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The Tolpuddle Martyrs are still an inspiration today

The struggles of the founders of our labour movement show we change society for the better – even when at the outset it appears that defeat is inevitable, writes RICHARD BURGON

THIS weekend, trade unionists and socialists flock to the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset to commemorate the struggles, suffering and solidarity of the Tolpuddle Martyrs — George Loveless, James Loveless, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and John Standfield.

In 1834, these six fathers of our trade union movement became enemies of the Establishment simply for meeting under a sycamore tree in Tolpuddle to form a trade union to stand up to the poverty pay of landowner James Frampton.

The Establishment was scared of the “dangerous” example that these six workers were setting to their fellow workers the length and breadth of the country.

The ruling elite didn’t want trade unionism to “catch on” and so were determined to stamp out the decent and moderate plan of six working men.

They were put on trial and sentenced to transportation to Australia — a sentence which entailed a harsh voyage and slave labour. 

In prison, before transportation, George Loveless wrote the following words: “We raise the watchword — liberty. We will, we will, we will be free!” These words still have a power and resonance in Britain and around the world.

A huge demonstration took place in London to protest against the treatment of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and 800,000 people signed a petition against their sentences. 

Having seen three years of campaigning and fundraising to support the families of the six men, the government felt that it had to give in and so George Loveless, James Loveless, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield and John Standfield were “pardoned” and returned home as heroes.

The lessons of the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs should live with us still. Their story teaches us that the Establishment will always attempt to crush the emergence of a new movement that has the potential to achieve a fundamental and irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people. 

And their story shows that the ruling elite is always aware of the danger that the example of resistance and struggle poses to a rotten status quo. 

Rest assured, media outlets of the day made sure to demonise these six working men trying to make life better for all working people.

But the demonstrations, petitions and fundraising show that in times of strife and injustice, decent people will emerge as a campaigning movement to stand up for what is right and show solidarity with those demonised and punished by the Establishment for the “crime” of standing up for the interests of the many, not the privileged few. 

But perhaps the most important lesson of the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs is that the organised working-class and progressive movements can win and change society for the better — even when at the outset it appears that defeat is inevitable.

Trade unionists and socialist activists of 2016 should take inspiration from the Tolpuddle Martyrs, just as we should take inspiration from our political forebears. 

We should draw strength from the memory of the founders of the Labour Party, the International Brigades which fought fascism and defended socialism in Spain, the founders of our NHS and our welfare state, the Chileans who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Salvador Allende for socialism, the miners who stayed loyal to the NUM during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the Women Against Pit Closures activists and the comrades who brought down apartheid in South Africa.

We should try to live up to their example. When faced with our own struggles in the present day, we should ask ourselves: “What would they have done?” 

When our movement is put under pressure by unscrupulous and hard-headed bosses or by political and media elites, we should remind ourselves of the incredible pressures to which the Tolpuddle Martyrs and others were subjected — and which they defeated by the strength of iron will, adherence to principle and the spirit of solidarity.

If together we can harness the fighting spirit of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the other heroes of our movement, then together we can win the battles facing the labour and trade union movement in 2016 and create a society which would make those who came before us proud. Events like the Durham Miners’ Gala and the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival are an important part of who we are as a movement. 

They allow us to come together to reflect upon the struggles of our past and resolve to fight — and win — the struggles that face our movement today and in the future.

  • Richard Burgon is shadow secretary of state for justice and MP for Leeds East.


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