Sadly just over six years ago the last of Leicester’s major shoe factories, Equity Shoes, went into liquidation. This factory however was no normal business outlet, as for over a hundred years Equity played a central part in the history of the workers’ co-operative movement.
Leicester Manufacturing Boot and Shoe Society, known locally as the ‘Equity’ began production in 1887 and was closed down in 2009. As Bill Lancaster observed in his excellent history of the evolution of radical politics in late nineteenth century Leicester:
“What made Equity unique in Leicester was the fact that it came close to realising the ideal of a ‘brotherhood of workers’, a point which brought grudging admiration even from [Fabian socialist] Beatrice Webb. All the workers were shareholding members and outside investors were only allowed one third of the fifteen seats on the management committee. The start-up capital consisted of £380, £100 coming from the local [National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives] branch, the remainder from the workers…
“Profits were divided by the following formula: 5% to share capital; 40% to workers; 20% to customers; 12% to the committee; 10% each to a provident fund and to share capital; 5% to a social and education fund, and 3% to remunerate members for special services. Profits averaged out over the first ten years of Equity’s existence were over £10,000 per annum and with such an apparently secure base the members embarked on a grandiose community building project.” (p.292)
Leicester’s most famous suffragette, Alice Hawkins, was among the initial workers employed by Equity Shoes as a shoe machinist; work that was immortalized when Sylvia Pankhurst sketched Alice and her fellow workers during a visit during the summer of 1907 (a piece of art now kept at New Walk museum).
The Labour Party of which Hawkins played an important part in forming seems barely recognizable today. What one might ask would Hawkins have thought about local pro-big business Labour MP Patricia Hewitt being asked to write a foreword for her 2007 biography Alice Hawkins and the Suffragette Movement in Edwardian Leicester? Hewitt remained the MP for Leicester West until 2010 when she passed on the mantle to her right-wing successor Liz Kendall.
It is perhaps fitting that between 2008 and 2014 Hewitt served as a member of the board of directors of the privatised telecommunications giant BT Group under the chairmanship of the current president of the current president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Sir Michael Rake. This being the same man who conducted the now famous interview with Liz Kendall earlier this week, during which Kendall attacked the socialist Syriza government in Greece as being “extremists” engaged in “fantasy politics.”
One might also wonder what Hawkins would make of long-standing Leicester Labour Councillor Bill Shelton (Saffron ward): especially given the fact that he worked in the Leicester shoe industry for most of his life, eventually being elected as branch secretary of the National Union of Footwear, Leather and Allied Trades in 1986 (this being a successor union to the original National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives).
Speculations on Hawkins’ potential views on Shelton are all the more relevant because just last month he became the chairman of Leicester City Council’s planning committee which is currently deliberating about a controversial move to build yet more high-rise student housing (14 storeys high) next to the former Equity factory.
This decision will be particularly important given that Councillor Patrick Kitterick, as chairman of the planning committee, had helped approve the huge student flats complex on the site of Equity factory, a development which had been actively opposed by local residents at the time.
Reminiscing about this earlier action in 2013, Kitterick “expressed his ‘profound regret’” at having given the go-ahead to Jamie Lewis Residential Ltd’s Code buildings. At the time the Leicester Mercury reported how:
“Coun Kitterick spoke out at a planning meeting last week while his committee debated a proposal to put large adverts on the side of the buildings. He said he now realised the buildings – up to eight storeys high and housing nearly 600 students – were too big, as protesters claimed at the time. He told the committee: ‘The application for these buildings came before this committee and I must extend my profound regret to residents in the area that I chaired the committee which approved these buildings. I can honestly say I personally believe I was wrong in that instance. They are too high and if I had my time again and saw them before they were built, I would certainly look at them being cloaked.’”
For more information about the rapidly growing protest group surrounding the ongoing developments around the Equity site — which managed to mobilise more than 50 people to attend their initial meeting — sign-up to their facebook page, and make sure you sign their online petition here https://www.change.org/p/leicester-city-council-refuse-planning-permission-to-code-student-accommodation-over-5-and-14-storey-building-development