Tom Watson says goodbye to Walworth Rd

So “Walworth Road”, one of Labour’s triumvirate of famous headquarters, is to be converted into a hostel for London’s visiting back packers. The planning permission was approved last week. Where once journeying ideologues stomped their feet, hedonistic global consumers will now rest their heads.

Little do those weary wanderlusters know what history they will be inhaling as they bunk up for the night. Backpackers should take comfort that many political journeys have started and spectacularly ended in that great building.

Labour’s rose took root in Walworth Road. And the party’s long and jagged march with the command economy ended there on the day that new Labour took its first tentative steps towards Millbank glory.

Political movements and ideas reached their terminus in the tiny roof conversion that doubled as a boardroom. The Militant tendency was filleted in that building. The decision to close the New Socialist magazine was taken there – a brutal response to the editorial team defiantly calling for tactical voting shortly before the 1987 election. And the longest suicide note in history – our 1983 manifesto – was drafted there.

The Walworth Road I first entered in 1984 was very much like a hostel. You were met at the front door by two striking miners and their table full of Davey lamps and buckets of shrapnel. A huge imposing portrait of Clem stared beneficently down at you in the foyer, as you fumbled with the intercom to persuade Lesley, the grand dame of the reception and secret Conservative voter, to let you enter the main building. The famous, the powerful and the pompous could be left in that little room for an eternity if they crossed her. My God, I admired Lesley.

People were billeted in tiny offices in a minotaur’s lair of a building. Smoking was not just permitted, it seemed a pre-requisite. It wasn’t uncommon for people to return inebriated from the local pub, The Tankard, and sleep off the effect of strong Bass Ale during long afternoons before evening opening time.

It took Larry Whitty, appointed general secretary in 1985, three years to sort it out. He did this by changing half the workforce and completely re-organising head office structures – harder than it looked given that Neil Kinnock could not rely on a majority on Labour’s national executive committee. These were the days of Eric Heffer and Tony Benn. They made the case that the Militant tendency was a composition of independent minded socialists who were being persecuted because of their beliefs. Persecuted? Of course they were persecuted. They wanted to nationalise the top 200 companies for heaven’s sake.

By 1987, the millies were on their way out, but not quickly enough to make much of an improvement in our electoral fortunes. I still vividly remember holding back tears when Neil Kinnock arrived to meet his defeated troops on the Friday morning after the 1987 general election. Somewhere in a TV library is the footage of him waving from the steps of Walworth Road, with me, a half-blubbing, mullet-haired 20-year old standing on his shoulder.

Larry Adler played the Red Flag on his harmonica in that building. Ben Elton made us laugh there. And John Prescott infamously refused to sing the Red Flag with us at one of our Christmas parties.

Bill Owen – Compo out of Last of the summer wine – spent many hours supporting “arts for Labour” in Walworth Road. And the other Bill, the legendary Billy Bragg, became an icon to thousands from the tiny room that briefly housed Red Wedge. It was valiantly run by Paul Bower, Anna Joy David and a young Phil Jupitus – who gave me a Housemartins badge by the photocopying machine in the library.

Years later, the same room that housed the troubadours of Red Wedge became a temporary shrine to John Smith, as thousands came to pay their respects after his sudden death in 1994. It’s a day I will never forget and if you believe in such things, neither will the building.

It’s also the place where, for the first and only time in my life, I went on strike. I can’t remember the reason now but it would have been over job cuts and wages freezes. I remember Dennis Skinner being in a liverish mood with us all, his sense of decency being pulled in all sort of conflicting directions.

150 Walworth Road was the physical embodiment of our past.  And now it is finally gone. And with it much joy and love and, above all, hope. But also things we don’t want anymore. The romance of defeat lived large in those dank and dusty halls. In all the years that it served as an HQ, we never won a general election.

For a young socialist in the 1980s, it felt like working at the centre of the world. In truth, it was more like the edge of the universe. And the end of an era. In the internet age, nobody knows your address. I hope there is at least a little plaque.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.


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4 Responses to “Tom Watson says goodbye to Walworth Rd”

  1. Julie Minns says:

    The wonderful Lesley! She was so kind to us poor Labour Students (and we were poor, no salary for the national officers in those days).
    Smoking in the stairwells. Christmas parties in the Boardroom. The library staffed by Iain Watson.
    Vicky and Sally admonishing we NOLs officers for letting food go off in the fridge and infesting the office with flies.
    Joyce Gould – such a strength.
    Me, the Arts for Labour Office and Barry Cryer in a taxi.
    Crying on the steps in ’92 as Kinnock conceded. Then packing up the minibus the next day in the car park with the building deserted but for Larry and Matt Tee and heading to Blackpool for NUS conference.
    The bagel shop – god bagels were exotic back then. Pizzeria Costello.
    Lots of memories, lots of friends.

  2. Bob Piper says:

    The only time I went in to the building was when I was on strike – invited in by JP who was trying to get us to call off the strike to avoid embarrassing New Labour by striking against a Labour council!

  3. james says:

    “Of course they were persecuted. They wanted to nationalise the top 200 companies for heaven’s sake.”

    I thought the grounds were not on policy but because Militant was a party within a party rather than “independent socialists”?

  4. I think the last time I visited Walworth Road was actually to see Tom, when I was still young enough to be in Young Labour (although only just, I think I was only eligible for less than a year) and he was still youth officer.

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