Bradford Shaking – The Deal Versus the People

Bradford shaking

The city of Bradford is built from millstone grit – a tough and durable sandstone – and throughout its history, a history shaped by economic shocks created by unregulated free trade, Bradfordians have needed the same resistant qualities of this weather-proof local stone. The Deal versus the People is a response from the people of Bradford to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a trade deal currently being negotiated between the European Union and the United States. Discussed in secret, the deal threatens to obliterate regulations that safeguard food standards and the production of manufactured goods, and that underpin employment rights. TTIP also threatens democratic accountability by potentially making governments answerable to corporations rather than citizens. The removal of such protections will have devastating knock-on effects for Bradford and towns and cities on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Pity Poor Bradford” – according to local legend, this appeal was made by a ghostly figure, sometimes thought to be a real woman, visiting the commander of Royalist forces in the middle of the night at Bolling Hall in 1643. The Royalists had Bradford under siege and, so the story goes, the woman’s appeal saved the town’s citizens from certain slaughter the following morning. These citizens were participating in a bloody struggle to establish England as a commonwealth with a parliament accountable to people rather than the aristocracy. The phantom figure of a woman provides a premonition of people power that reappears in various guises across Bradford’s history, including in The Deal versus the People – a play performed in the opulent surroundings of the city’s contemporary decision-makers – Bradford City Hall.

The story of the people facing up to economic and political power in Bradford carries echoes of the uncertain status of the woman in the Royalist bedroom in 1643. It is a story of compassion and solidarity, but also vulnerability, struggle and exploitation. The industrialists of the 19th century, for example, did much to improve the city, channelling some of the mammoth profits generated by the textile trade into municipal improvements – sanitation, the police force, civic buildings, street lighting, education and health services. However, as Bradford historian Allan Hall points out, whilst these philanthropic efforts were humanitarian they also made commercial sense – a healthy workforce is ‘good for business’. Interestingly, the textile trade that contributed to the spectacular growth of Bradford over the course of the 19th century arose at least in part from a fight for free trade and in many ways Bradford and its people benefited from the extraordinary energy this released. However, this is only part of the story – the improvements of this period were not simple handouts – people had to fight for them. Working people couldn’t vote, but they could cause all kinds of problems, and with revolutionary fervour overseas, decision-making elites were scared of people power.

Trade is based on exchanges between investors, makers, buyers, sellers and users in a way that (ideally) benefit each side of the exchange, benefits that proliferate in ways that are difficult to predict at the outset. But trade deals are also about power. When the power of each party is unequal, the promised abundance of goods can be replaced by toxicity, nullified life chances and suffering. Regulations and other so-called ‘barriers’ to free trade are in fact agreements that provide protection. Bradford’s economic decline is a story of free trade without such protections. At the time of writing, Bradford is ranked 11th in the top 20 local authority districts with a high proportion of the most deprived neighbourhoods. Youth unemployment in Bradford is 4.7% compared with 2.2% nationally. In 2011, 1 in 3 people of working age in Bradford were out of work. Watch the national news – the only stories of Bradford you’ll see reflect this economic decline – extremism and poverty.

In times of austerity, we are told to work harder, invest more, diversify our skill base – to see ourselves as ‘investments’ with ‘dividends’ that will reap rewards in the long term (think of young people being asked to get into lifelong debt to access higher education). Here, the rules of the economic game seem rigged at the outset. As Wendy Brown says in her book Undoing the demos, these rules demand we see ourselves not as democratic citizens, but rather as investment portfolios. Brown says that this not only creates extraordinary levels of insecurity but is is also based on the logic of ‘sacrifice’. Here, people and places underperforming in the economic game are asked to sacrifice more to meet the needs of the economy – if they do not, they are cut loose. Bradford is shaking in the face of such pressure. Pity Poor Bradford.

Again, this is only part of the story. Bradford has an ancestry of dissent and creativity in the face of economic shock. In the 1830s, Richard Oastler, whose statue is currently situated in Northgate in Bradford, learnt about working conditions in Bradford and was inspired to fight for a limit to working hours. Bradford’s Liberal MP, William Forster (Forster Square train station was named after him), was the key architect of the national system of compulsory elementary education that laid the foundations for free education for all. More important were the things won by working people on their own terms – achievements may have been difficult to appreciate at the time. The momentous Manningham mills strike (1890-1) for example, where workers fought against drastic wage cuts implemented by mill owner Samuel Lister, who wanted to protect his profits at a time of increasing global competition, ended in defeat. However, it also made an immeasurable contribution to the labour movement, giving birth to the Independent Labour Party in 1893. Fred Jowett, Bradford’s first socialist City Councillor, organised solidarity for the striking workers and later worked with others in the city to introduce a range of progressive reforms. Not least – Bradford was the first city in the UK to introduce free school meals and as Bradford’s first Labour MP Jowett worked to pass legislation in parliament that secured free school meals for children nationally.

From free trade to free school meals – two ideas of freedom, both in Bradford’s DNA. Freedom to trade and invest without regard for ecological and social costs? Or, freedom to develop social modes of creativity and care that allow all to thrive?

Such social modes of creativity and care have characterised the collaborative process of making The Deal versus the People, which I have been privileged to witness. Beyond the cast on stage, hundreds of Bradfordians have had a hand in creating this play. The award-winning theatre company behind the venture, Common Wealth, is one of the most exciting theatre companies in the UK at the moment, and currently works from a disused shop on James Street in Bradford. Common Wealth is renowned for the way it builds dynamic, responsive and collaborative networks between artists and communities to create startlingly fresh and provocative theatre.

The Deal versus the People reminds us that people, coming together, are always more than the sum of their parts. It hints at an alternative to an economic system founded on exploitation and sacrifice – replacing this with passion for what Wendy Brown calls ‘the deliberate making and tending of our common existence’. At one point during rehearsals a cast member sat in the mayor’s chair in the City Hall and exclaimed ‘I’m scared for the future of Bradford’. Bradford is shaking. And the cast of performers in City Hall and beyond describe a Bradford that is proudly committed to securing a world that puts people before profit. A place where people come together, speak up and stand their ground.

Jenny Hughes – Senior Lecturer in Drama, University of Manchester


Thanks to James Lewis for sharing the story of “Pity Poor Bradford” during rehearsals.


Wendy Brown (2015) Undoing the demos: Neoliberalism’s stealth revolution, New York: Zone Books

Allan Hall (2013) The Story of Bradford, Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press