Tolpuddle Festival: The music and the message
For many trade unionists, lying on the famous Tolpuddle slopes swigging from a flagon of scumpy is the perfect reward for a year’s hard work. Suddenly all the meetings with management, all the discussions in committee rooms and all the work representing colleagues are put into perspective by a soundtrack of Tony Benn and Billy Bragg.
And where better to be to celebrate trade unionism and remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs than at a free festival in the rural Dorset village where they lived?
What began life as a fairly dry memorial day with a long list of speakers and a silver band has in recent years been transformed into a lively, vibrant and fun rally attended by upwards of 9,000 people. But although the event has changed, its serious message remains: trade unionists from all over the world gather in the third weekend in July to commemorate the Martyrs’ contribution to British working life.
For those who don’t know, the Martyrs were six farmworkers who were transported to Australia in 1834 for forming a trade union. After a huge campaign – 800-000 people signed a petition demanding their release – they were pardoned and returned home as heroes, having established in law the right to join a trade union.
Even as children play in the kids’ area and other festival-goers enjoy a heady mix of politics, poetry, theatre, comedy, music and debate, thousands march through the village under an array of colourful banners, passing the ageing sycamore under which the Martyr’s leader George Loveless convened the historic union meetings.
And the moving wreath-laying ceremony on the grave of James Hammett, the only Martyr buried in the village, attracts a growing number of spectators.
For these are trade unionists for whom the sacrifice of the Martyrs is very real. They reflect on the Martyrs’ courage, determination and principles and use the experience to fortify themselves for similar struggles in the year ahead.
The injustices perpetrated against the six Tolpuddle farm workers nearly 200 years ago are today being repeated across the globe.
In Britain trade unions lead the fight for equality and social justice whilst organising and defending the interest of working people in the face of powerful employers, privatisation and job cuts.
In other parts of the world workers are persecuted just for belonging to a trade union. The strong international feel of the festival is reflected in the speakers who attend: since 2002 the message of global solidarity has been passed on by guests from South Africa, United States, Colombia, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Guatemala and the Philippines.
The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the campaign that freed them reminds us what can be won and inspires us to fight on. The annual festival reflects the spirit of those prepared to stand up and be counted, and urges us to do the same.
As the Martyrs fought for their rights, so should we fight for the rights of our fellow workers. That message is as relevant today as it was back in 1834.
Tim Lezard – South West TUC