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.

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.