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Socialist Republic is a detailed account of left-wing politics in 1980s Britain. The 1980s is considered a time of crisis for left-wing politics but this book demonstrates the persistence of social democracy in localities like Sheffield. Drawing on archival research and oral history interviews it examines how Sheffield City Council developed a left-wing agenda to counter Thatcherism and renew the British left. Stepping back from the Council, it then explores how the city’s wider activism of the labour movement, women’s groups, peace, environmentalism, anti-apartheid, anti-racism, Black community organising, and lesbian and gay politics interacted with the ‘Socialist Republic’, and how these movements were embraced, supported, restricted, or ignored by the local authority. By bringing a wide range of movements together and examining them in the context of a vibrant local government, this book uses the local to offer a methodological challenge to the study of new social movements while providing a road map for how left-wing politics can be studied in other cities. Offering a timely focus on regional politics, it demonstrates how histories of local political cultures can enrich our understanding of political developments on a national and international level.
In the 1980s, Sheffield became known as the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire.’ Underlying this radical reputation was a push for community-led activism and a City Council that attempted to answer to the community. But who this community included was up for debate among councillors and activists, as was the notion of Sheffield as a radical city. This chapter traces City Council-leader David Blunkett’s ideas on paper and in practice and how these were met by Sheffield’s activists. It shows that behind the rhetoric of radicalism, Sheffield’s politics was centred on more traditional notions of working-class community than the radical tendencies of the new urban left and the revolutionary left.
This chapter uses peace and environmentalism, and the anti-apartheid movement and anti-racism, as paired case studies to demonstrate how activists negotiated points of solidarity within new social movements, single-issue and racial politics. Using oral histories and archival sources, it traces the intersections and boundaries of these four movements to show how Sheffield’s politics functioned, and how the local standing of each movement had a significance that went beyond the national organisation. Whilst there was a crossover of personnel, mutual support from differing organisations, and often a shared soundtrack of protest (through the Celebrated Sheffield Street Band and the Sheffield Socialist Choir), each movement, and each organisation within each movement, had its own priorities. Often activists could not see beyond their own demands, and so, at a local level, the fusion of old and new social movements promoted by the new urban left often broke down.
This chapter explores Sheffield City Council’s policies in the late 1970s and 1980s and the ideology behind them. It examines the ideal of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ as imagined by David Blunkett and others on Sheffield City Council, showing how policy was influenced by new urban left thinkers and left-wingers working in local governments elsewhere in Britain to come up with a workable alternative to Thatcherism. Highlighting four key policies – the development of nuclear-free zones, the protection of cheap bus fares, the Community Work Apprenticeship Scheme and the campaign against ‘Right to Buy’ sales of social housing – it explains how Sheffield’s ‘local socialism’ took on a local character, addressing issues seen as being specific to the city and surrounding area, whilst also speaking to national debates and incorporating themes explored elsewhere in the British left.
Lesbian and gay activists in Sheffield often organised in ways distinct from the wider activist milieu. This chapter explores how, against a backdrop of rising homophobia and constraints to local government funding, Sheffield’s labour movement failed to recognise the political significance of sexual identity at a moment when left-wing lesbian and gay activists were turning more fully towards it; focusing on creating safe social spaces, providing counselling and information around sexuality and gender identity, and responding to HIV/AIDS. The development of gay discos and phone lines was inherently political and in those spaces Sheffield’s gay community was formed. By the late 1980s Sheffield University’s Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Society became an important voice for sexual minority rights in the city; working out internal divisions and making attempts to connect to people outside Sheffield’s universities. Members formed Lesbian and Gay Fightback to organise against homophobic legislation and succeeded in building bridges with Sheffield City Council over fostering.
This chapter explores how the labour movement in Sheffield changed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It details how the close relationship between the trade unions and Labour Party developed over decades within political partnerships, kinship networks and shared sites of adult education, before showing how mass unemployment in the early 1980s rocked that solid base. The rapid decline of the steel industry in Sheffield, followed by the threat of pit closures in the surrounding coalfields, produced new challenges for Sheffield’s labour movement, leading to new priorities and collaborations with religious groups, Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic organisations and unemployment centres. The chapter explores how the 1981 People’s March for Jobs and the 1984–85 miners’ strike successfully mobilised activists from all corners of the new urban left, but argues that the exclusion of some activists from these campaigns and from networks of reciprocal support demonstrated the early limits of new urban left politics in a city dominated by the labour movement.
This chapter explores how the women’s liberation movement (WLM) in Sheffield struggled to incorporate issues of sexuality and ‘race’ into its politics. It uses oral history interviews alongside the women’s press to unpick some of the archival silences surrounding lesbianism in the movement. Building on the previous chapter it shows how Sheffield’s WLM gradually developed a more radical feminism as socialist feminists turned their attention towards the Working Women’s Charter Committee (WWCC), and that lesbian and bisexual women increasingly shaped the movement from the early 1980s. Like the national WLM, Sheffield’s WLM and WWCC struggled to include and recognise women of colour in their feminism. Instead, Black and racially minoritised women tended to fight for gender equality within Black community politics and within campaigns against racism. This chapter explores attempts by Sheffield WLM and the WWCC to include women of colour, before tracing the development of two Black women’s groups; Sheffield Black Women’s Group (BWG) and the Black Women’s Resource Centre (BWRC) and their relationship with Sheffield WLM. It will also examine South Asian women’s groups in the city, paying particular attention to the Bengali Women’s Support Group and the role of women in the Asian Youth Movement. The propensity for women of colour and lesbian women to organise separately highlights the problems broader left-wing movements had with incorporating diverse voices and representing difference.
This chapter introduces the main themes and structure of the book. It offers an overview of the ‘crisis of the left’ in 1980s Britain and explores the strands of ‘renewal’ that were discussed by activists and political theorists, including the development of the new urban left. It provides historical context to Sheffield’s 1980s politics, exploring Sheffield’s social and political background across the twentieth century. It details the city’s industrial makeup, the development of its labour movement and the way local activists responded to different facets of radical politics such as the women’s suffrage movement, Mass Trespass, peace and internationalism. It situates the book in new political history and new social movement theory and details the methodological approaches used including semi-structured oral histories.
This chapter maps out women’s politics in the ‘Socialist Republic’, paying attention to class and generation. It tracks the involvement of women in the labour movement and their representation on Sheffield City Council, before describing how they developed and engaged with campaigns for gender equality. It discusses how working-class women interacted with the women’s liberation movement (WLM) through their engagement with left-wing organising, and uses oral history interviews to explore some of their attitudes towards women’s liberation activists and their ideas. Using the newsletter of the labour movement’s Working Women’s Charter Committee (WWCC) and interviews with prominent members the chapter depicts the vibrancy of campaigns for gender equality within the labour movement. In the early 1980s the socialist feminist contingent of Sheffield’s WLM shifted their focus from bemoaning the lack of engagement with working-class women in the WLM to working within the labour movement on gender equality through the WWCC. Whilst the older generation of working-class women who founded the WWCC generally welcomed the enthusiasm of younger socialist feminists and incorporated their ideas, the chapter also details the points of tension which emerged between women of different generations and class backgrounds as they worked together.
Detailing Sheffield’s campaign against rate-capping and what happened when the campaign collapsed, this chapter offers some conclusions on the new urban left project of local socialism. It suggests that, although the fusion of class and identity politics was not always successful, the new urban left was by no means a failure. In Sheffield’s short-lived ‘Socialist Republic’ activists achieved a remarkable amount, some with financial provision and some emboldened by a local culture of general support for left-wing causes. Social democracy persisted. This concluding chapter argues that, to properly understand the left in Britain, we need to look locally to explore new roads to renewal.