July: the month of labour movement festivals from Durham to Tolpuddle. Politics, solidarity, beer, fun

In Uncategorized on July 14, 2018 by kmflett

July: the month of labour movement festivals from Durham to Tolpuddle. Politics, solidarity, beer & fun


They seem to do celebrations and festivals better in other Labour movements in other countries, or at least that is the mythology that has grown up around the British labour movement.

It isn’t true as festivals this weekend and next demonstrate. There is the annual celebration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the agricultural village of Tolpuddle near Dorchester in Dorset next weekend and this weekend there is the Durham miner’s gala, in the ex-mining but still very much university and cathedral city of Durham.

These festivals commemorate the formative period of the labour movement from the struggles of Dorset farm workers to join a trade union in the 1830s to the industrial might of Durham miners from the late nineteenth century

Different struggles in different localities but ones that taken together form a history of resistance.

The specific forms of resistance, all focusing on a united fight for a better world, need to be understood in their own sense.

In 1834 when a group Dorset farm workers met to swear allegiance to and form a trade union, it was less than ten years, since the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1825 which had made unions completely illegal. It was still very difficult to join a union, as the labourers found.

They signed up to the Grand Consolidated National Trade Union, the first general union associated with the early socialist Robert Owen. The news that farm workers were getting organised alarmed local employers who were also the local political leaders and magistrates. They determined to prosecute George Loveless and the other Tolpuddle trade unionists under an obscure 1797 Act which forbade the swearing of oaths.

After a trial at Dorchester the men were, unsurprisingly, found guilty and sentenced to transportation to Australia for seven years. There they found tough conditions, but a massive campaign was already underway for their release. There was a demonstration in central London and the question was raised in the House of Commons. Eventually Russell the Home Secretary pardoned the men and they returned to England.

It was a hugely important battle for the right to organise and it was won. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, mostly Methodists, were neither militants or revolutionaries. They had simply made a stand for what was right.

At the other end of the country around the pits of County Durham similar struggles for trade union organisation were underway, but unions were often short lived as battles with employers were fought and lost. However by the 1860s there was a stable union structure and in 1871 the first ‘big meeting’ of Durham miners, the miners gala was held.

It has continued ever since with breaks for the World Wars, the 1926 General Strike and the 1984/5 miner’s strike. Several things characterise the gala. Firstly the parade of banners from individual pits, many famously political, depicting figures such as Lenin and Keir Hardie. Secondly the presence of brass bands, a traditional form of music associated with collieries. Thirdly the speakers; down the years the Durham Miners Gala has been the key place for Labour and trade union leaders to speak. Every Labour leader bar one has spoken. The exception of course was Blair who never bothered despite being an MP local to the area. The famous names of British labour have spoken from Nye Bevan a former miner’s leader and founder of the NHS to Tony Benn, and, as importantly international speakers from struggles around world from South Africa to Chile.


The gala attracted as many as 300,000 people in the 1950s and it might seem to be an event dominated by men but the reality is rather different, There was also a tradition of a separate women’s gala and there was a crèche from 1937. Despite the fact that the actions of Mrs Thatcher means there are no working pits left in Durham the tradition of the gala continues. Attendances are on the increase and new banners are appearing reinventing the festival as one of a celebration of community solidarity.

In the age of neo-liberalism to remember and celebrate the Tolpuddle trade unionists and the Durham miners who stood up very publicly for what is right and decent in public life- the dignity of organisation and the fight against repression-is itself an act of resistance.

The twin motors of religion and politics can be seen at work here, the Methodism of the farm workers and miners and the religious views that can inspire the fight against racism. But alongside that are left-wing politics and the desire to fight-back against those who would oppress.

These festivals are of the left and a place for the left to argue it’s politics, but they are also about fun. There is a lot of respectability involved with the public culture of the British left but there are some unrespectable bits as well. Not only the music and dancing, but also in many cases the beer. We find in 1960 complaints that Durham pub owners were putting up the price of a pint on gala days such was the demand.

If you believe that the British left is dull and boring compared to that elsewhere getting along to one of the great labour movement festivals this weekend and next might just cause you to think again. Solidarity can be mixed with some history and a good time.

I should add though that historically some of the time it did rain. Surely not this year though!


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