Tolpuddle is the place to come and recharge your batteries for the struggles to come, writes NIGEL COSTLEY
I FIRST came to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival as the South West TUC regional secretary 20 years ago when the number of people attending the annual rally was falling.
It was a traditional reunion of agricultural trade unionists but many were getting older and finding the trip too much. It was often a long way to go for a Sunday afternoon event.
For younger people, the rally looked like a rather dull ceremony from a previous era. By midday on Sunday the tea tent was up but most people laid their banners on the grass and headed off down the Martyrs’ Arms — just after the then landlord had taken down the pictures and put up the prices.
Everyone joined the march, listened to the rather-too-long line-up of speakers and took their coach back home.
I was honoured to take on responsibility for keeping the story of the martyrs alive but I didn’t want the rally to be a funeral march for the six farm workers who were transported into slavery for forming a union — I wanted it to be a celebration of the campaign that freed them.
It needed music and entertainment for all ages as well as retaining the traditional elements of the day. It needed more political debate, not less, and it needed good food and drink on site. The Workers’ Beer Company helped — I didn’t realise, when elected as a young full-time official in the printing industry, that I would need to understand the likes of stage back-lines, water pressure for showers and festival toilet demand.
The rally grew into a family festival and a fitting reflection of the confident mood of trade unions reaching out to new workers.
It is now a hugely popular event in the calendar of the labour movement. It is our summer party and this year the spirit will be even more uplifting.
Although the Conservative government is clinging to power, propped up by the dirty deal with the DUP, it is weak and vulnerable. It could struggle on with a beleaguered Prime Minister, hoping for a miracle to come to the rescue — perhaps yearning for the Labour Party to tear itself apart.
Another election, by accident or design, cannot be ruled out at any time and the left needs to remain united and ready.
The general election dramatically shifted the political dial in our direction. Even Tory ministers recognise the public mood is swinging against them. The pay cap, the damage to public services and an economy based on poor-quality jobs cannot continue.
Mathew Taylor’s report into insecure employment is a huge disappointment. He could have been the standard-bearer for a new benchmark of employment rights to meet the challenges of the gig economy. Instead he bottled out to get his report past his Tory paymasters. In doing so he has blown apart any idea that Theresa May will deliver a better deal for working people.
Jeremy Corbyn is sure to get a rapturous reception from the Tolpuddle crowd. He has championed a new style of politics and a radical manifesto for our flatlining economy and worsening wage-squeeze. Policies to end tuition fees, boost our NHS and take back control of rail and other essential utilities have won support especially from young voters.
Parts of south-west England, including rural constituencies, are open to Labour’s ideas. Villages like Tolpuddle have lost many services, local jobs are lowpaid and often casual. It is clear that Brexit on May’s terms will make the situation worse.
So areas often written off as infertile ground for the left are prepared to turn to Labour with its radical agenda. Unions need to develop new ways to support a more mobile workforce.
The festival provides a place to share ideas and debate politics. Speakers will provoke, inform and inspire us. But is is an occasion to meet old friends and make new ones, to share a laugh, a drink or two and enjoy some great music.
As Tony Benn always said: Tolpuddle is the place to come and recharge your batteries for the struggles to come. This year we can be confident that our fortunes are rising and if we stick together we can win the battles to come.
Nigel Costley is regional secretary of the South West TUC.