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. Continue reading “Tolpuddlin’”
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. Continue reading “Observations On Tolpuddle”