Much needs to be done

On July 8 a team of comrades from Labour Party Marxists attended the Durham Miners’ Gala. James Harvey recounts some of his impressions of this year’s ‘Big Meeting’

Jeremy Corbyn and Ken Loach greet marchers

The narrow streets were packed from early morning with bands, banners and supporters marching through the historic city to the field where the gala took place. Media reports spoke of 200,000 people and suggested that it was the largest since World War II.

It took several hours for the marchers to pass by me and from my vantage point overlooking the field (the size of several football pitches) it was hard to see a space not filled with people by the time Jeremy Corbyn spoke in the afternoon. The atmosphere was a combination of carnival and political demonstration, with historic miners’ union banners standing alongside campaign groups fighting health service cuts amidst crowds of trade unionists and families enjoying a day out. I had not been to the gala before, but Davie Douglass’s article in last week’s Weekly Worker brilliantly captured the way that the Big Meeting is a mixture of collective celebration and political mobilisation (‘Big meeting gets bigger’, July 6).

In many ways the gala seems to be a reaffirmation of tradition and an attempt to keep alive the sense of community and the spirit of solidarity, which were the hallmarks of the mining areas throughout Britain. The souvenir programme produced by the Durham Miners Association placed great emphasis on this sense of tradition and many speeches from the platform were peppered with references to the struggles and the leaders of the past - especially the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85.

But, whilst there was pride in that past and a commitment to hand on the best traditions of historic struggle to new generations, this was not simply a nostalgia fest. There was a burning awareness of the unfinished business of the Great Strike. The role of the police and the state, the significance of events like Orgreave and the failures of the Labour and trade union leadership in that period also featured in the speeches and the conversations around the stalls. Older comrades who had been coming to the gala since the 1970s commented on this changing mood alongside perhaps a new sense of confidence and possibility for the future amongst the militants and activists they talked to during the day. It was more about looking forward than looking back.

The crowd listened quite carefully to the speeches and applauded at the expected points - the Democratic Unionist Party received pantomime boos, while references to public-sector workers were warmly received. However, whilst much that we heard from the platform was quite standard anti-Tory rhetoric, it was clearly drawing on a growing popularity of leftwing ideas. A strong theme running through all the various contributions were the sustained attacks on working class communities, as at Grenfell Tower, or working class living standards, such as the public-sector pay cap. Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union got loud applause for bringing these two examples together in his speech, whilst Unite general secretary Len McCluskey’s echoing of John McDonnell’s description of the deaths in the fire at Grenfell as “murder” and a “symbol of all that’s rotten in Tory Britain” clearly resonated with this audience.

Much of the growing confidence and self-belief that had been produced by the general election campaign was in evidence here too. Ken Loach’s characterisation of Jeremy Corbyn as a “Labour leader that … stands with the people” was coupled with warnings about how the attacks on Labour will grow in viciousness, as it “gets closer to power”. Although comrade Loach warned that we need to be stronger in the face of this expected onslaught, he offered no alternative programme to that of the Labour manifesto, and seemed to ground his faith in the future in the personal determination of the party’s leadership to withstand pressure.

However, both he and Len McCluskey were warmly applauded when they explicitly attacked the Labour right. Ken Loach supported calls for mandatory reselection of MPs, both as a necessary democratic reform and a way to undermine any attempt by the Parliamentary Labour Party to undermine the Corbyn leadership. In a similar vein McCluskey’s references to the “self-indulgent jaunts” of “Chuka Umunna and his merry band” also went down well. This crowd, one sensed, wanted a little more red meat like this than the rather anodyne calls for unity that have dominated the airwaves since the election.

Corbyn dynamic

Jeremy Corbyn could hardly have failed with this audience - and fail he did not. Although the speech was by now a familiar one - attacking the May government and offered an alternative to poverty and inequality - he delivered his message with a greater confidence and sense of assurance than would have been the case even a year ago. Corbyn is not a great platform speaker and on closer examination much of what he says is rather unremarkable Labourism. But it is what he symbolises and what he embodies for his audience that is the essence of his appeal. In comparison with his immediate predecessors he appears almost as a Bolshevik offering a revolutionary transformation of British society.

He draws upon these expectations and hopes in his audience when he speaks to large crowds at rallies and campaign meetings, and reflects their concerns and demands back to them. Listening to him speak from the platform or respond to the spontaneous applause of the crowds from the balcony of the County Hotel at the end of the day, I found this dynamic between the leader and the movement clearly in evidence. He drew strength from that audience and they in turn saw a future possibility in him too.

Throughout the day supporters of Labour Party Marxists distributed papers and talked to people on their stall. Even after the platform speeches which mark the traditional end of the day, the discussions continued in the streets and the pubs. The obvious questions came up: was the Corbyn programme radical enough to really change society? How could we overcome the potential opposition from the state to any more radical programme? Perhaps, above all, what should be the next steps for the left in combating the Labour right and its sabotage within the party?

In was in these conversations, especially after Corbyn’s speech, that all the contradictions and potential for the Labour left were revealed. Older comrades we met drew on their own experiences from the 1960s onwards or the historical dynamics of the movement to consider how we should organise to win the struggle for democracy within the party. For those with more recent points of reference the discussions turned on the need for a programme and coherent strategies to rebuild the cadre of the labour movement.

These discussions reflect much that was positive about this particular Big Meeting and the state of our movement at the moment. The potential power of the working class as a political force was embodied in the crowds and their enthusiastic response to the rhetoric from the platform. But the limited nature of the politics on offer from the leadership shows how much sustained political development and organisational struggle remains to be undertaken before we can even begin to transform our movement and reforge it as a potent instrument of working class politics.