Up the creek in Tolpuddle

It was Estelle Morris's Women's Institute moment. (Remember Tony Blair's panic two years ago at slow handclapping from 10,000 enraged jam-makers?).

Ms Morris's appearance on Sunday in the tiny Dorset village of Tolpuddle was, if anything, more traumatic. At the end of a week of council strikes and talk of unions withdrawing financial support from her debt-ridden party, the Education Secretary's reception by 7,000 union members at the Tolpuddle Martyrs rally - commemorating six farm workers transported to Australia in 1834 for forming a union - will have set alarm bells ringing in Millbank.

The address began sunnily enough as Estelle sought to remind the audience of her loyalty to the trade union movement. But a chorus of jeers met her attempts to draw parallels between the martyrs' struggle and, er, Government policy. She spoke of Labour's wish to empower workers, to which one ingrate shouted: "Relax the trade union laws then!" She was soon struggling to be heard above heckles of "Bring back grants!" and "Repeal the union laws!" and was forced to plead for calm: "I read in the museum here about the martyrs' commitment to tolerance and their ability to listen. It would be nice to see that here today". A heckler shouted straight back: "They didn't tolerate bad government, though!" Another screamed: "You shouldn't be here at all!" The unfortunate Ms Morris may have shared that sentiment.

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