JOANNE KAYE reminds us that that nothing is won without struggle and change could take years not months
AS OUR movement gathers in Dorset for the annual Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival, it is worth remembering the events of two years ago.
As the 2015 Festival drew to a close, crowds began to gather in the corner of the field, looking away from the main stage towards the Unison tent, where a lone microphone stood, behind it a table where a grey-haired man sat writing notes for a speech. He wore a Tolpuddle T-shirt, partly because earlier he had spilled coffee on his shirt.
Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing Unison MP, went on to deliver a speech to thousands sitting in the evening sunshine.
It was a speech that used the language of ordinary people, that dared to challenge the cross-party consensus on the need for public service cuts and austerity, that offered hope to the young and spoke of a world where everyone could expect a decent life, better services and a share in our nation’s wealth.
In a week where the Labour Party urged its MPs to abstain on the Tories’ savage welfare proposals, Corbyn’s message resonated with thousands upon thousands across the labour movement and his leadership victory signalled a new generation of people who wanted change and a genuine choice in politics.
Two years later it seems clear that the tectonic plates of our political world are truly shifting. The vote to leave the EU has left many on the left and right reeling and offers an uncertain future in which both risks and opportunities are many and great.
Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory throws international relations into chaos and the rise of right-wing, divisive and insular movements (risibly called “populism”) signals a genuine threat to peace and stability.
Against that background many feared the 2017 election, called by an arrogant, self-aggrandising Theresa May, would result in further setbacks and defeat.
But something extraordinary happened — while the Tories’ “strong and stable” motto was parodied and ridiculed within days, while May went from the “bloody difficult woman” to the “invisible woman,” the election campaign allowed Corbyn to thrive and the new Labour manifesto was met not with horror, but with hope.
At last a genuine choice was offered — progressive policies which would invest in a new generation and rebuild our economy, care for the vulnerable and reverse the decline in public services.
Against this, the Tory manifesto seemed to offer only “less today and even less tomorrow” and expected people to be grateful for a government that would continue the stranglehold of austerity.
In the South West, Labour’s vote share increased more than anywhere else in England and Scotland.
All four Labour MPs increased their majorities and three new seats were won in Stroud, Bristol North West and Plymouth.
The collapse of Ukip and the decline of the Lib Dems mean there are new areas where Labour could win — in Cornwall, in traditionally Tory seats like Fillton and Bradley Stoke and even areas like Bournemouth look possible. But as a movement, we have always to avoid complacency — there is still much to be done.
While younger and even more affluent voters are turning to Labour, many older, white working-class people distrust politicians and are not turning out to vote Labour and have even turned to the Tories, via earlier votes for Ukip.
The road to Brexit is beset with pitfalls and challenges and Labour must have a clear strategy, communicable to voters, based on consensus in the party and conducted with discipline and resolve.
Those who continue to wage the wars of the past, whether plotting against the leadership or seeking apologies or mandatory reselection will weaken us and alienate many.
This weekend in Tolpuddle there is much to celebrate and no better place in which to do it. The story of the martyrs reminds us each year that nothing is won without struggle and change takes years, not months.
Corbyn will not be in the corner of the field, but centre stage at the height of the festival — but the message of hope will remain the same.
Joanne Kaye is regional secretary of Unison South West.