workers of Lancashire it is distant memory now, long confided to oral historians and enclosed in industrial museums. In any case, the pain of loss has been decertified by political gibberish about progress and modernisation. They sit in their front rooms, with tea and home-made victoria sponge and the hiss of the gas fire, surrounded by pictures of grandchildren against a sky-blue background, the bird twittering in its cage, the poinsettia (also from Asia) wilting in the heat. A different world indeed.

Yet the abuses of poverty and overwork linger tenaciously in the minds of the very old; stories that correspond with an aching exactness to the testimony of the young women workers in Dhaka, Jakarta, Mumbai. Their recollections of hunger, cruel overseers, physical chastisement, ruined health and industrial hazards are still commonplace in the industrial suburbs of Asia. The cobbler who gave his children leather to chew in order to appease their hunger would have recognised the plight of the mother in Dhaka, giving her children rags for the same purpose. The women who searched the market stalls on Saturday night, picking up specked oranges and mouldy bananas, might be speaking for the women of Jakarta, scavenging scraps from the trash outside the city's restaurants.

When they tell of foremen who hit the women, made them stand for an hour in the freezing mill-yard if they were late for work, their echoes prefigure the woman in the Dhaka factory, beaten with a chair leg for tangling her threads, the woman dismissed from her job for abandoning her machine when she learnt that her son had been killed. When they speak of the ebb and flow of trade, the long periods on the dole, they anticipate in memory the thousands being laid off each day in the Jakarta of 1998. Olive Sharples, Weavers' Union organiser for 44 years, remembers visiting the sick, many of whom were dying of byssinosis, a then unrecognised respiratory disease that came from long exposure to cotton dust. Now, the workers of Dhaka waste away with TB.

Ethel Timberlake remembers her mother sucking the ends of the cotton through the shuttle - "kissing the shuttle" they called it - the kiss of death, for she died of emphysema at 50. Others tell tales of people who were caught by their hair or a limb in the straps that drove the looms, and were dashed against the ceiling of the shed. The same industrial accidents are reported today, which is scarcely surprising, since some of the same archaic machinery is still in use in the decaying mills of Mumbai, the names Northrop of Blackburn or Platt Brothers of Oldham still embossed in the ancient metal.

The old bring to life not only their own testimony of work, want and struggle, but equally, the experience of people separated from them only by time, different skies, another colour or religion. If it is hard for them to perceive a common destiny, perhaps this is because they are constantly being urged on to a future of undreamed-of technological marvels, to a frantic keeping up with the times - times that demand the same tribute of flesh and blood all over the world, and which the workers of Lancashire paid so recently.

It isn't only the working conditions that join our past with their present. The mill-workers tell how the big stores - Woolworth's, Marks and Spencer - would place an order for fancy handkerchiefs, say. "A small order at first. Then a bigger one. Finally, the whole factory would be given over to the production of one item. Then, when the company was dependent on these orders, the stores would offer less money. The wages of the workers went down, profits dwindled, and in the end, the company closed down."

The beneficiaries of the shift to Asia are deterred from organising by the vast pool of workless, or by the presence of the military, spies and informers, in the factories. Nuri was dismissed in June 1998 for trying to form a union in a sub-contractor to Marks and Spencer in Jakarta. In Dhaka, Rehna Begum was imprisoned with 21 other trade unionists for stealing from the factory; after two years in jail, it was "discovered" that the production manager had stolen the goods. No compensation.

In the industrial zones of Tangerang, Bekasi, Mirpur, Dharavi, you will find all the big names - Walmart, C&A, Levi-Strauss, Great Reaper, Nike. The complaints of the workers might have been compiled in Lancashire: bad ventilation, no work security, compulsory overtime, no health insurance, insufficient rest, being timed going to the lavatory, fines for the smallest mistake, bullying, harassment, being forbidden to sing, talk or laugh.

Dick Howarth and his wife look out into the street; children sit on the wall of a derelict house, the inheritors of the lost function of the mill-town of Padiham, where mills employed the vast majority of its 13,000 people. "Drugs, no secure work, is that better than what we knew?" they ask. Ethel Timberlake tells how a friend, a woman of 54, was raped by a 15-year-old boy. "What have we done to our children? What have we left for the next generation?"

The questions scarcely require answers. How can it not be better than the thousand looms that clattered through the day, leaving a whole generation to lip-read? Better than the smoke from the chimneys of Nelson, "which made it impossible for Hitler to bomb us, because he couldn't see us through the smoke". Better than children crawling under looms to clean them, starting work at age 12, as they do now in South Asia. Better than the room-and-power mills, rented by manufacturers so that they could dismiss all the operatives as soon as trade slackened; just as the management in Dhaka boast that, if workers try to organise, they can sack the whole workforce and recruit a new one within 48 hours.

The old look back with a curious estrangement from their earlier selves - as though they had died and been reincarnated. "We went on holiday to Blackpool. My grandmother filled a tin trunk with cakes and bread she'd baked. Then she came all the way back on Wednesday and filled it up again."

"They used to take all their belongings on holiday. This woman, big fat woman, carrying her canary in a cage, little husband with two huge suitcases. She says to him, 'be careful, we don't want that rupture coming down at Morecambe'."

"We had to call the boss 'Master'. He'd stand at the entrance, push back his billy-cock, and walk through. If he was wearing his blue suit, you knew things were rough, there'd be trouble."

"When they brought in the Clean Air Act, the sheep and sparrows of Nelson all changed colour."

They were part of a great division of labour, in which the work of thousands of hands was co-ordinated into a single industrial machine. Even the words that placed them in the structure are a dead language now - who knows now what a cake-winder was, a deviller, a tackler? "I used to look in the shop windows and see the stuff we'd made. We were pleased. The cotton they sell now, we wouldn't have it as floor-cloths." The last mill in Blackburn that still used the old Lancashire looms made non-washable fabric; material, fittingly, for shrouds.

Sometimes the Lancashire people talk of the people of Asia "stealing our jobs" as though labour had crossed the world like a thief in the night to take away their function as they slept the sleep of exhaustion; as though capital had no role in it; as though desperate migrants to Dhaka or Jakarta, in their shared slum rooms, three metres by three, were the enemies, and not the kin, of the ghosts of country people once driven from impoverished villages into the squalid towns of Lancashire.

"We tried everything to keep the mills open," recalls Olive Sharples. "We organised the Buy British campaign in the sixties. Some companies imported cloth and stamped Made in Accrington on it, but it didn't save them. People feel bitter, they still do. It wasn't till 1980 that we could see it was all finished. We thought if they modernised, at least there'd be some jobs."

The workers of Asia and of Lancashire have one other thing in common; they were never consulted about the setting up of the industry, any more than they were about its closure, but were sucked into it beyond their will, beyond their control. They used to say "I'm not going to let any child of mine go into the mill", but into the mill they went. Then, when there were no mills left, they find themselves asking "Where are the jobs for the next generation coming from?"

There is no answer. The jobs have gone to use up the youth and energies of young people in Asia, just as they laid waste those of generations in Lancashire.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family

Show Hide image

Paul Mason: How the left should respond to Brexit

It's up to the labour movement to rescue the elite from the self-inflected wound of Brexit.

For the first time in a generation there is a tangible split between the Tory leadership and the business elite. Forget the 41 per cent poll rating, forget Theresa May’s claim to have moved towards “the centre”; the most important thing to emerge since the Tory conference is a deep revulsion, among wide sections of normally Conservative voters, at the xenophobia, nationalism and economic recklessness on display.

Rhetorically, May has achieved a lot. She quashed any possibility of a soft Brexit strategy. She ended 30 years of openness to migration. She scrapped the Tories’ commitment to balanced books by 2020 – though she neglected to replace this keystone policy with anything else. And she pledged to stop constitutional scrutiny over the Brexit process from Holyrood, Westminster or the courts.

Yet in reality she achieved nothing. May’s government is not in control of the crucial process that will define its fate – the Brexit negotiations. And on Scotland, she has triggered a sequence of events that could lead to the end of the UK within the next five years.

In the light of this, the left has to be refocused around the facts that have emerged since the referendum on 23 June. Britain will leave the EU – but it faces a choice between May’s hubristic nonsense and a strategy to salvage 30 years of engagement with the biggest market in the world. Scotland will hold its second referendum. Labour will be led through all this by a man who, for the first time in the party’s history, cannot be relied on to do the elite’s bidding.

Brexit, on its own, need not have caused a great shift in British politics. It is the new, visceral split between Tory xenophobia and the implicitly liberal and globalist culture in most boardrooms that makes this a turning point. It is a challenge for the left as big as the ones Labour faced in 1931, when the gold standard collapsed; or in 1940, when the reality of total war dawned. It represents a big opportunity – but only if we jolt our brains out of the old patterns, think beyond party allegiances, and react fast.

Let’s start with the facts around which May, Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd constructed their rhetorical body swerve at the Tory conference. Britain is £1.7trn in debt. Its budget deficit cannot be eradicated by 2020 because, even on the steroids of quantitative easing, growth is low, wages are stagnant and its trade situation deeply negative. Austerity, in short, did not work.

With sterling weakened, by next year we’ll begin to feel the pressure of imported inflation on real wages, re-creating the economic pain of 2011-12. On top of that, by attempting a “hard Brexit”, May has created damaging uncertainty for investment that no degree of short-term positivity can mitigate. Even if the range of outcomes only widens, investment will get delayed – and with May’s commitment to hard Brexit the range of outcomes will get significantly worse: 7.5 per cent lopped off GDP, according to a leaked Treasury assessment.

Civil servants believe Britain’s negotiating position is so weak that it will have to leverage its intelligence-providing services to Europe and concede “free movement of high-skilled workers”, just to persuade the French and the Germans to cut any kind of decent bilateral deal. Yet in the two years of brinkmanship that begin when Article 50 is triggered, the EU27 will have no reason whatsoever to concede favourable terms for bilateral trade. By adopting hard Brexit and hard xenophobia, Theresa May has scheduled a 24-month slow-motion car crash.

To orient the Labour Party, trade unions and the wider progressive movement, we need first to understand the scale of the break from normality. Labour already faced deep problems. First, without Scotland it cannot govern; yet many of its members in Scotland are so dislocated from the progressive Scottish national movement that the party is bereft of answers.

Next, the old relationship between the urban salariat and the ex-industrial working class has inverted. With a vastly expanded membership, Labour is the de facto party of the urban salariat. Its heartland is Remainia – the cities that voted to stay in Europe. Its electoral battlegrounds are now places such as Bury, Nuneaton, Corby and Portsmouth, where the “centre” (as measured by the Lib Dem vote) has collapsed, to be replaced by thousands of Green voters and thousands more voting Ukip.

This was the known problem on the eve of Brexit, though layers of Labour MPs and councillors refused to understand it or respond to it. The solution to it was, even at that point, obvious: Labour can only attract back a million Green voters and hundreds of thousands of Ukip voters in winnable marginals with a combination of social liberalism and economic radicalism.

The alternative, as outlined in the Blue Labour project of Maurice Glasman and Jon Cruddas, was an overt return to social conservatism. That cannot work, because it might win back some ex-Labour Ukip voters but could not inspire Labour’s new urban core to go on the doorstep and fight for it. On the contrary, it could easily inspire many of them to tear up their membership cards.

A new strategy – to combine social liberalism, multiculturalism and environmentalism with left-wing economic policies aimed at reviving the “communities left behind” – was, for me, always the heart of Corbynism. Jeremy Corbyn himself, whatever his personal strengths and weaknesses, was a placeholder for a political strategy.

Brexit, the attempted Labour coup and the Tory swing to hard Brexit have changed things all over again. And Labour’s leadership needs to move fast into the political space that has opened up. The starting point is to understand May’s administration as a regime of crisis. It is held together by rhetoric and a vacuum of press scrutiny, exacerbated by Labour’s civil war and the SNP’s perennial dithering over strategy to achieve Scottish independence. The crisis consists of the perils of hard Brexit combined with a tangible split between the old party of capital and capital itself. The elite – the bankers, senior managers, the super-rich and the ­upper middle class – do not want Brexit. Nor does a significant proportion of Middle Britain’s managerial and investing classes.




All this presents Labour with a series of achievable goals – as an opposition in Westminster, in London, as the likely winner in many of the forthcoming mayoral battles, and at Holyrood. The first aim should be: not just oppose hard Brexit, but prevent it. This entails the Labour front bench committing to an attempt to remain inside the European Economic Area.

The wariness – shared by some on the Corbyn side, as well as the Labour right – is born of the assumption that if you commit to the single market, you must accept free movement of labour. The party’s new spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer, expressed perfectly what is wrong with this approach: first it’s a negotiation, not a finished relationship; second, you start from the economics, not the migration issue.

Leaving the single market will be a macroeconomic disaster, compounded by a social catastrophe, in which all the European protections – of citizens’ rights, labour rights, consumer and environmental standards – will get ripped up. That’s why the Labour front bench must commit to staying inside the single market, while seeking a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market.

John McDonnell’s “red lines”, produced hurriedly in the days after Brexit, embody this principle – but not explicitly. McDonnell has said Labour would vote against any Brexit deal that did not involve some form of single-market access, and preserve the City’s passporting arrangement, where banks are authorised to trade across an entire area without having to be incorporated separately in each country. Freedom of movement is not included in the red lines.

May, meanwhile, insists there will be no parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating stance, or of the outcome. This position cannot stand, and overthrowing it provides a big, early target for Labour and the other opposition parties. They should use their constitutional influence – not only in Westminster but at Holyrood, Cardiff and the mayor-run cities, to bust open the Conservatives’ secrecy operation.

By declaring – formally, in a written pact – that they will refuse to ratify a Brexit deal based on World Trade Organisation tariffs, the progressive parties can destroy May’s negotiating position in Brussels overnight. Let the Conservative press accuse us of being “citizens of the world”, undermining the national interest. They will dig their own political grave even faster.

In parallel, Labour needs to lead – intellectually, morally and practically – the fight for a coherent, pro-globalist form of Brexit. In order for this to embody the spirit of the referendum, it would have to include some repatriation of sovereignty, as well as a significant, temporary retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left need to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.

In response, Labour needs to design a proposal that permits and encourages high beneficial migration, discourages and mitigates the impact of low-wage migration and – forgotten in the rush to “tinder box” rhetoric by the Blairites – puts refugees at the front of the queue, not the back. At its heart must be the assurance, already given to three million EU-born workers, that they will not be used as any kind of bargaining chip and their position here is inviolable.

Finally Labour needs to get real about Scotland. The recent loss of the council by-election in Garscadden, with a 20 per cent swing to the SNP, signals that the party risks losing Glasgow City Council next year.

It is a problem beyond Corbyn’s control: his key supporters inside Scottish Labour are long-standing and principled left-wing opponents of nationalism. Which would be fine if tens of thousands of left-wing social democrats were not enthused by a new, radical cultural narrative of national identity. Corbyn’s natural allies – the thousands of leftists who took part in the Radical Independence Campaign – are trapped outside the party, sitting inside the Scottish Greens, Rise or the left of the SNP.

The interim solution is for Scottish Labour to adopt the position argued by its deputy leader, Alex Rowley: embrace “home rule” – a rejigged devo-max proposal – and support a second independence referendum. Then throw open the doors to radical left-wing supporters of independence. If, for that to happen, there has to be a change of leadership (replacing Kezia Dugdale), then it’s better to do it before losing your last bastion in local government.

The speed with which Labour’s challenge has evolved is a signal that this is no ordinary situation. To understand how dangerous it would be to cling to the old logic, you have only to extrapolate the current polls into an electoral ground war plan. Sticking to the old rules, Labour HQ should – right now – be planning a defensive campaign to avoid losing 60 seats to May. Instead, it can and must lay a plan to promote her administration’s chaotic demise. It should have the ambition to govern – either on its own, or with the support of the SNP at Westminster.

To achieve this, it must confront the ultimate demon: Labour must show willing to make an alliance with the globalist section of the elite. Tony Blair’s equivocation about a return to politics, the constant noise about a new centrist party, and signs of a Lib Dem revival in local by-elections are all straws in the wind. If significant sections of the middle class decide they cannot live with Tory xenophobia, the liberal centre will revive.

The best thing for Labour to do now is to claim as much of the high ground before that. It must become the party of progressive Brexit. The worst thing would be to start worrying about “losing the traditional working class”.

The “traditional working class” knows all too well how virulent Ukip xenophobia is: Labour and trade union members spend hours at the pub and in the workplace and on the doorstep arguing against it.

All over Britain, the labour movement is a line, drawn through working-class communities, which says that migrants are not to blame for poor housing, education, low pay and dislocated communities. For the first time in a generation Labour has a leader prepared to say who is to blame: the neoliberal elite and their addiction to privatisation, austerity and low wages.

It was the elite’s insouciance over the negative impacts of EU migration on the lowest-skilled, together with their determination to suppress class politics inside Labour, that helped get us into this mess. An alliance with some of them, to achieve soft Brexit, democratic scrutiny and to defeat xenophobic solutions, must be conditional.

We, the labour movement, will dig the British ruling class out of a self-made hole, just as we did in May 1940. The price is: no return to the philosophy of poverty and inequality; a strategic new deal, one that puts state ownership, redistribution and social justice at the heart of post-Brexit consensus.

That is the way forward. If Labour politicians can bring themselves to explain it clearly, cajole the party apparatus out of its epic sulk and make a brave new offer to Scotland – it can work. But time is important. We are up against a corrosive nationalist bigotry that now echoes direct from the front page of the Daily Mail to Downing Street. Every day it goes unchallenged it will seep deeper into Britain’s political pores.

Paul Mason is the author of “PostCapitalism: a Guide to Our Future” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge