The weather wasn’t kind but the South West TUC staff dismantling the stages after this weekend’s Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival have good reason to feel pleased with this year’s union bash.
Camping tickets sold out well in advance of the festival and rally and, despite the rain which was at times pretty heavy, record numbers of people converged on this tiny, postcard-pretty Dorset village to celebrate the memory of six agricultural workers who were transported to Australia in 1834 after forming a union.
Happily it didn’t rain all the time; in fact the sun shone quite a lot, particularly on the main day, Sunday, when the traditional laying of wreaths took place at the grave of James Hammett (the only martyr who returned to Tolpuddle) followed by the march of union banners and bands through the village.
As ever, the wreath ceremony was incredibly moving with Bristol’s Red Notes Choir leading the crowds in singing martyr George Loveless’s famous line: “We will, we will, we will be free.” In contrast, the march was high-spirited and fun, with brass, blues and steel bands playing.
Tolpuddle is about rekindling the spirit of this country’s unionists and like-minded friends, and heaven knows, our spirits need rekindling right now. This year’s festival comes at a time of a concerted government assault on public services and heightened union concerns about jobs and attacks on pay and conditions.
“Tolpuddle is a chance for the trades union movement to build new friendships and share ideas to take back to our workplaces and communities, refreshed and ready to face a very real set of modern day challenges,” said Nigel Costley, Regional Secretary of the South West TUC which organises the festival.
“As we celebrate the battle won by the earliest trades union, which demonstrated in defence of basic workers’ rights nearly 180 years ago, we will also be re-learning the lesson that we won before – and we can win again.”
A succession of defiant speeches from the likes of TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber, former MP Tony Benn, Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, Community General Secretary and TUC President Michael Leahy and Shadow Environment Minister Mary Creagh had the crowds clapping and cheering. As ever, Billy Bragg proved a festival favourite.
But it was one member of the Tasmanian Grassroots Union Choir who perhaps symbolised more than anyone else the spirit of this year’s festival.
Maureen Lum had been sent back to Tasmania after immigration officials decided she needed an entertainment visa, even though she was due to sing for just one hour, unpaid, at Tolpuddle as part of a three-week holiday in the UK. (Read our story about it here.)
MPs condemned the decision as a “shameful incident” and noted “the irony that the choir sing songs re-telling the story of the six martyrs whose decision to form a union led to their transportation to Australia”.
After being searched and finger-printed and summarily expelled from the UK, Maureen returned to Tasmania, obtained the visa and made it back to this country in time to perform with the rest of the choir in a folk opera about one of the martyrs, George Loveless – who had been exiled to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then called.
As it happened, it was one of the best and most moving performances of the festival.