They came in their tens of thousands as, once again, the cobbled streets of Durham City, with its spectacular Castle and Cathedral, were packed for the annual Durham Miners’ Gala, known locally as the ‘Big Meeting.’
Twenty-five years since the closure of the last pit in the county an attendance of up to 200,000 demonstrated that, despite attempts by the Tories and media barons to divide the working class, the North East region retains a strong trade union and labour movement spirit.
Former coal miners and their family and friends marched proudly behind their Lodge banners, which are adorned with revered heroes of the past. Booming brass bands provided a fitting accompaniment. The occasion is joyous — a genuine celebration of working class culture and solidarity.
This was the 134th gala for an event first organised in 1871 by the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA), which then later built cooperative stores, aged miners’ homes, their clinics and doctors panels, reading rooms, welfare schemes and social clubs.
The DMA has a proud history of community building and has now encouraged local people, including many youngsters, to help in ensuring the Gala has not only survived but blossomed such that it is, once again, the largest annual labour movement gathering. That’s in part because the late DMA general secretary Dave Hopper and his colleague Dave Guy were astute enough to encourage other trade unions to get involved in organising the event. In doing so this has encouraged union members in general to make their way to Durham on the second Saturday in July. There were banners on display from Portsmouth and Devon. There were flags flying proudly amongst the large Unite contingent, some of whom had travelled hundreds of miles to join in the fun.
“Because the Miners were central to the development of the trade union movement then this will always be known as the Miners’ Gala but by inviting other trade unions to get involved then Dave Hopper and Guy reinvigorated the event and by doing so have strengthened our movement. This is essential as we have in power a Government that would happily crush trade unions,”explained former miner Rob Crute, a Labour County Councillor from Blackhall Colliery. Rob was on strike in 1984-85, attempting — ultimately unsuccessfully — to defend his right to work and the community against the Thatcher Government that recognised that if the miners’ could be defeated and mines closed then the whole of the British working class would be weakened.
So it has proven and many local people — as Unite member Sarah Batty knows — are suffering the consequences. Sarah is an experienced welfare rights worker who recently began working for Laura Pidcock, Labour MP for NW Durham and shadow minister for Labour.
“There is a lot of case work because the Tory cuts on the public services and welfare benefits has reduced many people to levels of poverty I have not previously witnessed,” she said. “Universal Credit is now being rolled out without sufficient trained staff to administer it.
“We are able to individually help many people but in many cases the precarious nature of work and low benefit levels can only be tackled collectively through getting into government a Labour Party that works for the many and not the few. One of our major objectives must be to get working people — often those on low incomes — to understand that the social security system is a safety net that they may need in the future if they fall ill, suffer a workplace accident or become unemployed. There is a massive need to reintroduce more solidarity.”
This was a theme taken up with great passion by Howard Beckett, the Unite assistant general secretary (pictured below) when he spoke to a massive sweltering crowd that, following the march’s conclusion, assembled on the Racecourse Ground next to the River Wear.
Warmly applauded throughout his 10-minute speech, Howard savaged the Tories, the media conglomerates that dominate press, TV and radio in Britain and Ireland, Labour MPs who continue to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to move the party back towards socialism plus senior bosses who take home salaries that are hundreds of times greater than those at the bottom of their companies. He denounced attempts to return society to the 1930s.
“I am proud to follow in the footsteps of giants such as Tony Benn MP who have previously spoken here,” Howard said. “Like them I rage against the injustices of the past and retain a belief of a better future…It is time for the second flame of socialism to burn brightly……we must stretch out our hand of solidarity to workers right across the world in Palestine, Mexico and Kurdistan.
“The struggle of workers everywhere is the struggle for justice. The strength of trade unions can change the world. Unite internationally and don’t be divided between working and not working, young and old and indigenous and migrant. Our voice will be heard.”
Howard Beckett was followed by Unite’s Jennie Formby (pictured below), who in April became only the second woman to be elected as the Labour general secretary.
“My objective is to get a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party into power,” she said. “We will end austerity by introducing a living wage. We will invest in manufacturing in order to create decent jobs. We will take the shackles off trade unions so they can support workers everywhere.”
The final speech was by Jeremy Corbyn (pictured below), who by speaking at the last four galas has helped revive the tradition, which lasted until Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, of the Labour leader addressing the Gala.
Corbyn said, “Trade unions have been marginalised, vilified and undermined, and workers have lost out, while more and more money lines the pockets of shareholders. The next Labour government will restore trade union rights, but we need to also make sure young people learn about the principles of solidarity and collective action.
“Children should not only learn about trade unions and their rights at work but should be fully equipped to exercise and develop those rights. Schools need to teach these values and together we can, and will, transform society so it works for the many, not the few.”
The Labour leader also promised that the “legacy of the next Labour government will be a national education service, because the principle behind it is we take the commodity out of education and replace it with the right to education and the right to know.”
Summing up, Unite’s Dan Dobson, an electrician from Crowley who works in the construction sector, said, “This is my first gala. Next year I will return with my young son. The whole occasion reaffirms the importance of engaging together as working class people, talking and educating one another, supporting each other and reaching out to get more people than ever involved in politics and trade unions.”
Pics by: Mark Harvey