For the third consecutive year, on July 9, 150,000 people attended the Durham Miners’ Gala or ‘Big Meeting’ that is held against the spectacular backdrop of Durham Castle and Cathedral.
Many Unite members were present. The union’s contingent, accompanied by the marvelously entertaining Unite brass band, was the largest on the good natured, noisy, colourful march through the cobbled streets of Durham City that led on to the Racecourse meeting ground where the distinguished speakers included Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.
Plenty of Unite young members had travelled to take part and they were joined by overseas visitors of the same generation who are keen to learn from the success of Unite Community branches in their campaigns against the likes of Sports Direct and zero hours contracts.
The Gala was first held in 1871 and this year’s was the 132nd. Thanks to the Tories, who forced through the final closure programme under Thatcher and Major – and who under Cameron have refused to support clean coal technology to allow coal to be mined safely and used to provide much of Britain’s energy needs – then Durham and Northumberland no longer have any mines.
Yet the region still retains a fighting trade union spirit and the Gala has survived – and blossomed – because the Durham Miners Association, under the leadership of Dave Hopper and the late Dave Guy, has linked up with the wider trade union movement, particularly Unite, to encourage trade union members from right across the country to march with former miners and their descendants on the second Saturday in July each year.
The sight is spectacular as beautifully decorated banners adorned with revered trade union and political heroes of past and present are paraded and booming brass bands provide a fitting accompaniment to the marchers and the large watching crowds that applaud and roar their approval.
Student Nadia Whittome is a Unite Community member. It was her first Gala. “My grandfather was a miner and I’m proud to march in his honour and to see so many trade unionists present. I have been at the Unite political school that is held in Durham in the days leading up to the Gala and I learnt a great deal from the workshops and discussions that were organised.”
The success of the Unite Community model in bringing people across society into the union and combatting the divisive narrative that seeks to set working class people against one another has been observed overseas.
Jelena Milos and Marina Ivandic are organisers for BRID, (meaning ‘the edge’ in English) a Croatian non-government organisation that supports trade unions and civil societies.
“The Gala is a great social occasion with strong historical links. We are glad to be marching with Unite because with industry in decline in Croatia we are seeking a model like Unite Community to help with the future organising of workers’ in our country. We have also began to alert people to the dangers of zero hours contracts that Unite has highlighted at Sports Direct,” said Jelena.
The rally at the Racecourse on the banks of the River Wear was a magnificent site and all the speakers – Tim Roache, Mick Whelan, Frances O’Grady, Jeremy Corbyn, Richard Burgon MP and Dennis Skinner MP – attracted applause from the huge crowd in front of the stage.
Sporadic showers failed to dampen the atmosphere and the crowd applauded Burgon, the shadow secretary of state and Leeds East MP, when in an impassioned speech he spoke out against austerity politics and “spoke up for Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership and ideas.”
Frances O’Grady was also cheered when she said, “beware people who say immigration is the cause of our economic problems…as migrant workers aren’t to blame for public sector cuts.”
Dennis Skinner MP is a big Gala favourite and has spoken on many occasions. He was not due to speak. But when Tom Watson MP announced he couldn’t make the event and Skinner was asked to attend instead the Bolsover MP told the telephone caller “I will walk there if I need to.”
Skinner was in great form and had the crowd roaring with laughter and approval. He made clear he fully backed Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, saying, “Jeremy has measured up to the tests set before him as leader since he was elected. We are on winner.”
Jeremy Corbyn himself spoke for over half an hour and was cheered continuously as he outlined how, like the radical Attlee government in 1945 to 1951, he aimed to rebalance the economy in favour of ordinary people and away from the rich.
He praised the spirit of the Gala, attacked prejudice and racism, urged people to join unions now, promised to build more council houses and made clear he had no intention of stepping down as Labour leader especially as “austerity is a political choice and not a necessity.” It was an impressive performance.
Photo by Mark Pinder