One of my photos

The Tolpuddle experience

July 23rd, 2009 · Posted by Skuds in Politics · 2 Comments · Politics

Union banners in the parade

Union banners in the parade

A few days have passed since visiting Tolpuddle so if I write about it now it is not fresh in my mind and I may have forgotten some details, but at least that stops me wittering on about total ephemera.

So anyway, here are some thoughts about the event, about the Labour movement in general and why Tony Benn reminds me of Laurel and Hardy.  All that and photos too!First of all, I have to confess that I knew very little about the festival and really did not know what to expect.  I remember the Tolpuddle Martyrs being mentioned at school, along with Jethro Tull’s seed drill, crop rotation, and so on, but the significance was glossed over.  My colleague Ray was in a similar position, so neither of us knew the order of events, which is why we missed the start of the parade.

Local boys - Brighton & Hove RMT

Local boys - Brighton & Hove RMT

The most striking thing about the festival is the atmosphere.  It sounds corny, but there really is a great feeling of brotherhood there.  It could be the friendliest event I have been too on such a large scale.

When the coach dropped us off, we went into the main festival grounds, which is basically the front garden of the museum and the field next door.   There were marquees and food stalls all around, beer tents, a stage and at the fringes a campsite.  It could have been a very well-attended village fete or a Mela, except for the fact that the stalls were mostly stocking left-wing literature, badges and t-shirts or trade union promotional material, and the banners hung around the edges.

At every turn there was somebody trying to sell you Socialist Worker or another niche newspaper, or wanting you to sign a petition.  What a day it must be for them…  every other week they will be in a town centre or high street passed by an endless stream of shoppers trying to avoid eye contact. but for one day they fit in.

I am used to this sort of thing from various marches and rallies, but usually they exist in protest against something.  The Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival is purely a celebration or commemoration so the atmosphere is very different.  The closest thing to it I have experienced before is when the London Gay Pride march used to end up at a park for a free concert.

A dandy highwayman?

A dandy highwayman?

Ray and I went for a walk into the village seeing the sites, such as they are – the methodist chapel and the martyrs’ cottage.  Seeing an entire marching band having a beer outside the village pub I did wonder if that meant we had missed the parade.  And then we came across a bit of a crowd at the church.

One of the fixed points of the day is the laying of a wreath at the grave of the one Tolpuddle martyr who came back to the village (John Hammet?) and just by chance we saw that, albeit from a distance.   I was on cloud nine because it meant I could swap lenses and use the 70-300mm telephoto to get some shots of Tony Benn.

After that we went back to the main area to scavenge for some food.  Ray’s wife had persuaded him to take a packed lunch.  I got myself a big bacon baguette.  At this point we were wondering how to pass the next few hours, when we noticed a lot of activity because the parade was starting.

The parade is where all the various groups – unions, political parties, campaigns, pressure groups and so on, march through the village behind their various banners.  We managed to overtake most of the parade and get down to the village for a good vantage point to watch it all.  I couldn’t believe how many people were there and wondered where they all came from.  There were several bands: a couple of traditional brass bands, a pipe band from the Northern Ireland prison service union, a Latin American style drum band and the Musicians Union band.

Billy Bragg AKA the Bard of Barking

Billy Bragg AKA the Bard of Barking

I found it all rather affecting, feeling especially good whenever I saw the banners from a branch of my own union or a local branch of another union , say from Brighton.  Also there were a few people we knew marching past – Derek from my own union branch with his Socialist Labour Party colleagues and Carol & David from Horsham Labour Party with the agricultural workers.

I got carried away and took dozens of nearly identical photos.

As the final groups passed, the first ones were coming back, and we headed back to the museum grounds, which were packed.  We indulged in some doughnuts and browsed the various stalls, finding our way to the main arean in time to catch the end of a speech by Brendan Barber.   Various other speeches followed, including John Denham, an American, a Cuban and Tony Benn.

Benn was brilliant of course, to the extent that the standing ovation went on so long he had to come back for an encore.   He said a lot of things that he said the other week in Worthing, and that he has probably been saying at Tolpuddle and everywhere else for years or decades, but I think that is what everyone wants: they want the greatest hits rather than something new.

Tony Benn addressing the crowd

Tony Benn addressing the crowd

Now for the Laurel & Hardy reference.   Sometimes Stan says something without thinking that Ollie thinks is a good idea.  He then says “that sounds like a good idea. Just say it again for me” and then Stan can’t remember what he says and makes a hash of it.  It is one of the great set pieces in a Laurel & Hardy film.

When I hear Tony Benn speak it all makes sense, it is inspiring, and each point follows logically from the last.  That is while I am listening.  If you ask me five minutes later what was so good about it I would be just like Stan Laurel trying to repeat it – so I won’t try to now.

What I do remember from it was a great feeling of the continuity from the original Tolpuddle Martyrs, the fight for rights to organise, then to be allowed to vote, then for universal sufferage, right through to the post-war setting up of the welfare state.

At some point though, I got to wondering about the dis-connect between all the words and reality.

So many of the banners had slogans about being united, solidarity, and working together.  Lots of stuff like “united we can never be defeated”.   I’m sure that is true – so why are we not united?   There were thousands of people there, representing many thousands more, all with a common desire for a just society, with fair treatment for normal workers.  The trouble is that at the end of the day they all went off to the Labour Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party, the Green Party, or to various single-issue pressure groups.

When the Labour Party started, when the LRC set it up to get representation from normal people, via the unions, there was a focal point – a single party for all to rally round.  It no longer has such universal appeal, and so it was a bit depressing to think that everyone there wanted is less likely to happen because, outside of such events, there is a distinct lack of the unity proclaimed in all the slogans.  I do wonder whether a future Tory victory will actually be a good thing for the Labour Movement, regardless of whether it is good for the party.

A hat in the crowd

A hat in the crowd

Despite that, I did feel uplifted by the whole day.   Yes there were a few crusty hippies and raving lefty stereotypes there, but generally what was most striking was the huge number of normal people there, all actively supportive of broadly left-wing issues.  Living in Torytown, and standing as a candidate in neighbouring UltraToryTown you sometimes feel isolated and unusual, so a day like this really perks you up, reminding you that there are thousands out there with similar beliefs.

It was also a reminder of the Labour Party’s roots and core ideology – and by implication a reminder that there is not really a Tory equivalent because, despite what I said there is a unity of purpose even if not of organisation.  Most lefties are after broadly the same thing: a more just and fair society.  A gathering of 10,000 Tories would be a collection of 10,000 motivations and priorities.

I think everybody should go at least once to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the spectacle.

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