On Sunday, The Bemolution was pain-stakingly wafted into the back of a minibus by a crack team of rigorously drilled Oompa Loompas with hand fans and driven south for an hour or so. Our destination? A big field, and the 2014 Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival.
It was a bit underwhelming at first, because practically everything is. The fact that Tolpuddle is hyped to high heaven in left-wing circles doesn’t help either. Its most starry-eyed adherents describe it like it’s some kind of life-changing socialist Mecca that springs up in pastoral south Dorset for one week a year. Actually, it’s just quite a political summer festival. But it’s a good one. Fascinating, even. And, probably most importantly of all at this grim juncture in leftist history, encouraging.
In 1832, a group of agricultural labourers from delightfully-named Tolpuddle, Dorset formed a kind of proto-union in response to declining wages. Arrested, tried and found guilty under an arcane eighteenth century law banning the swearing of ‘secret oaths’, the six men were thrown on a boat and sent to be slaves in England’s furthest-flung colony, Australia. One colossal public outcry and an 800,000-signature petition later, all but one of the so-called Tolpuddle Martyrs was freed.
It’s a nice excuse to have a festival, supposedly commemorating the incident, really serving as a much broader celebration of the labour movement in general. And so, on one (usually) balmy weekend in July, thousands of trade unionists and assorted left-wing miscreants congregate in the snigger-inducing Piddle Valley to eat ice cream, talk about politics and march around with banners.
The festival takes place in a biggish, gently sloping field on the village outskirts, centred around the TUC-owned Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum. There’s a stage, which hosts music acts interspersed with political speeches. Then there’s a sort of high street of stalls and marquees, manned by an eye-popping array of political parties, campaigns, groups and tendencies. And, beyond all that, swathes and swathes of tents.
All in all, it’s as if a cheerful left-wing township has mushroomed out of the Dorset soil, complete with mobile subversive cinema-van, revolutionary book shop, kiddies’ play area and dedicated curry marquee.
It’s bustling and boisterous, and there’s an abounding sense of enthusiasm that this perennially jaded blog-based phenomenon found very rejuvenating. It’s worth coming just for the reminder that you’re not the only one slugging it out against neoliberal hegemony – something we’re obviously very, very aware of (god knows, there are people doing it a lot more effectively than we are) but that it provides a welcome morale-boost to actually see. And it was especially pleasing to note that it wasn’t just middle aged people and increasing wizened Baby Boomers who’d come out, but, fantastically, loads of teenagers and twenty-somethings too.
Still, wandering from stall to stall, trying and failing to swerve the commendably tenacious comrades flogging various socialist dailies and weeklies – The Bemolution was asked to join to SWP twice, and came away with obligatory copies of the Socialist Worker, the Morning Star, a leaflet from the Vegan Society, and, in our meaningless opinion, a very well-reasoned Communist Party pamphlet discussing the pros and cons of Labour – we felt we weren’t in the best position to appreciate the festival, as nice a time as we were having.
Our sense was that Tolpuddle functions best for people who’ve been before – or, to put it another way, that the more you attend, and the more you put in to Tolpuddle, the more you get out it. Go frequently, and you’ll make friends and political contacts from all over the country. It’s a way for radicals and activists to congregate, swap stories, exchange advice, recharge their political batteries, and, most crucially, encourage each other – something veteran Tolpuddler and exemplary human being Tony Benn clearly appreciated. Faced with a Tory government and a hostile media, not to mention as barren a period as the Left has ever been through, there’s no way of expressing quite how vital that reinvigorating function is.
It’s become fashionable – even among certain types of so-called left-wingers – to see unions as Neanderthal relics of the past, and strikes as ‘selfish’ and ‘counterproductive’. They’re far from perfect, no question. But in a world engulfed by greed and globe-straddling wealth, the unions are the last democratic, egalitarian, collective organisations left. And if you want to see civilisation dragged in a more democratic, egalitarian, collective direction, you have to stand four-square behind them.
When the assembled festival-goers get up and go marching up and down Tolpuddle village with – frequently gorgeous – banners held aloft, it’s the labour movement talking to absolutely no-one other than itself. Too much of that kind of thing is awful, just the kind of insular stuck-in-the-pastness that puts off so many potential left-wingers from getting involved. But here, in this limited sense, it’s harmless. It fires people up. And so The Bemolution had no problem waddling through a doubtlessly Tory rural hamlet behind our local TUC banner. Could’ve done without the TSSA’s eardrum-perforating drum and vuvuzela duet lasting the entire duration of the half-hour trudge, especially considering they were marching directly behind us, but we spent most of it playing with Maisy the chocolate Labrador pup from the radiographer’s union anyway, which took the edge off.
Aside from the parade, it’s the speeches that are arguably the main event, on the pivotal Sunday at least. It’s more a musical politics festival than a political music one in that respect, and that’s not a bad thing – for every Namvula (rippling Afro-jazz) and Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbot (wry, subtle, but irresistibly catchy political pop), there’s several blokes banging out tuneless renditions of Dick Gaughan songs in a fringe tent watched by about three people.
So when the time comes, you’ll find the bulk of the attendees gathered around the main stage, waiting for a roster speakers – which this year included Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, Mohammad Taj, the first Muslim President of the TUC, and Owen Jones, Chavs author and better-late-than-never face of re-emergent Bennism – to start telling it like it is.
We didn’t like this bit as much. If ambling about the festival and lolloping through a Dorset village with flags and vuvuzelas engendered a sense of solidarity, watching the speeches made us feel a tad like an alien. Despite our loon-left politics, The Bemolution’s temperament is more Alan Bennett than Arthur Scargill – blame being partly raised by people born in the 1920s – and we still haven’t completely recovered from the near-lethal dosages of English reserve we were exposed to growing up. Our list of likes includes subtlety, self-deprecation, understatement, dry wit and sardonic humour, and we have a general aversion to fuss, gestural politics and anything too sincere. Suffice to say, hectoring oratory isn’t really our cup of tea – especially when it mistakes being ‘rousing’, something that usually happens by accident, when something someone says happens to chime with what people in the audience are thinking and feeling, with shouting a bit too loud into the microphone.
Still, that’s just our personal freakishness, and if the delivery wasn’t to our taste, the substance was quite often bang on. And even when it wasn’t, it was still interesting.
The South West’s new (and only) Labour MEP Clare Moody was first to speak. Moody is from Unite, usually considered the most left of the big unions (which we may or may not be a member of), but she also worked for Gordon Brown in Downing Street. We watched that slightly uncomfortable contradiction play out on the platform – her hammering away at the Tories in trade unionist firebrand mode one minute, sounding like a blank-eyed frontbencher the next when lamely insisting that ‘only a Labour government’ could do X, Y and Z to put everything right.
It was a hard sell in the week Ed Miliband said there would be no return to tax and spend and, ludicrously, committed himself to ‘balancing the budget’ – something that a) even the most state-slashing, regressive governments in British history have never managed to achieve, and b) is only seen as something to strive towards because elite-serving neoliberalism has become the mainstream’s default economic setting. Nonetheless, Clare was reasonably well received, having wisely steered clear of mentioning Mr Miliband’s recent embarrassing outbursts, and everyone clapped politely enough.
Palestine duly featured in practically all the speeches. Mohammad Taj made everyone shout ‘Viva Palestine’ lots, which was very well-meaning but didn’t really achieve anything. Later, we were all cajoled into holding up Palestinian flags in a show of solidarity. Again, largely ineffectual, but worth a go for the chance that the photos might electronically wend their way to Gaza, and show the people there they’ve not been utterly forsaken – which, when the fourth biggest military power on the planet is blowing your children to bits cheered on by the most powerful people in the world, it must certainly feel like.
As far as substance went, Owen Jones’s short but punchy turn on the mic was the best, and the most enthusiastically received – calling for bailed-out financial institutions to be turned into public investment banks, and insisting that Israel draw back behind its pre-’67 borders.
South West TUC boss (and de-facto festival organiser) Nigel Costley gets a special mention, though – for our money, he was the most effective speaker of the lot, humble and natural with no stagey bombast at all. So does Paul Heaton, who wasn’t technically there as a ‘speaker’, but whose warmth, self-deprecation and salt-of-the-earth charisma made his and Jacqui Abbott’s 14-song set the highlight of the day as far as we were concerned. We particularly enjoyed his digs at tax-dodging wastrels Take That, and his very human anecdote about meeting Jessie J in Edinburgh the previous night, getting a bit star-struck because his daughters love her, going over to say hello, being appalled by her diva tendencies and succinctly concluding that she is, and we quote, ‘a wanker’.
And that was Tolpuddle. During the voyage back to Somerset, we asked the bloke driving the minibus – who also happened to be a left-wing Labour councillor, pub-rock guitarist and our long-suffering friend and socialist foil – what he thought of the festival, as someone who’d been before.
‘What’s that Talking Heads lyric?’ he said, and we had absolutely no idea what he was on about. A mile or so later, something clicked – Talking Heads, Remain In Light album, 1980, track four, ‘Once In A Lifetime’. David Byrne’s increasingly manic refrain – ‘same as it ever was’.
We can certainly imagine that Tolpuddle is the kind of event that doesn’t change very much. The man selling Socialist Worker is always going to be shouting ‘General Strike!’, and this year’s midday talk on the legacy of James Connolly probably isn’t going to differ very much from last year’s. Most crucially, at a time when what the Left needs more desperately than anything else is fresh recruits, Tolpuddle isn’t likely to win over very many newbies. But that’s not really the point. It’s something organised by and unashamedly for the already-faithful, and it’s at serving that constituency – reviving flagging spirits and uniting scattered radicals – that it seems to excel.
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