'We will overcome'

This year’s Tolpuddle Martyrs’ festival will be coming to a front room near you

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This year’s Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival 2020 starts Friday, July 17 and runs through till Sunday July 19. The festival is for many the highlight of the trade union year, and has special resonance for Unite members – as the Tolpuddle Martyrs worked in a Unite-represented industry.

The agenda and events list are jam packed – but this year – because of the Covid-19 pandemic, festival goers won’t be queuing to get onto union buses, or rushing for seats on the train to Dorchester West. This year they’ll be glued to Facebook and Youtube – joining in debates, listening to some great bands, watching films – and there’s even entertainment for kids – all in the comfort of their own homes.

The online event will be live streamed on Facebook and Youtube, with attendees able to join in the many festival activities.

“The three-day festival, live streamed across Facebook and Youtube, will be filled with debates and historical lectures, radical films, plenty of music, a kid’s activities area and voices from the trade union movement,” explained Nigel Costley, South West TUC regional secretary and event organiser.

“Culminating in a virtual banner procession, the Festival will bring workers, friends and families together to celebrate the trade union movement, and commemorate the six agricultural workers who were punished and sent to the colonies simply for forming a union.

“We’ll still be covering the wreath-laying ceremony, and encouraging families and comrades to design and post pictures of their banners so they can join the virtual procession on Sunday afternoon,” he added.

In fact Unite rural and agricultural veteran campaigner, Tony Gould, also a Tolpuddle resident, together with a few villagers and family descendants, will pay tribute to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and honour them at the grave site of James Hammett, in the small local wreath-laying ceremony.

Tony will also be carrying the original Tolpuddle branch banner in the village procession. You can watch this live online on Sunday from 1.00 pm, on Facebook and Youtube. A poignant moment indeed and not to be missed.

Sessions include the future of education and skills, building back better, black lives matter, and human rights. You can listen to a wide range of speakers including Angela Rayner, Shami Chakrabarti, Emily Thornberry, as well as many leading figures from the trade union movement.

Not to be missed

Not to be missed are of course Unite’s speakers. These include Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail, speaking on Saturday at 11.30 am on Valuing public sector workers after the Covid crisis. And at 2.30 pm Unite Tolpuddle branch secretary, farmworker and campaigner, John Burbidge is part of the primary discussion panel for Building solidarity and stopping exploitation of migrant workers in agriculture.

Bev Clarkson, Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture will be joining the other key note speakers in the main speaking event of the festival, on Sunday at 12.30 pm. Bev will be discussing the real issues around rural poverty.

“It’s a true honour to speak at Tolpuddle,” said Bev. “Unite can trace its roots back to the Tolpuddle Martyrs – the cradle of the very trade union movement.

“But many of the issues they protested against – low pay, exploitation, unsafe working conditions we are still fighting today. More than one in five people in the UK live in rural as opposed to urban areas – that’s over 13.5m people in total. And yet investment in such areas is abysmally low,” she told UNITElive.

“Unite as the only union with any sort of density in rural communities has and will continue to push for the investment that is so desperately needed – that and reinstating the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) in England and ramping up regulation of the sector.

“The food and agriculture sector has for too long been rife with exploitation of mainly migrant workers who live in appalling conditions and in practice work for wages far below the legal minimum wage. The only way we’ll eradicate rural poverty as a whole is if we take seriously the struggles of those at the very bottom.”

There is also a radical film festival – and there’s lots of great films for you to watch – including Unsung Hero: The Story of Jack Jones on Saturday at 3.30 pm. Tolpuddle is a family festival and the Woodcraft Folk will be providing the usual children’s activities in the virtual kids’ tent.

Tolpuddle aficionados will know how important the comprehensive range of music is to the festival – and this year will be no different. Diverse bands and performers include Billy Bragg, Eliza Carthy, The Scribes, Beans on Toast and of course, complete with badger costumes (well possibly!) Unite’s own Skimmity Hitchers, introduced by Unite south west regional secretary, Steve Preddy.

“Tolpuddle has always been more than simply music and politics,” said Nigel Costley. It’s a gathering of like-minded people, a joyous celebration of trade union solidarity – and that’s what we’re hoping to reflect online.

“With big thanks to our unions and sponsors, we’ve made sure all our performers are paid a proper wage. We’ve never asked anyone to work for free – and we won’t start now.”

It all looks like it’s going to be a great event. Last words go to Steve Preddy, Unite south west regional secretary, who told UNITElive, “Exactly one year ago we gathered in the beautiful setting of the Dorset countryside. It was Tolpuddle – comrades re-acquainting, the weather kind and our senses responding to lively discussion, food and drink, laughter, song and the arts.

“This years’ pilgrimage to our historic agricultural event has been interrupted by Covid-19. However, in the great traditions of our movement – “We will overcome.”

“Tolpuddle 2020 is online – larger, more diverse, and as inspiring as ever. Please check out the itinerary and join in.

“South West Unite welcomes you virtually in 2020. Stay safe, so we can give you a warm west country welcome back in 2021!”



To watch live, visit the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival Facebook group  or the Tolpuddle Martyrs youtube channel 

To join in the debates and lectures and for more information click on the link.

  • Organisers have ensured all performers and musicians will be paid to support the creative industries that have been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The festival is free to attend but organisers are inviting donations to help support those performing.

By Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite

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