The Tolpuddle Martyr’s Festival in the South West of England’s equivalent to Durham Miner’s Gala in the North East. It also commemorates the battle Dorset agricultural workers waged against the British state over the alleged "crime" of forming a union. Every year, the trade union movement in the region and the rest of Britain come together to honour the Martyrs and celebrate the accomplishments of our class.
We were concerned earlier in the year when we noticed the local movement was becoming increasingly divided over the National Trust's choice to dedicate the Tolpuddle Martyr's Tree to Elizabeth Windsor, the head of state of Britain. But Nigel Costley, the South West TUC's departing regional secretary, is to blame for this mess. He was reckless, self-indulgent, and disrespectful of the Tolpuddle Martyrs' legacy when he decided to speak to the press in favour of the Tree's dedication without first consulting other local trade unionist leaders. Our main concern is that our movement is becoming divided (by nothing more than gesture politics!). We are currently experiencing a crisis in matters that are extremely important to local workers.
The star of this year’s festival was undoubtedly Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT union. His television appearances throughout the recent railway workers’ national strike action have shone through the muck-slinging of the mainstream media and illustrated the issue not just facing his members but all British workers: the cost of living. As RPI (a measure of inflation) reaches double digits, and energy bills rise, the importance of the Martyrs’ legacy is clear to see.
One thing that was inescapable over the weekend was the weather. Sunday was Britain’s hottest day on record, and the UK Health Security Agency issued its first-ever Level 4 heat warning. As railway tracks buckle from the high temperatures, and funding for the railways has been cut to the extent it is proving difficult to mend tracks safely and quickly, it is clear we are as a country structurally unprepared for such weather. Trade unions may attempt to use Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act if employers continue to disregard employees' health and safety in hot environments (which gives workers the right to leave unsafe workplaces and protects those who do from recriminations).
The festival this year is particularly significant to us for two reasons: first, it marks the launch of our new West of England District, an organisational change we made in June in response to the region's steady and enormous membership growth, and second, it marks the first organised League presence at the festival since the YCL's refounding in 1991. Several of our comrades were able to travel and attend the festival for two nights thanks to our District tent, camping supplies, banner, and other shared resources. Additionally, we were pleased to accommodate Comrade Pierre Marshall, the YCL's International Officer and Executive Committee member, in the five-person tent.
To make the most of this opportunity, YCL volunteers threw themselves into the following activities:
The work of comrades within the SW TUC and other positions in the local labour movement have rightfully won us both respect and influence amongst many leading trade unionists. Both the Communist Party and Morning Star were allowed to set up their stalls and marquees by the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival organisers. Whilst we must recognise that our programme still represents only a minority view in Britain, we punch above our weight.
Yes, as communists, but also as young trade unionists, we were a minority. Our struggle is still characterised by the objective decline of the labour movement, which is due, among other things, to Margaret Thatcher's anti-trade union laws and socialism's failure in the 1990s. As of 2021, less than one in ten workers aged 16 to 24 were union members, and fewer than one in twenty union members themselves were in this age group. This coincided with a dramatic fall in private sector trade union membership.
The subjective reinvigoration of the Left by Jeremy Corbyn and the Left in the Labour Party, whilst ultimately a doomed project, has had the effect of giving hope to a generation of British youth. It is our job to seek out that fraction of the young Left who were inspired to take up the industrial struggle, especially on regional trade union youth committees, and win them for Socialism and Marxism-Leninism. This strategy is bearing fruit in the West of England and is the cornerstone of our recent development.
By being at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, rubbing shoulders with national figures in the labour and progressive movements, the YCL demonstrated our position at the heart of the labour movement’s demographic changes, and therefore our necessarily leading role in the struggles ahead.