The meaning of Tolpuddle

tliouk office at
Thu Jul 15 14:50:36 BST 2004

The meaning of Tolpuddle
(Printed with permission of Voice of the Unions - July/Aug 2004 Issue)

By Tony Benn
The story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who formed thefirst real trade 
union among the agricultural workers nearly two hundred years ago is 
now celebrated every year with a Labour festival in Dorset where they 
lived and worked, and from where they were deported as convicts to 
Australia as a punishment for challenging the power of the landowners 
who had employed them.
What they taught us was the importance of self-organisation, of 
solidarity, courage and self-sacrifice in the common cause of 
liberation from slavery, since the land they worked and the houses 
where they lived were all owned by the same wealthy farmers who, at 
that time, were the only ones who had the vote and, in addition, were 
the magistrates able to convict them.
Thus their victory against all the odds opened up a completely new 
era for working people: it paved the way for modern trade unions, as 
well as for the extension of the franchise which, a hundred years 
later, in 1928, finally extended to all men and women at the same 
age. The battle for universal suffrage took that long because the 
Chartists, and later the Suffragettes, found it equally tough to 
fight and win against the very same class as those who sent the 
pioneers away in the prison ships for daring to challenge their 
privileges and power.
As democracy began to develop, initially in local government, a 
completely new source of political power — the ballot paper — gave to 
the poor a way to secure their own needs for health and education, 
which previously had been the preserve of the wealthy.
This opened up an era of what came to be known as "Gas and Water 
Socialism" and, before the Labour party was formed, a hundred years 
ago came municipal housing, municipal schools, municipal hospitals, 
municipal fire brigades and, later, libraries, museums and art 
galleries to enrich the culture and bring enjoyment to those who had 
never experienced them before.
It was not only the winning of the vote which achieved all this but 
also the formation of the Labour Representative Committee. That 
allowed the new trade unions to be represented directly in parliament 
and to carry through the necessary reforms at the national level and, 
later, explained why the famous Clause Four of the Labour Party 
constitution set out to secure democratic control of the centres of 
unaccountable economic power.

This is how, in 1945, the Wel-
	fare State, the National 
	Health Service, the massive building programme of council 
housing, full trade union rights and full employment came to be 
constructed allowing democracy to flower for the benefit of all.
This steady progress really did begin a quiet but revolutionary 
process under which the balance of economic and political power 
slowly but irresistibly began to shift in favour of working people 
and their families without the violence and bloodshed that has 
characterised so many violent revolutions.

Our objective is to refound the Labour Representation Committee and 
rebuild the party

While many in our movement assumed that these changes were 
unchallenged and unchallengeable the counter-revolution to restore 
the old order was always being planned.
That was what the so-called Thatcher strategy was all about here in 
Britain, and she set about the destruction of the trade unions, the 
crippling of local democracy and opened the way to privatisation, to 
undermine and destroy the public services, a policy also pursued by 
President Reagan in America.
Their argument, deceptively simple, was to "set the people free" by 
lifting the burden of government from their shoulders so that they 
could stand on their own feet and look after themselves and with sale 
of council houses and the railways we now know exactly what that 
To achieve this, however, the power of the state had to be increased 
immeasurably, but this time it was used to back big business as we 
saw with the police at Orgreaves when the miners were fighting for 
their jobs, or in London when the Greater London Council was actually 
abolished as the only way to get rid of those elected to it under the 
leader Ken Livingstone.

New Labour, in order to win acceptance from big business, 
multinational corporations and the media bosses adopted some of the 
Thatcher policies as with the continued restrictions on trade union 
rights, local autonomy and privatisation, all of which have alienated 
active trade unionists, some of whom want their unions to 
disaffiliate from the Labour party.
But such a move would play into the hands of both the Tories and New 
Labour, both of whom resent and fear the Labour movement having any 
influence on public policy and would be happy if the link was broken.
That is why the Conference in the TUC on July 3rd, organised by the 
Campaign Group of Labour MPs and some of the very best and most 
progressive trade union leaders is so important, and why our 
objective is to refound the Labour Representation Committee and 
rebuild the party from the grass roots to take up our historic task 
in this new generation.
The election results on June 10th should act as a warning to us all, 
showing how dangerous cynicism can be, and how despair can play into 
the hands of those on the Right just when a strong and united Left is 
so important for the future of us all.
The Tolpuddle Martyrs showed us how it can be done.

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