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John Lawson


How I became a community activist, 1980s

Colour photograph of the upper profile of John Lawson holding a mug of tea.
John Lawson © Carl Rose


John Lawson worked in the steel industry for many years. During that time he learnt a lot about health and safety legislation and campaigned as a trade union official to make sure his employers upheld the law.

"When I got made redundant the second time, it was because I'd got this history of political activity and commitment to working class people and activism. Sheffield City Council and David Blunkett, God bless his heart, and Clive Betts and Co, who were supposed to be forerunners of Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire at that time, they actually ran a scheme called 'Community Work Apprenticeship Scheme'. That started in '82 and they offered working class activists a second chance at education. You could get a national qualification in youth and community work. It was a nice coincidence because I got made redundant in February '86 and the course started in September '86.

So I had six months out of work but and I applied for and got a place on this Community Work Apprenticeship Scheme. In 1989 I qualified as a nationally certificated youth and community worker which was, for me, just an absolutely brilliant opportunity. And they paid you a reasonable wage while you were doing it. So I became a paid agitator when I'd completed the Community Work Apprenticeship Scheme. It was a good course because it polished me up more in terms of my political understanding. As a community worker you could take one of three choices; you could be a philanthropic worker where you could adopt the role of doing things for people; you could have the liberal line where you would campaign - I mean I'm not knocking this - for better lunch club provision, better street lighting, cleaner pavements, less dog shit, relevant stuff. Or you could take a Marxist perspective and challenge the state. I think it was when William Waldegrave was Minister and the Tories proposed to sell off huge chunks of better houses on Parson Cross, Longley and Southey. It was clearly against law to be a paid political activist stirring shit up. So we went around 'educating' people within Parson Cross and Longley, all that estate we leafleted, we put on radical plays about the impact that the Housing Bill would have. We set up little, sort of, picketing teams to chase William Waldegrave and Co when they came to visit. And it was brilliant!

But it were also extremely effective in getting local tenants involved. We had hundreds of people involved in the campaign. Of course what was coming after that was the Poll Tax. So we shifted from a HOMES campaign to a Parson Cross Against the Poll Tax, a Southey Against the Poll Tax. And of course, living in Burngreave, I think we set up Pitsmoor Against the Poll Tax and I think we were among the first in the country to set those groups up and that did radicalise people."

Extract from an interview with John Lawson recorded by Stuart Crosthwaite for the Burngreave Voices oral history archive, January 2006