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Edifying annual celebration of labour struggles

NIGEL COSTLEY introduces the 2021 Tolpuddle Festival programme

THIS year’s Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival will again be an online event, although much of it will be filmed live from the Dorset village. Watch it on or the Tolpuddle Facebook and YouTube channels. 

The festival comes just before the legal restrictions to control the pandemic are lifted and amid further confusion and mixed messages from a reckless and incompetent government.

The panel debates and speeches will set out where the labour movement stands on key issues such as how to reset the world of work after the crisis and Angela Rayner will outline her role in leading the Labour Party’s approach to the future of work. 

The Tolpuddle story is one of rural workers who dared to organise in a union against the powerful landowners in Dorset and how the early trade unions fought for their freedom.

The launch event, with the People’s Assembly, Campaign for Trade Union Freedom and Institute of Employment Rights will link that 19th-century episode with today’s struggles, including the right to protest.

A panel will discuss the future of food production as it faces a storm of change from Brexit, automation and the climate emergency.

Labour’s shadow business secretary Ed Miliband will join another panel to debate how we press our case for a just transition to a low carbon economy ahead of the COP26 in Glasgow.

And in a yet another week where racism has reared its ugly head, there will be a discussion on the trade union movement’s commitment to tackling racism. This will include experience in rural areas where abuse still lurks close to the surface.

The festival has joined with Dorset Stand Up to Racism in a solidarity event with the people of Barbados who are calling on the local Tory MP, Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, to hand over his recently inherited plantation and Drax Hall on the island.

The right-wing MP can claim he cannot be held responsible for the horrors of slavery that made his family so rich, but he still holds on to the fortune while voting to cut welfare support.

The largest landowner in Dorset and one of the wealthiest MPs supports curbs on immigration because the country is “full.”

The festival will live stream a protest outside one of his many gates to his massive Charborough House estate and be joined online by speakers from Barbados and campaigners elsewhere.

Saturday evening at Tolpuddle will be a mix of cracking live music and some fantastic contributions from radical US singer-songwriters. The legendary US activist Si Kahn will perform along with new protest singers such as Crys Matthews and Carsie Blanton.

Sunday starts with a Tolpuddle Radical History session focusing on the life of Labour MP Joan Maynard who would have been 100 this month. Maynard was a Tolpuddle regular and there is a bench in her honour.

She was the vice-president of the National Agricultural Workers Union and campaigned all her life for the rights of rural workers. As a left-wing Labour MP she took on many progressive causes and always supported union struggles.

Viewers will then be able to watch a moving tribute to James Hammett, one of the six martyrs, before wreaths are laid on his grave as well as hearing songs by Graham Moore.

The procession through the village will represent local workers. Keen to reassure the local community, the TUC has limited the numbers while still ensuring there will be a grand sight of banners led by Eternal Taal, Britain’s all-woman Bhangra drumming band.

The keynote speeches will be made during the procession, some interviewed as they march such as TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, and shadow leader of the House Thangam Debbonaire.

Others will join online, including TUC president Gail Cartmail and Victoria Sandino, who is former commander in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and now Colombian senator and peace negotiator.

Emily Capell and Beans on Toast will give us some great music in between “Rally Day’s” traditional elements and then the day will will end with a gathering of volunteers and a rousing new song from West Country songsmiths Show of Hands with the Firebrand Band.

Nigel Costley is South West TUC regional secretary.


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