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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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.