Casting one’s mind back to the period immediately following the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1979, it is not always easy to remember how much optimism there was on the left of the labour and trade union movement. While it was certainly true that debate about the nature of Thatcherism and discussion of Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’ in Marxism Today challenged traditional thinking about prospects for socialism, many on the left believed that a new wave of trade union militancy and the election of Tony Benn to the deputy leadership of the Labour party would signal political advance.
The period was also characterised by a growing willingness to link political rallies with wider cultural events, aiming to draw in new constituencies of support with the message that socialism could be fun as well as serious. The formation of Rock against Racism in 1976, the People’s Jubilee organised by the Communist Party at Alexandra Palace in 1977 and a host of smaller events all made for a vibrant and energetic scene, which, although still very much on the margins of mainstream politics, did have potential for the left in its vibrancy and sense of renewal.
In a minor way, both of these factors were at work in the event to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the Peasants’ Revolt on Blackheath, in south-east London, on May 4, 1981. That the common land at Blackheath had been a resting point for those marching from Kent to London in 1381 was of significance for a group of historically-minded labour activists who came together at the end of 1980 to mark the anniversary. Composed principally of representatives from constituency Labour parties with others from the Lewisham and Deptford Trades Council, the Communist Party, the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society and the Albany Community Centre in Deptford, the self-styled 1381 Committee organised an event that mixed socialist politics with fun and entertainment.
In the week before the event on Blackheath some background to the Peasants’ Revolt had been provided in a lecture by Professor Rodney Hilton, eminent mediaeval historian and socialist. The event was fittingly held in the Church of the Ascension on the Heath, where the words of peasant leader John Ball ‘Fellowship is life and lack of fellowship is death’ greets those entering the building. It was hosted by Canon Paul Oestreicher, himself a veteran of progressive causes. Both men said they were proud to be commemorating the anniversary, and that the labour movement was the force behind it.
Oestreicher spoke at the rally on the Heath along with Tony Benn, Jack Straw (from memory invited only because of his namesake’s role in 1381), Joan Maynard, and Alan Fisher, general secretary of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) whose national office was nearby. Fisher, whose union had only recently emerged from a major industrial dispute over low pay, treated the audience to a tongue-in-cheek but meaningful historical parallel, claiming that if Wat Tyler had been alive today he would have been a member of NUPE. Among the conditions he was protesting about was the Statute of Labourers, nothing less than the first pay freeze. NUPE’s support for the event was significant and had much to do with the role of its assistant general secretary, Bernard Dix, whose lively mind was the inspiration behind the lapel badge that brilliantly captured the mood of the event and sold out in the first hour.
In 1981 Stephen Williams was working for the National Union of Public Employees as education officer. He represented the Lewisham and Deptford Trades Council on the 1381 Committee. Working with Bernard Dix he published the first volume of NUPE history, Serving the Public – Building the Union, in 1987. A second and concluding volume, Leadership and Democracy, co-authored with Prof Bob Fryer, was published in 2011. Williams and Fryer also wrote an entry on the life and work of Bernard Dix for volume 13 of the Dictionary of Labour Biography. Williams worked for NUPE and UNISON until his retirement when he began researching and publishing on William Morris and Socialist League.