18 July 2011

“We raise the watchword liberty. We will, we will, we will be free” George Loveless 1834

The wet and windy weekend just gone was the Tolpuddle festival, an annual celebration and remembrance of the six Dorset farm workers who formed a union in 1834 and were transported. Trade unionists and supporters from all over Britain come to Tolpuddle to celebrate each year. Read the Tolpuddle story here.

The six were George Loveless, James Loveless, James Hammett, James Brine, Thomas Standfield, and John Standfield.

Tolpuddle matters because it gave trade unions a solid foundation for growth in Britain and that led to better lives for workers and their families.

People protested at the time in vast numbers against the injustice dealt to them; on 21 April 1834 there was a massive demonstration in Copenhagen Fields, Islington, and petitions flooded into parliament and the government. The six were given a full pardon on 14 March 1836 and brought back from Australia.

Agricultural Wages Board

On cue the other day there was a debate in the Commons which touched inter alia on the Tory Libdem proposed abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales (AWB) (Hansard 12 July 2011 column 212 onwards). This is an issue which affects agricultural workers in Cornwall. The Tory Libdem government is not talking about change and reform for the AWB but abolition.

There was also a debate earlier on the abolition of the AWB but no vote in the Lords (Lords Hansard 1 December 2010 column 1513 following).

Andrew George, Libdem MP for St Ives, supported the AWB and opposed its simple abolition (columns 215 and 253). He is right to take that view. He and Labour, which opposes abolition, broadly made the same points: the AWG is a protection for often isolated workers; it sets bands of rural wages that take eighty percent of workers above the minimum wage and give a career ladder; and it regulates matters like sick pay, holiday pay, and overtime. Labour feared there would be a decrease in agricultural pay if the AWB and its wage bands were abolished (column 261); and the abolition of the AWB would take away the guarantee of sick pay and that could mean a fall in income of up to £265 a week (column 225). The arguments against abolition strike me as persuasive and telling. The Tory Libdem argument that the existence of the minimum wage makes the AWG superfluous suggests a lack of full understanding of the circumstances of rural work and is uncomprehensive and unconvincing.

George voted in effect for the second reading of the bill which included the AWB abolition. The bill now goes to committee where it may be amended; Labour is sure to try to get rid of the AWB abolition provision and it will be interesting to see what the Libdems on the committee do. It will also be interesting for us in Cornwall to see what George and the two other Cornwall Libdem MPs do if the abolition of the AWB is still in the bill at third reading.

It is a difficulty for MPs. Many bills are curate’s eggs, some bad parts and some good parts. An MP can often vote against the part he objects to, but what does he do when the whole bill, including the objectionable part, comes to a vote? This happened on the Devonwall bill: in effect the six Cornwall MPs voted against the Devonwall provisions, lost, and then voted finally at third reading for the whole bill including the part they objected to. They presumably took the view that the bill as a whole was worthy despite its objectionable part. That is a rational argument which weighs up the value and importance of the whole and part. Different people will of course come to different judgements on weighing.

There are no such difficulties in the matter of the Tolpuddle farm workers. They were right, their prosecutors and persecutors were wrong. And our material and intellectual lives are better because of the six men from Dorset and many others.