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Sunday, March 18, 2018

“We Raise the Watchword Liberty / We will, we will, we will be free!”

Tolpuddle Festival, July 2016 by Kay Green

The title of this article is the words scribbled down by Methodist preacher George Loveless as he, his brother James, Thomas and John Standfield, James Hammett and James Brine were arrested. It was 1864: the six labourers were deported. Their crime? Swearing an oath to work together to protect their starvation-level wages from further reduction. A movement spread across the country, campaigning for their safe return. This attack on workers’ attempts to survive, and the solidarity of the campaign in response, was the beginning of modern trade unionism.

Tolpuddle Martyrs GraveEvery year, people gather at Tolpuddle to remember ‘The Tolpuddle Martyrs’, and renew their own allegiance to trades unionism and workers’ solidarity. It’s a holiday and a meeting-place for trades unionists, but despite the fun, the food and the music, it’s a very serious business. The more intense the attacks by the rich on the poor, the more serious the business.

This year, the over-riding themes were: what do we do about the Trades Union Act; how can we protect the vulnerable from further austerity, and how do we level the pitch for Jeremy Corbyn, the most popular Labour leader ever. The atmosphere was carnival-like but determined, firing up the ideas of community and mutual support at every turn. ‘Unions together’ and ‘JezWeCan’ were popular rallying cries.

The Trades Unions Act is a massive problem. Led by the corporate media, some people still feel they need protecting from the unions but the unions are the workers, they are us – and successive governments have limited and wrong-footed them at every turn. This latest attack forces such a depression of democracy that unions cannot accept a mandate from their members for action unless they win a far, far higher proportion of the vote than a tory government has ever achieved from the population in an election.

The Act also places a ‘Certification Officer’ – once an impartial over-seer, now a state snooper, in a position where he/she can investigate, judge and prosecute the unions with such abandon that the job description appears to violate international law. It’s a point that begs the question, what causes angry activism and extremism? The response of the union TSSA to this particular attack was to discuss and approve the idea of supporting members who take illegal action, on the grounds that any action is likely to be construed as illegal, whether it was meant to be or not. TUC Regional Secretary Nick Costley pointed out that in some ways, we’re back where we started. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were prosecuted for a ‘secret oath’ – an ‘illegal trades union’ and here we are at Tolpuddle in 2016 discussing how we, as unions, can secretly sign up and protect workers whose bosses time their toilet breaks, listen in on phone calls, and penalise those who don’t think and speak as they want them to by squeezing them off the zero-hour contract rosters.

Maxine Peake at TolpuddleAs for austerity, meeting after meeting, stall after stall, unions and social groups were promoting crowdfunders and campaigns to help, and publicise the problems of, the disabled, the elderly, the unemployed, casual workers, immigrants. This isn’t an issue about minorities. Just about anyone who isn’t a billionaire is liable to fall into the categories of vulnerable people the campaigners were talking about. There was much discussion about the crowdfunder currently in action to produce a feature film based on my own town, Hastings’ own most famous book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Is it necessary to explain why this is part of the anti-austerity drive, or why it’s not proved possible to persuade billionaire commercial film-makers to back this particular project? Maybe it’s necessary to explain it to some people – The book contains some of the most effective explanations and illustrations ever made of why socialism is good for everyone – rich or poor, and why many people – rich and poor, do themselves a disservice by working against socialism.

Once a small, one-day festival, Tolpuddle now packs out its extensive hillside site from Thursday. When I arrived, at Friday lunchtime, setting up was in progress and already there were hundreds of people, some busily preparing displays, performances and family camp spots, others strolling around tying up with old friends. One of the first things I heard was a singer from Brighton doing an afternoon session “Money for time ain’t a fair trade” she sang… Sunday afternoon is still the main event though, and the climax of both the solemn and the party-fever aspects of the festival. As usual, Jeremy Corbyn was among those who visited the martyrs’ grave in the village but this year, added solemnity came from the group who marched in memory of Jo Cox, having handed out “More in Common than Divides Us” posters to participants.


Video: Jeremy Corbyn at Tolpuddle


RMT Bob Crow banner“We need a bigger field!” cried more than a few people as the press for the final gathering spilled far off the edges of the lawns in front of the main stage to hear TUC General Secretary Francis O’Grady whip up rousing cheers of support for workers currently in dispute, not for higher wages, but for the right to do their jobs properly and safely. This included our railway workers, Weymouth bus drivers, and teaching assistants across the country and finally, with a whoop of delight she introduced “out future prime minister”. Taking the stage to the usual rapturous applause, Jeremy Corbyn built on the Jo Cox message of unity, reminding the crowd that advances of social justice have always been made by people standing together against the rich and the privileged. It was never easy, it’s not easy now but (for example) British casual workers have more in common with Polish casual workers than they do with British billionaires. Yes, and the homeless in the UK have more in common with the refugees in Calais… and so on.


Video: Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at Tolpuddle


We raised the watch-word liberty. We will, we will, we will be free.

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