Friday 15th July to Sunday 17th July 2011

A cracking festival of songs and solidarity

by Tim Lezard

Displaying the same determination and defiance as the six farm workers deported 177 years ago, thousands of trade unionists and their banners filled the narrow street through the rural village.

As the TUC’s General Secretary Brendan Barber said: “This government is carrying out savage cuts in public spending, whatever the consequences. But there is an alternative: I’m confident we shall see the return of a Labour government committed to decent values and justice for the British people and it’s the spirit of Tolpuddle that will make it happen.”

The previous day, speaking in a UNISON-sponsored debate on public services, Shadow Health Secretary John Healey warned: “For 65 years the Tories have been unreconciled to our NHS and under the political shield they have from the Lib Dems, they are setting out to break it up. What they did to our public services in the 80s, they are doing to our public services today.”

Addressing the crowd on Sunday afternoon, the TUC’s President, Michael Leahy, drew inspiration from the Martyrs’ themselves, saying: Their story is so powerful to be able to inspire a new generation of trade unionists.”

Unite general secretary Len McClusky said: “This rally represents all that is good about our movement. These are building blocks for a better world because everyone benefits from strong trade unions.”

While Rodney Bickerstaffe said: “In the time of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, there was a different class that looked after themselves. They are still here today – the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, Nero and Caligula, Bonnie and Clyde, however you refer to them.

“Their big society is all smoke and mirrors because they siphon off the wealth for themselves and their friends while leaving charities to look after the rest, just as charities looked after peasants in mediaeval times.”

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International TUC, drew huge cheers from the crowd when she passed on solidarity greetings from trade unionists around the globe.

“From 115m people around the world, I say: ‘We salute your courage to stand up to this government – congratulations!

“The right are trying to turn us against each other, public sector against private sector. They are trying to undo the very basis of common good – the welfare society – that we fought for for ages. You stand tall and we’ll stand with you. Your fight is our fight.”

Tony Benn received a standing ovation when he took the stage, saying:

“The Tolpuddle Martyrs said ‘We will, we will, we will be free’, which is something that has been said for centuries. We said it when the Romans came in 55BC, when the Normans came in 1066 – we have always wanted the freedom to govern ourselves.

“We don’t want to be controlled by a handful of people who have all the wealth. This year will be recorded as a year when people realised they need each other if they are going to make a difference.”

Encouraging people to become involved in their trade unions and their communities, he urged: “Pessimism is our worst enemy. If we reject the pessimism, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs did, then we will win. Their spirit is alive today. Good luck!”

The Tasmanian Grassroots Union Choir performed a piece based on George Loveless’ life in Van Diemen’s Land. Follow link: http://unionsong.com/reviews/loveless.html

New film by Union News here

From Tunisia to Tolpuddle: report on the Arab Spring discussion here

Country Standard review here

Great photos here