For the second time ever, and the second year in a row, the Bemolution went to Tolpuddle on the free Sunday. It was basically the same as last year, but we’re reliably informed it’s basically the same every year. And there’s value in that consistency – it’s a respite weekend/networking event for socialists in neoliberal society, and it does it very well.
Essentially a sort of far-left Alan Partridge, we can take or leave the chanting and the speeches and the fist-pumping renditions of “There Is Power In A Union”. But what we particularly appreciated this year was the dedication shown by the staff and organisers – from the hi-vis-jacketed stewards spending literally hours in the sun making sure lemming-like festival-goers weren’t mown down trying to cross a main road, to the boundingly enthusiastic volunteer chuggers collecting spare change to help pay for it all (hello Sophie from Bromley Unite).
It’s a huge undertaking, and the TUC runs and pays for it every year, at a loss. Veteran Tolpuddler Dave Chapple, quite possibly Somerset’s most dedicated and active socialist trade unionist, was telling us that by the early ‘90s the festival had become a bit rubbish – a toothless, mainstream jolly for old-style trade union bosses, with tea and cake provided by ‘the wives’. Tony Blair even came. Then current South West TUC regional secretary Nigel Costley took it over, and turned it into the vibrant, egalitarian, subversive event it is today.
He’s certainly hands on – you see him all over the place at the festival, and not just for the glamorous, parade-leading bits either. And hopefully everyone that goes Tolpuddling appreciates how much work he and others from the TUC put in to make it happen.
We’ve said Tolpuddle doesn’t change much year on year – but the biggest, most immediately noticeable difference this year from last was the palpable buzz surrounding the Corbyn for leader campaign. The Corbyn stall in the main tent was by far the most visited. Eager to do something at least vaguely practically useful for a change, we asked if there was anything we could do, and spent a few hours handing out Corbyn stickers and leaflets as a result. They were a very easy sell. Then again, as a Bennite Labour councillor friend of ours put it, if Jeremy Corbyn didn’t win the Tolpuddle vote he’d have no chance of winning anywhere.
Like kiddies waiting for the man with the beard and the bag of toys at Christmas, Tolpuddlers exchanged excited rumours about when Jeremy was going to get here. Has he been? Is he here yet? Is that him there? He’d be on the main stage at 4, some people said. Speaking at the Unison marquee at 7, others insisted. Introducing Billy Bragg at 4.45 looked like the consensus at once stage.
In the end, he appeared at his campaign stall at about 4.15, having already appeared in a Daily Politics debate in London with the other three contenders at 11am. He was immediately mobbed. Practically everyone wanted a picture with him. In our meaningless opinion, the selfie is the narcissistic scourge of late late capitalism and yet more evidence that society is simultaneously going slowly mad and disappearing up its own arse, so we just sat at the back looking disapproving – but Corbyn happily posed for each and every photo that was requested, and stopped to talk to every last glad-handing well-wisher. Fittingly enough, the only person we’ve ever seen do the same was Tony Benn.
Having always regretted not speaking to Benn the one time we saw him, we breached our policy of not bothering someone notable unless we had something a) specific and b) important to say to them and snatched 30 seconds with Corbyn when the crowd had died down. We remarked on the huge contrast between this year’s reception and his normal experience of Tolpuddle – last year, we’d spotted him holding up a Unison banner and tinkering with his bike just like any other festival-goer. Now, we said, he was suddenly being treated like Michael Jackson. He sort of chuckled. “I hope not!”
The Bemolution was significantly less pleased to see floppy-haired Professor Snape-alike John Harris hovering at the edge of the crowd with a hipster-bearded cameraman. Quite a good music journalist, Harris is attached to frustrating centre-left pressure group Compass (excellent at new ideas and critiquing the Left when it’s genuinely being dogmatic and outdated, but with a habit of defining “dogmatic and outdated” as just “more left-wing than we are”) and now makes a living writing Guardian articles saying the kind of people who go to Tolpuddle are dinosaurs.
Earlier this month, Harris described Corbyn’s politics as “antedeluvian”, arguing that a Labour Party ran his way “would find itself back in a position akin to the one it faced in 1983” – aligning himself with the likes of Polly Toynbee and Nick Cohen, the sulky five year-old of liberal metropolitan ex-leftists, who’ve accepted much of the Tory interpretation of the last four decades. Harris interviewed Corbyn in front of the CND tent for a piece on Tolpuddle – so expect some ironic video about how old-fashioned we all are to appear on the Guardian website any day now.
We happen to be almost exactly half John Harris’s age. Most of the people manning the Corbyn stall and sporting #JezWeCan t-shirts were younger than us. Tolpuddle is always encouraging – last year it was just the sheer number of young people in attendance that sent us back to Somerset feeling more hopeful for the future. This time, it was something more specific – a sense that there’s something happening that mollycoddled Guardianistas don’t really understand.
People in their twenties don’t care what happened in the 1980s. Ideological conflicts that completely shaped how older people perceived the political world mean nothing to them. And having seen austerity in action, a fair few young people are willing to be radical – much more so than the self-appointed arbiters of what’s ‘sensible’ and what isn’t would allow. Perhaps when they fume about Corbyn, they’re really just raging against what could be their own imminent obsolescence.
Jeremy Corbyn could actually win. It’s certainly more possible than we ever thought it would be. But even if he doesn’t, the campaign has already been massively, expectation-defyingly successful. Corbyn wanted to galvanise opposition against austerity. If this kind of momentum can be sustained beyond September, whoever wins, the beginning of the end of British neoliberalism itself might not be a million miles off.