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Bill Watson and Eccles Communists
Bill Watson joined the Communist Party in 1965, after a chance encounter with a Communist at a construction site in Wolverhampton. He had been working as a bricklayer for six years and after witnessing the exploitation on building sites and how his parents had suffered at work, Bill immediately joined the party. He went on to become a leading member of the Eccles branch, campaigning against Thatcher’s policy to end school milk, to save the last local cinema as well as various issues such as Northern Ireland, Unemployment and Anti-apartheid.
Bill Watson was born in Irlam in 1944 to a working-class family. His father worked as a bricklayer and his mother worked on a farm as well as in munitions factories during the Second World War. Despite the lack of active political involvement in his family, his personal experiences of work and seeing his family struggle did influence Bill’s political awakening.
“My father slogged his guts out for 50 years to enrich other people and all he got out of it is bronchitis. My mother worked on a farm; the farmer drives a big car, my mother’s got rheumatoid arthritis.” Bill also remembers that since his teens, he’d always thought that socialism and communism was a great idea but believed that human selfishness would prevent its realisation. This all changed after a meeting with the Communist party when when he was 21…
“It was as if the curtains were opened and this thing about nature was a load of baloney really. Human beings are capable of being everything from terribly evil to wonderfully good, depending on the environment that they live in and how they react to it.” The meeting profoundly affected Bill, who states that he learnt to look at society in a new way and acknowledge that change was possible. “We as humans have changed so much already, we weren’t set in stone.” He moved back to Irlam and got involved with the Eccles Communist party the same year. Bill was also greatly influenced by two books he read at the time: Robert Tressell’s ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ and Engels’ ‘Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’.
School milk and the last cinema
The Communist Party in Eccles was not a particularly large branch – it only had around 80 members – yet they were very active and campaigned on various local issues. One of the memorable campaigns was against Margaret Thatcher’s policy to end school milk during her time as Education Secretary in 1971. “There was a major campaign over that in Eccles. We had hundreds of school parents outside school gates with placards.” Whilst they failed to change the policy, Bill states it was an example of the party leading a campaign without actually doing in its own name, as they wanted as many different people to get involved and to just win on the issue.
Another campaign led by the party was against the proposal to shut down a local cinema in 1974. “Eccles used to have three big cinemas and this was eventually reduced to one, which was the Broadway cinema, and the proposal was to turn this into a bingo hall. We thought it was a terrible idea.” Locals were also worried that the loss of the cinema would be detrimental to the youth, who already had very limited facilities. The campaign gathered significant support with local people, who expressed their concerns to the council and Labrokes’ company which was suggesting the bingo hall. The campaign was successful in the earlier stages but it went to tribunal and they lost the cinema in the end. Even so, the 1980s saw the rise of unemployment as a major issue in Eccles and the party would play an important role in tackling it.
Working together to tackle Unemployment
Local workers staged strikes against redundancies in local factories such as Gardener, which made diesel engines, and the Eccles communists worked hard doing things like food collections to support them. They also set up an important organisation known as ‘Eccles Community Campaign Against Unemployment’ (ECCAU), working alongside local clergymen, labour supporters and Salford’s trade council. “We would always try to work on as broad a basis as possible because that’s the way that we saw politics as developing- people working together instead of in isolation with groups fighting each other.”
ECCAU campaigned against unemployment and sought practical ways to resolve it by setting up the Salford Unemployment Centre. “We approached the council and for asked for the centre, and after a lot of campaigning and hard work (which included the Labour councillors too), we got the building and some funding.” The management team reflected the role the communists had played and it was composed entirely of ECCAU members apart from a few council personnel. “I think that they were just there to keep an eye on us and make sure that we didn’t do anything stupid, which we wouldn’t anyway!” Bill speculated. There was also a people’s march for jobs which ran the whole length of the country and came through Eccles and Salford and was supported by the Eccles Communists.
Support also came from unexpected places such as Salford’s Conservative Mayor, Tom Francis. “It was the same on issues like race- there were people in the Tory party that were good on race and there were people in the Labour party that were awful on race. There were even people in the Communist Party that were awful on race.” Watson was influenced at a young age by his father’s hod-carrier (a worker who carries bricks to the bricklayer) Billy Taylor, who was Afro-Caribbean, and he went on to campaign against Apartheid and cycled from Manchester to London to raise money for the ANC after Mandela was released in 1990.
Northern Ireland and meeting Special Branch
Bill Watson and with his wife, Sheila, were also heavily involved in the Northern Ireland issue and Sheila even visited Long Kesh internment camp for Republican prisoners on behalf of the Eccles Communists. The following was published in their branch newsletter ‘Red Rag’ on April 1974, describing her time there:
“There was barbed wire and fences and soldiers and guns everywhere. We went into another hut where we were searched. They took my driving license. Then through another door and we waited until our names were called. I visited the husband of the girl I was staying with. He had served three years of a 12 years sentence. The morale was great- they weren’t miserable or anything. He kept talking about when he was out and getting things done but I just couldn’t believe the type of place he was in. Long huts. You know, just like concentration camps in films. Grey and miserable.”
A meeting was also organised by the National Council of Civil Liberties (now Liberty) on Northern Ireland at which Edwina Stewart, of Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights Association, was invited to speak. Bill, along with Bert Cottam, went to pick her up from Manchester airport to find that she had been escorted by Special Branch, straight off her plane. “Burt and I started asking questions and we both got arrested. I managed to make a phone call that Edwina had been lifted from the plane, I think it was to David Lancaster, one of the councillors here, and then they asked for our names.” Bill initially refused to give his name, but was then threatened with a week’s jail and so he cooperated to avoid imprisonment. Edwina was also later released, although the meeting she attended was viciously attacked by the Ulster Defence Force (an extreme, right-wing protestant group with links with the BNP).
“I saw them pick up chairs and just batter old people to the floor with them,” says Bill. “They had been posted round the audience and there must have been a signal, as at some point they all stood up and started battering people. It was all over in a minute and then off they went.” The UDF had sent in coaches from Liverpool and on their way back, they were stopped by the police but no-one was arrested. Students from UMIST, who had hosted the meeting, took out a private prosecution against some of the attackers, which were successful and resulted in prison sentences.
The beginning of the end
Following the collapse of communism in Russia in the early nineties, the Communist party in Britain disintegrated into smaller parties such as the ‘Democratic Left’ and the Communist Party of Britain (as opposed to the Communist Party of Great Britain). Today, both carry very little influence in mainstream politics and many other members joined the Labour party. Eccles Communist party met a similar fate because, as Bill points out, the political culture where people sign up to a party just doesn’t exist anymore. Although many of the campaigns that Bill worked on were unsuccessfully and the party collapsed, he says he has absolutely no regrets. “I absolutely loved it. I learnt a lot during my time with the party and I really hope that it benefited people in some way.”