How incredibly heartening it is to spend three days at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival! Especially if, like me, you’ve ever asked yourself whether Labour can really make a difference in a rural constituency like South-East Cornwall. Don’t movements for change only ever begin in crowded urban areas? And yet the trade unions name this tiny Dorset village their ‘roots’…
The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a small group of agricultural labourers who were persecuted – not for striking, or rioting, or breaking machines – but, in effect, for the very act of forming a union. In 1834, the six men met under a sycamore tree in the village, and swore an oath to support one another in the struggle for a living wage, for which they were unjustly sentenced to transportation by the local landowner and magistrate. This disproportionate punishment backfired, as injustice so often does, resulting in a huge outcry, mass demonstrations, and questions in Parliament. As a result, not only were the six men pardoned and allowed home, but, more important still, they won for all of us the right to join a union.
Now, every year, the Trades Union Congress holds a festival to remember them by. It’s an amazing experience, as many of us from South East Cornwall, such as first-time visitor Jo Shand, discovered:
“I really enjoyed the music side of the ‘festival’ and I liked that you could have as much or as little politics as you wanted. I was happily surprised how friendly and welcoming everyone was, there were just normal people from all walks of life. The parade was amazing, so many people, so many unions, I had no idea that there were so many!”
Like Jo, I’d never been to the festival before, and I loved everything about it: meeting up with old friends and recent comrades, listening to the music and poetry, taking part in the procession with its colourful extravaganza of banners from all over the south west, and being inspired by Jeremy Corbyn all over again. The thing I enjoyed the most, though, was the opportunity to just spend time immersed in ideas. All kinds of different organisations set out their stalls at Tolpuddle; and, as you’d expect, there’s a focus on issues that matter to the countryside – from the future of our food to the campaign for a land-value tax; from the plight of bees to the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest.
As we in South-East Cornwall know, picturesque landscapes are all very well, but austerity bites just as hard, with our towns and villages blighted by high living costs, lack of public transport, and the closure of schools, post offices and places for people to meet. If you’re poor in a city, at least you’re poor among a community of equals, with affordable food and transport close by, and access to a range of services and facilities that make life more bearable. Low wages and seasonal employment are as much an issue today in the countryside as they were during the nineteenth century.
So it’s not surprising, then, that the seismic change in the Labour party within the last two years should have had such an effect. In our villages and small towns, people who believe in striving for peace and social justice are discovering that we are not alone. As local folk-singer Eddie Farrell commented on his first visit to Tolpuddle last year:
“It’s clear to me that among the activists Jeremy Corbyn has overwhelming support and indeed deep affection. Despite Jeremy’s so-called uncharismatic approach (we’ve had enough charisma, thank you!), several people around me were moved to tears by his speech. Not since I visited Barcelona on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War have I met a group of people whom I am so proud to be able to call ‘Comrade’.”
When Jeremy Corbyn came to speak in Cornwall last year, he used the slogan ‘No Community Left Behind’; and it continues to resonate in this place that often feels as though we’re ignored by those in power. At last, we can do more than just criticise the policies that have left so many of our rural citizens isolated, poor and powerless – we’re also able to offer the hope of change.
Brexit is a difficult subject, but it is widely accepted that our food industries need reforming. Under the present system, public subsidies benefit the bigger landowners and the big businesses – including, shamefully, offshore investment companies – who own and trade in agricultural land and fishing quotas, without being involved either in farming or fishing. This isn’t good for those who make their living from the land or the sea; neither is it good for the environment. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is fighting for a sustainable, long-term future for our food producers, along with the protection and advancement of environmental standards that will be vital if we are not to destroy our children’s inheritance. Labour’s manifesto promises to invest in rural infrastructure, libraries and other local services; to protect bus routes that serve isolated settlements, and run them for people rather than for private profit; to keep our woodlands safe in public hands, protect our environment on land and around the coasts, end the badger cull, and promote animal welfare.
You might be thinking, well, these policies will appeal to city folk, but not to those who actually live in the countryside… but the reality is that with this manifesto, in rural areas all over the country, Labour gained a huge increase in its share of the vote. A swing to Labour gave us seats in countryside areas (such as David Drew returning to Stroud) and second place in many more, becoming the main challenger in more rural seats than at any time since the 1970s. Here in Cornwall, Labour more than doubled its share of the vote, coming second in four out of six seats (including South-East Cornwall), two of which are now marginals.
The world is changing. As local member Jasmine Williams, also on her first visit to Tolpuddle, commented after hearing Jeremy Corbyn:
“His speech after the procession made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I get the impression that this is a man with a sweeping understanding of the forces of history. Not the ‘history’ of kings and queens and wars, but the history of real people and the inexorable march towards equality….”