Interview with Ken Skethaway

Project: ‘T Dan Smith: A funny thing happened on the way to Utopia’

Brief Description: Uncut interview with Ken Skethaway [one-time political associate of Smith]

Notes: interviewers Steve Trafford and Murray Martin, camera Peter Roberts

 

0 Ken was born 1920, in Newcastle, from a Labour/Presbyterian family. He left school at 15½ and served time as a heating engineer. First political engagement was 1938 in the Peace Pledge Union which also got him into contact with the ILP.

 

4 He’d known Dan Smith before the war and was influenced by him, among others.  Although a conscientious objector he was conscripted to work as a ‘Bevin boy’ in the pits. He found a good deal of sympathy for the anti-war position in the pit villages

 

  1. 40 the group was Ken, Dan, Jack Johnson, Alec Gold, Herbie Bell and Jack Raulin. He was involved in supporting the Aprentice Boys strike – they struck against being called up meaning they’d not complete their training.

 

14 As the war was ending, the ILP lost its relevance, its anti-war stance was its distinctive feature. He was expelled along with Dan and Jack Johnson for being more radical, they were Marxists

 

19 Explains Trotskyism, describes their awkward relationship with the Communist Party during the war

 

25 Dan had been a leadership figure in the ILP. After explusion they joined the RCP [Revolutionary Communist Party] as the only available option

 

28 In the 1945 election they supported Labour. Labour victory had not been expected. They recognised the LP was now the only focus for working class activity and disbanded the RCP in 1949. Some members had joined Labour earlier – Gerry Healy’s group in 1945, Dan in 1947. Ken waited until 1949

 

34 Ken joined Walkergate LP and was soon branch secretary and member of the City Party. His group did not need separate meetings as they were all members of the LP GMC and executive

 

37 In mid 1950’s they were gaining power. Evolved the idea of municipal socialism is practice rather than theoretically

 

42 Their aim became to change the physical environment of the working class as part of a bigger process of social change. The practical activity gradually got separated from the broader political objective

 

45 Labour lost the 1951 election because it didn’t move forward its political agenda. Locally they had battles in the labour group as they displaced the old guard who had no new ideas

 

49 Ken went on the Council in 1956, they got a majority in 1957. As a group they had developed ideas on housing, leisure, health that they could implement when they got power.

 

52 Housing was the most important issue and Dan was the driving force. Main concern to get rid of slums, they had to build on greenfield sites at Longbenton and Kenton to house the overspill. Funding came from central government grants and the rates

 

57 Newcastle’s programme was different from other cities because it had a 10 year programme. They realised they had to deal with the whole environment, not just build houses, the idea of planning a city as a whole emerged. Ken saw himself as assistant to Dan. They made some major mistakes, eg building multi-story car parks in centre rather than periphery

 

62 Asked if they had not wrecked a beautiful Victorian city, putting motorway through it etc, Ken agrees that in retrospect they did not know what they were doing. The 1962 plan (Eldon Square etc) became a pure planning exercise without thought for consequences. Pressed on why avowed socialists had placed such emphasis on the private car, Ken responds that the intent was to make Newcastle a better place for its residents, but ‘pure planning’ had taken over and actions of the officers carrying out policy had radically changed the policy

 

68 Asked why supposed socialists had given so much power to Burns [Wilfred Burns, Chief Planning Officer from 1960] despite his anti-working class views and what he’d done to Coventry, Ken responds that Burns was considered the most eminent planner at the time. In the late 50s/early 60s many socialists felt that capitalism had solved its problems – they lost a sense of direction but that was the general mood in the post-war boom

 

74 Agrees that by this period they were no longer trying to achieve socialism, were just changing the face of Newcastle

 

77 Ken did feel a loss when Dan left the council in 1964 to take on his regional development role

 

84 He had little contact with Dan after 64, the group members were all immersed in their jobs on the Council by then. Asked how they combined Council work with their day jobs, Ken responds that it was ok for Dan, he could leave running his businesses to colleagues and work full-time as council leader, but the others were amateurs

 

87.30 Asked about how they saw Dan’s PR work, Ken says they weren’t concerned, didn’t really start that until after he’d left the council, didn’t see conflict of interest

 

92 Ken didn’t believe it at first when Dan was accused of corruption. Didn’t know if Dan had moved politically to the right by then, hadn’t discussed politics with him for some time

 

96.30 Asked if there was a deliberate attack on Dan for trying to make Newcastle a city state, and if MI5 might have been involved, Ken thinks this conceivable, but didn’t consider MI5 at the time

 

99 Asked what he thinks of the situation in retrospect, he’d initially believed the party could lead the working class to socialism, now recognised it as a mistake that they’d not tried to involve those affected in decision making

 

106 Dan hadn’t worried about loss of traditional industries – mining, shipbuilding etc, he preferred newer higher tech industries, heavy industry was in decline anyway. But public works could influence the direction, eg the Metro

 

109 The motorway again – why? Ken notes the city was completely congested with traffic at the time, but his preferred solution would have been via a proposed bridge at Friar’s Goose

 

ends at 112.33

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