The meaning of Tolpuddle
office at tlio.demon.co.uk
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.
More information about the Diggers350