This month the Red Shed celebrates its 50th birthday. Chris Bond looks at the unlikely story of the Wakefield Labour Club and its continuing popularity.
AT just 47ft long and dwarfed by a pristine shopping centre next door, the Red Shed is one of Wakefield’s unlikeliest landmarks.
And yet this incongruous wooden shed, the colour of an overripe tomato that’s about to burst, has endured the slings and arrows of political fortune for decades and is not only still standing, but thriving.
The Red Shed, or Wakefield Labour Club to use its Sunday name, is bound up in the city’s recent history and later this month celebrates its 50th anniversary.
To mark the occasion writer Ian Clayton has been commissioned to produce a new book charting its story and in October the comedian Mark Thomas, a former Bretton Hall College student, is returning to the club where he first started out for what will no doubt be an entertaining and partisan evening.
It is a club with an intriguing story. The building itself is an old RAF hut that was bought by the Labour Party and opened in 1966.
Since then it has provided a home for the local Labour Party and Wakefield TUC attracting such notable speakers as Tony Benn, John Prescott and Vanessa Redgrave.
It wears its politics on its sleeve - the walls are adorned with a collection of the Shed’s marching banners and Miners’ Strike commemorative plates.
But this glorified Scout hut is far more than just a Socialist den. Its cosy atmosphere has made it a popular venue on the local music scene - one that has played host to such acclaimed folk musicians as Martin Simpson, Steve Tilston and Mike Harding over the years.
As Wakefield Labour Club secretary Richard Council points out the club is also used as a meeting place by an array of non-political organisations including a group for visually impaired people, the Wakefield branch of Camra, a local folk music group and a bicycle enthusiasts club.
The Red Shed provides a home for anyone as long as they are sympathetic to the trade union movement. “Over the years we’ve been a home to all kinds of different groups and organisations. It’s important that people see us as part of the community and it’s something we feel very strongly about,” says Richard.
The club was an important refuge during the 1984 Miners’ Strike, running a soup kitchen and providing much needed food parcels at a time when the miners and their families needed all the help they could get.
More recently it has been included on Wakefield’s tourism map as a music venue and real ale pub with people from as far away as Belgium and France to sup the beer and soak up the atmosphere.
He’s proud, too, of the fact that the club has helped give local musicians a bit of a leg up. “We’re a home for young bands that want to come along and play. We don’t charge them and they get to keep any ticket money.”
Richard has been a club member for the past 34 years during which time he’s seen some of Labour’s best known, and most controversial, figures come to the Red Shed.
“We’ve had people like Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner. I never got to hear Dennis Skinner because we had to patrol the car park. We’d been tipped off that some hooligans might turn up and cause trouble, but they never did. It was packed inside and we had speakers on so people outside could hear it in the car park,” he says.
“I remember coming here in muddy boots to listen to Bruce Kent from CND speak back in the ‘80s. We’ve certainly had some great speakers here over the years.”
Another high point was Tony Blair’s landslide General Election victory in 1997. “That’s my favourite memory, coming into the club and being victorious. It was light when I left and it felt like a new dawn. It didn’t quite work out like that but it was still an unforgettable night.”
The politics at the Red Shed is, as you would expect, left-leaning. But you don’t have to be a member to pop in for a pint, or to watch a gig and you’re not expected to stand up and sing The Red Flag.
“It’s a place for political discussion and debate, and sometimes heated debate, but where people walk away as friends afterwards,” says Richard.
Given the turmoil within the Labour Party and the fact that a growing number of people are using social media as a platform to voice their political views, you might think a club like this would be on the wane.
But not so says Richard. “In terms of people coming in and interest in the place we’re having our best ever year.”
The club now has 535 members - the highest number in its history - and shows no sign fading away. “It’s not doing badly for a wooden shed,” he says. “I think we’re more relevant now than ever before. Politics is becoming increasingly polarised. It used to be all about the middle ground but people are taking sides in the political debate now and they are standing up for what they believe in.”
At a time when many traditional working men’s clubs are putting up the steel curtains and going to the wall, the Red Shed is a bright (quite literally) example of how clubs can still be at the heart of their local communities.
“There’s a magic about the place and that comes from the people who have walked through the doors over the years. There’s a history about it too. The history of the club is the history of Wakefield and beyond.”
Ian Clayton has been a member for the past 18 years but first went to the club back in the 1980s. “I have vague memories of coming here during the Miners’ Strike but I didn’t start coming here properly until the 90s.”
He believes its appeal goes far beyond politics. “You get a wide cross section of society and there’s always somebody in there who’s interesting to talk to.
“If you want a plumber or an electrician you ask around in your local pub. But here you’ll find people who can help with discrimination claims against employers, or who know how to get petitions started. There are people who know things.”
As well as its incongruous setting and the fact it’s a painted shed, there’s an ethos that also sets it apart from other clubs.
“There’s a poster on the wall of the lobby as you walk in that says ‘Refugees Welcome Here.’ I think that’s wonderful, you wouldn’t see that in most pubs,” he says.
Clayton, who will be speaking to stalwarts about their memories for his new book, says clubs like this still have a place in the world.
“It’s important because of its incongruity and the fact it never lost its purpose or its place. Things like that matter.
“We’re constantly trying to cling on to things and searching for something from the past but when we go looking for them they aren’t there. But the Red Shed is still there.”
And long may that be the case.
The Red Shed – a potted history
Officially opened in September 1966, the Wakefield Labour Club wasn’t always red – originally it was black with a red door.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the club’s committee thought it would be more appropriate if the building were red. Following the subsequent makeover, the colour, and the name, stuck.
As well as being a base for local Labour activists it is a meeting place and social club.
It has three staff who work there and is run by a committee of 15 members – all of whom are volunteers.
Since the early ‘90s the Red Shed has run open mic nights that are still going strong today, with people coming from as far away as Scotland and the Midlands to join in.