The photograph was taken on a bitter cold morning at the Direct Works Department, Sandwell Road. It shows Councillor John Edwards addressing workers who are occupying the West Bromwich Depot during a dispute over the sacking of their shop steward George Hickman.
“When Sandwell came into being there was a lot going on politically, that’s for sure. Lots of activity. The National Front, as it was then, were active in borough, the coal strike was building at that point, the direct labour organisation in the borough was being attacked by the Conservative party and after that, I have to say, the right wing of the then local Labour group, who thought the private sector could do contracts better that the people who worked in our own Public Works Department. There was always some activity to counteract as well the positives we were trying to encourage in community development. It was a lively place to be.
I was asked to sit on their board, a member of the governance they had at Jubilee, which was fairly loose. It was designed to represent the communities they worked with, those who funded them, as well as activists in the borough who had something to say and something to contribute. I happy to do so because there were a lot of people relying on practical support around banner-making, activities to help inform, leaflets, publicity, all the rest of it. They were very much a street organisation and that very much suited my politics.
A lot of activism was fairly spontananeous. It was easier to engage people in political activity and street activity, direct politics if you like. We did that fairly easily – anti-rent increase demonstrations, school dinner staff protests that were going on and so on. We would campaign and agitate over a whole range of issues.
In response to the presence of racists and fascists in the borough we created SCARF, the Sandwell Committee Against Racism and Fascism; that took off and became a powerful movement in Sandwell, one that could which could generate three to four hundred people on the street when we needed to. I remember the time we surrounded a public meeting the NF were holding in Cronehills school in West Bromwich. The place was literally surrounded by local people, who saw it as an affront to their school and their community and wanted to do something about it and were prepared to come out and do something.
Were they golden days that have been overtaken by protests on Twitter? Maybe they have but I’m not sure it quite has the impact, that street presence that demonstrations used to have. Clearly a lot of issues are not even decided locally anymore, so it takes away a lot of local choices anyway and therefore lots of interests, activity and campaigning where they may have applied before.”
John Edwards sat on the board of Jubilee Arts for several years. A former firefighter, he is Chair of West Midlands Fire & Rescue Authority. He has been a Sandwell Labour Councillor for 38 years, representing the Greets Green And Lyng ward, where Jubilee Arts had their first base. His Twitter profile reads: ‘Allergic to bigots. Socialist. Speaking personally.’ The megaphone he is using in the photograph may or may not have come from the cupboard at Jubilee.