Judicial martyrdom

In 1834, six labourers from Tolpuddle were tried for their trade unionism. In this essay, written on

It is fitting that the British trade union movement should commemorate the judicial martyrdom of the Dorchester labourers a hundred years ago. Many other trade unionists have suffered, both before and after 1834, at the hands of police and magistrates, juries and judges. There are many other incidents in trade union history in which the notorious ambiguities of the England and Scottish law have been used by the government of the day as the instruments of a policy of repression and deterrence. But the case of the Dorsetshire labourers stands out in the record, alike in the gentle innocence of the victims, and in the ruthlessness of the determination of the governing class to strike down an organisation which threatened to encroach upon the profits of capitalist industry.

It is worth considering at what period and in what political circumstances this strange miscarriage of justice occurred. It was not a time of political reaction. On the contrary, it was the hour of triumph of the Whig Party – of the spirit of what is now Liberalism. The Tories had just been overwhelmingly defeated in the two successive tumultuous elections of 1831 and 1832. The House of Commons of the moment had recently been elected upon the enlarged franchise and redistributed constituencies of the “Great Reform Bill” of 1832. The Tory candidates had gone down like ninepins before the enlightened Unitarian, Quaker and Wesleyan millowners, mineowners, bankers and manufacturers of the North and Midlands of England, and the new London Parliamentary Boroughs, reinforced by all that was influential in “Political Economy” and Utilitarianism. “Bill Cobbett” had even been elected for Oldham. The Whig government enjoying the support of a very large majority in the House of Commons and even holding its own in the House of Lords, was passing one “enlightened” measure after another. The game laws were being reformed – characteristically enough only to the extent of replacing the aristocratic monopoly of shooting hares and pheasants by the capitalist monopoly involved in getting the leave of the landowner and paying substantial annual fees for gun and game licences.

The Old Poor Law administered by the Overseers was just being superseded by the New Poor Law, administered by the Boards of Guardians elected by the ratepayers, hardly any of them wage-earners, and with plural votes for the property owners. The new boards were forbidden to continue Outdoor Relief to the able-bodied and their families. The negro slaves in the West Indies and at the Cape of Good Hope were “emancipated”, which meant their promotion to being the legally indentured labourers of their former owners. A beginning was even made in the protection from overwork of the little children in the textile factories. The Lord Chancellor, who was keenly interested in all these reforms, was the liberty-loving Lord Brougham. But the essentially Liberal House of Commons, maintaining in office the most “enlightened” Whig Ministry, was not going to allow the labourers in the rural districts of Southern England (where the combination in every village of squire, ­parson and farmers amounted to an ­“irresistible” dictatorship of the capitalist) even to combine to defend themselves against a ­progressive reduction of their scanty wages.

Why were the Whig Ministry, the liberty-loving Lord Chancellor and the essentially Liberal House of Commons so prejudiced against trade unionism in the rural districts of South England? Why did they remain unconcerned at so atrocious a sentence as transportation for an offence – the administering of an oath – which would have been ignored if it had been committed by an Orange Lodge or a combination of English farmers at a market dinner? Incredible as it may seem today, the governing classes in 1834 were genuinely afraid of a rural insurrection.

Only four years earlier, there had been a wild outburst of rebellion among the labourers of South-East England, well-described in The Village Labourer by Mr and Mrs Hammond, when the hated poorhouses had been assailed and a few people seriously assaulted. This was easily suppressed by the troops of cavalry which quickly restored order, and by a special commission of judges who travelled from town to town imposing savage sentences on the rioters. But the outgoing Tory Home Secretary, on handing over office to the incoming Whig Home Secretary, warned him that the growth of trade unionism was the most alarming menace with which his government would have to deal. George Loveless and his fellows were the victims of this absurd panic among the propertied classes.

This has a significance for the trade unionists and for all the wage-earners of today. As yet, the propertied classes are not alarmed at the spread of socialist opinions in Britain. But as trade revives and trade unionism increases its membership, and as the Labour Party recovers from the felon stroke dealt to it at the general election of 1931, the fears of the propertied classes will also be aroused. What will be the blow that they will strike at the growing power of the common people? The law is still an armoury of weapons to which they may have recourse, just as unscrupulously and as ruthlessly as their ancestors did in 1834. What is called criminal conspiracy is still an offence, punishable at the discretion of the judge, by sentences as atrocious as those imposed on the Dorsetshire Labourers. And criminal conspiracy may easily be held to include an agreement of two or more people, even their common membership of an association for such purpose, to do anything that the judges – not the juries – may hold to be unlawful; and even to do any quite lawful thing by means, or with ­intentions, which the judges – not the juries – might hold to be unlawful. Nothing but a strong party in the House of Commons, specifically charged with the defence of the wage-earners, will then save them from a repetition of the ­repression of 1834.

“The Book of the Martyrs of Tolpuddle 1834-1934”, in which this essay first appeared, has been reprinted by the TUC (£33.50). To order a copy, visit

The Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, commemorating the 175th anniversary, takes place in Tolpuddle, Dorset, from 17 to 19 July.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.