Tolpuddle Corbyn Speech. Photo: Kevin Potter Tolpuddle Corbyn Speech. Photo: Kevin Potter

There was an infectious air of enthusiasm on display at Tolpuddle this year

Four coaches full of activists and trades unionists from Bristol headed down to Tolpuddle Martyrs festival on Sunday, including a positively buzzing bus put on by Bristol People’s Assembly. This was the first excursion to the festival organised by our local anti-austerity group and I think all would agree it was a great success, which we intend to repeat on a bigger scale.

With the energised political climate, and emboldened left, following the election in June, high attendance was expected. We were told that the capacity of the festival is 4999; even a casual glance around the site suggested the event was near those numbers, and when Jeremy Corbyn took to the stage the sea of people crowding the field was an inspiring image.

The festival, described by many attendees as ‘the summer party’ for Trade Unions and socialists, is always a celebration of our tradition and the history of working class struggle. Determination to continue the fight is probably never in short supply at Tolpuddle, but the word that best sums up the atmosphere this year is ‘hope’.

As a festival dedicated to the memory of the six Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were transported to Australia for unionising agricultural workers, a spark that led to an 800,000 strong petition and one of the first successful marches, Tolpuddle reminds us of the power of collective action and solidarity.

However, it would be absurd not to recognise that the hope that has energised our movements in recent years, particularly this summer, has a figure head: Jeremy Corbyn. 

There was a distinct air of excitement as the traditional procession, union banners aloft, assembled on the road to be led by Jeremy. 

Brass bands and drums provided a jubilant soundtrack as the procession moved. For our part Bristol People’s Assembly brought a little of the energy of protest with Tories Out placards and chants, including a tongue in cheek adaptation of the now ubiquitous ‘oh Jeremy Corbyn’ into ‘oh Tolpuddle Martyrs’. 

Some of us were lucky enough to find ourselves near the front of the procession where Jeremy was front and centre. We couldn’t help but observe that he has developed a certain infectious aura and calm confidence, which was great to see. 

Speakers at the closing rally reflected on the history of Tolpuddle and focussed fire upon the cruelty of the Tory administration and its ceaseless assaults upon the lives of working people. Particular attention was, of course, drawn to the despicable Trade Union act, which to great applause, Jeremy Corbyn pledged to repeal if Labour come to power.

When sentenced, George Loveless, the leader of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers, founded by the Tolpuddle Martyrs, wrote on a scrap of paper a verse from The Gathering of Unions, which ends with the line ‘we will, we will, we will be free’. This line is displayed around the festival on the banners and signs of the Tolpuddle museum. 

Our struggle is far from over, and even if Labour was elected under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, the establishment would fight all the harder, requiring increased Union and wider extra parliamentary resistance. 

However, the hope and determination on display at Tolpuddle this year was infectious, and this writer couldn’t help but feel some optimism that one day we will indeed ‘be free’.