Sun, scrumpy and socialism

This year's Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival was more militant than ever.

It could have been a scene from any music festival across the land: a muddy field filled with sun-kissed revellers singing along infront of a stage. But unlike other festivals, Tolpuddle is organised by the Trades Union Congress, its headline acts are Billy Bragg and Tony Benn, and rather than singing along to the latest chart-topper, the crowd are belting out "The Red Flag".

It is 176 years since six farm labourers from Tolpuddle were sentenced to be deported to Australia after attempting to form a union. Each year this tiny Dorset village nestled in the Piddle Valley commemorates its "martyrs". Commemorations have been held in Tolpuddle for over a century, one of the earliest being in 1875 when James Hammett, the only one of the martyrs to return to the village, was presented with an engraved watch. The symbolic importance of Tolpuddle has always increased in dark times for the trade union movement, such as during the 1984-85 miners strike. Against a background of swingeing public sector cuts and a new government determined to "play tough" with the unions, this year's festival was larger and more militant than ever. "These savage cuts will make unions more visible and more relevant," says Nigel Costley, festival organiser and regional secretary of the South West TUC. "Although union members will be lost to redundancy, people will also look more to their union for support, advice and resistance."

The resistance that the martyrs' sentence generated was an early example of national mass mobilisation. The fact that Dorchester crown court was one of the first in the world to have a press gallery meant that news of the sentence in 1834 spread rapidly, sparking a massive demonstration marched through London. Over 800,000 people signed a petition to Parliament protesting about their sentence.

Costley insists the festival is not a history lesson or a just a stop on the heritage trail. "Tolpuddle isn't a funeral march for dead comrades. It's a celebration of what's been acheived through struggle."

"There an incredible feeling of warmth and genuine solidarity in Tolpuddle," says stand-up poet, Elvis McGonagall, who is a regular performer at the festival. "And you don't have to queue for the ale," he adds, holding up a pint of Piddle, the local brew. The heady mix of sunshine, scrumpy and socialism is an intoxicating one. The festival this year climaxed with a moving procession through the village, complete with brass bands and a blanket of embroidered union banners. "In an age when socialism is a dirty word, when unions are demonised and a lot of people in New Labour think that the Tolpuddle Martyrs is a gastropub in Hoxton, Tolpuddle gives people a chance to recharge their idealistic batteries," McGonagall said.

The 2010 Tolpuddle Festival ran from 15 - 18 July.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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