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Last Updated: Monday, 12 February 2007, 10:09 GMT
Are political clubs still political?
By Lucy Wilkins
Political reporter, BBC News

Across the country on any given Friday night, people visit Conservative clubs and Labour clubs, known for cheap beer and light entertainment. But, despite the names across the lintels, do these places still have anything to do with politics?

Smethwick Labour Club membership card
Membership is no longer restricted to union members

Smethwick Labour Club, in the West Midlands, is getting ready for another big night - the live entertainment is limbering up, the bar is fully stocked, the raffle is organised.

"It's going to be jam-packed in here tonight," says secretary Ken Eardley.

Dixie and Nugget, club members-cum-entertainers are set up on a small stage at one end of the brightly lit room.

Punters arrive, drenched from the winter rain, to friendly greetings from those settled into their favourite seats for the night. Cheeky banter is exchanged and a dominoes presentation is eagerly anticipated.

The club - "probably the best club in the West Midlands" as numerous members will tell you - is in the Labour stronghold of Warley, so it's not surprising that it has a thriving membership and events calendar.

With 1,500 members, a ladies committee, family room for the children, three snooker tables, a large hall (for hire at 50, but the quiz planned for tonight had been cancelled, so its dance floor and stage lie in darkness), and pints for 1.90, the club is well-tended and much loved.

Smoker with a pint
Cheap pints and a friendly atmosphere attract many members

A rough guess at the average age at the club on a Friday would put it at about 60, with many coming for 30-odd years.

But does the political affiliation in the name above the door mean you have to be a card-carrying member to get in?

"No," says Labour Club steward Ken Eardley, "but I have to say that because I'm a Conservative".

And it doesn't seem to bother any of the members. None of them visit the club just to thrash out Tony Blair's latest policy announcement.

To become a member just takes the support of two existing members.

The over-riding atmosphere is one of being in a place with friends, where people greet you by name, where you all put money into the club funds for events - Conservative Club members round the corner are already talking about next summer's hog roast BBQ.

"I've never seen any trouble here, it's a good family club," says Ken, 67, of the Labour Club.

To prove the point, life member Terry Eaglestone, 64, is joined at the club with his brother, sister-in-law, niece and her husband.

He recalls the times when the club was struggling with declining membership and in debt to the brewery.

"It dropped off about ten years ago, and went really downhill. But we got together and said 'let's get it out of the shit'".

Debts and discounts

He credits the turnaround to paying off its debts - and the subsequent discounts the brewery then bestowed on it - but praises the ladies committee, about 10-strong from the 100 female members, as really helping pull the club back up.

Although its membership is strong, it's not as high as its heyday about 40 years ago when people had to go on a waiting list to join.

And the days of having to belong to a union before joining are long gone.

You can't get drunk in here. We don't allow that
Ken Eardley
Labour Club

"In those days there were no nightclubs, not much of a high street, just the pictures, so people wanted to come here," said Mr Eardley.

But any yearning to talk politics is abandoned at the door.

"I haven't voted for years," says Terry.

"I used to give strong support to the Labour Party, used to drive round handing out the leaflets, but I don't get involved in politics these day."

Neither Christine Mallen, 62, in a sparkly cardigan, nor her husband Malcolm, 63, a pint in hand, talk politics in the club.

"No, no, no," says Malcolm when asked if political debate erupts, "well, it depends what time of night it is. It's usually sex by the end of the night."

Birthday girl Pauline Eaglestone, 67, has been coming for 36 years, and enjoys the "packed" bingo nights, while her daughter Sue plays darts.

"It's got better as the years have gone on. Everyone knows one another," says Mrs Eaglestone.

But she too is likely to leave the politics at the door - "We talk about everything but politics, like money, etc".

Shouting at the telly

"I always vote Labour. But when he [Tony Blair] is on the telly I shout at him."

Referring to Mr Blair's recent questioning by police about cash-for-honours allegations, Mrs Eaglestone says: "You know that money they're getting, I say why won't my pension go up?

"I know I won't get no more, but I'm never tempted to vote Conservative."

Paul Coll, enjoying a pint before he returns to the stage as Nugget, has also always voted Labour, "but how I vote next time is debatable".

Tax looms large as an issue for him, a self-described working-class man with a middle-class income. Having just started getting a pension while he continues to work in a chemical factory, Mr Coll is annoyed at what he sees as "being taxed on everything".

"But we really don't talk about politics. Does anyone?" he says before launching into Sweet Caroline in front of his appreciative - and very familiar - audience.

For assistant secretary and Labour supporter Keith Tolley, the club is "a social meeting place, not just about cheap beer".

Quiet Conservatives

The live music is in contrast to the quieter mood round the corner at the Smethwick Conservative Club. A 40th birthday party with about 30 guests is tucking into a buffet in the main bar, with a few regular members in a side lounge.

Being in a Labour heartland, secretary Ian Edwards admits that with a tenth of the membership of its rival, and then only about 40 active members, it's hard to match the scope of events the Labour members enjoy.

Mr Edwards has been a member for 39 years and secretary for ten, and is proud of the club's active support of the party and the 100-plus years the club has been established in the building.

All Conservative Clubs are part of the Association of Conservative Clubs to which they pay an annual fee. And during election campaigns, the Smethwick club supplies a venue for candidates.

"We're not a wealthy club, but we do give small donations."

When people apply for membership, "we ask if they are Conservatives, and they say yes - but who can tell really", says Mr Edwards.

Ballot paper
We talk politics at home, but only do it here if there's an election on
Christopher Stanford
Conservative Club member

Asked if the turnout of regular members was typical for a Friday night, Mr Edwards says it was, although most people turn up a bit later, about 10pm.

"The winters are better than the summer, as many members have caravans," he explains.

One regular, 74-year-old Norman Barton, has been coming for nine years. "It beats stopping in the house. It's the company, you meet some nice people here."

Is there much political discussion? "No, no, we talk about anything except politics," he laughs.

The same goes for local couple Penelope and Christopher Stanford who visit once a week.

"We talk politics at home, but only do it here if there's an election on," said staunch Conservative, Mr Stanford, 49.

He had always wanted to join the club, and when he finally did about four years ago, it lived up to his expectations.

Mrs Stanford, 48, one of about five female members, and her husband are both supportive of Tory leader David Cameron, saying they would be happy for him to lead the country as he understands "the problems of the working class".

But they come back to the club's "peaceful, relaxing" atmosphere as the reason they spend their Friday nights there.

Two very different clubs but, judging from this particular Friday night, the one thing that seems to bind them together is that politics is much less of a pull for their members than an atmosphere they like, and good company.

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