Big Meeting lives on
David Douglass reports on the134th Durham Miners Gala
In many ways it is unbelievable that the Durham Miners Gala should not only be ‘still gaaning’, but growing year by year. It was started 150 years ago next year, almost at the inception of the Durham Miners Association - which lost its last coal mine and National Union of Mineworkers lodge 25 years ago.
Yet Saturday July 14 saw a huge turnout - ironically we had something of a reversal of the usual numbers game between the police and gala organisers, with the latter playing down the attendance to minimise the insurance costs and the former bulling it up for manpower. But the truth is that estimates of between 150,000 and 200,000 are quite reasonable.
The police, knowing the traditional antagonism between our coal communities and themselves, had only a minimal presence and one rarely saw a police uniform. Despite this and the blissfully anarchic fact that the parade had no formal start time and no formal end, it was highly successful. There was no single start point and several routes to where there was a final lap of honour past the VIPs to the fun fair, the stalls, the union marquees and, of course, the speakers’ platform.
This year for the first time there was a big input from the Trades Union Congress, with the creation of a week-long ‘festival’, featuring Billy Bragg and all the unusual suspects who dominate Tolpuddle. The modernising of the stage festival-style, with a big live screen, was perhaps necessary. For the first time folk could sit anywhere in the field and on the grassy banks and hear the speakers. Previously - and, one suspects, even more so in the age of big-cone loudspeakers in the 1920s and 30s - the scene was rather like that in the Life of Brian, with many in the crowd struggling to hear what the speakers were saying.
But I did not approve of the sudden infusion of the whole liberal, leftist agenda - which is taken as read down south - being imposed up north. It was almost as though Momentum had chosen ‘the issues’ it thinks we need to discuss. Remarkably in my view, one was a largely anti-coal, environmentalist one. The discussion on ‘Coal and climate’ was originally going to proceed with only the anti-coal lobby doing the presentation, but then they invited me to speak (and I invited John Dunn up from the Derbyshire coalfield). There was quite a ding-dong, as one might imagine.
I was aware, I said, of the range of folk who today take offence at having their perceived identities insulted. But I am identified heart and soul as a coal miner - son of, grandson of and descendant of eight generations of them - and I took offence at slogans like ‘End coal’ and ‘Leave it in the ground’. That these slogans could be brought into a coal miners’ gala - stacked with people who had fought each and every pit closure, and argued in support of deep mining and clean coal technology - was amazing, but they seemed highly appropriate to those advancing them.
It was to get worse - the video link from Bernie Sanders that was played to the mass crowds, still largely consisting of people from the coal communities, lambasted coal and coal mining. There was stunned silence and non-comprehension among many. It took Ian Lavery, former NUM national president and now chair of the Labour Party, to fiercely defend coal and call for the return to deep mining and investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS), and other clean-coal systems.
Jeremy Corbyn is more than aware that the people in this region were the heaviest voters for ‘leave’, and that the vast majority of traditional Labour voters throughout the north, however one defines it, voted that way.
Did they expect him to set their troubled mind at rest that Labour will not abandon them and keep us in the European Union? I doubt it - they welcomed the usual fudge for fear of hearing something far worse, as did the ‘holier than thou’ left ‘remainers’, who were fearful he would come out loud and clear for a proper withdrawal package. Yet for Labour’s election chances this issue is of huge strategic importance. If the northern working class smells betrayal, or hears what is effectively a ‘remain’ programme, come the next general election, they will abstain from voting in their millions.
Another sign that the gala is fast becoming just a general TUC rally was seen in the fact that Corbyn did not address any of the concerns of the coal communities, on whose platform he was standing. Miners have traditionally invited leaders and potential leaders of the Labour Party to address the issues which affect themselves and their families directly. Of course, until comparatively recently the politics of coal and of the NUM was central to the labour movement per se - and indeed to the position of industry and the economy. But issues still face us - not least the £5 billion rip-off of the Miners Pension Scheme by successive governments since 1994, and the scandalous 50-50 share-out of surpluses, despite the fact no government has ever paid a penny piece into it.
There remains also the question not just of an enquiry into Orgreave, but into the entire episode of the 1984-85 miners strike: the policy of closure; the anti-union police riots; the lies told to parliament and to the public; the policy of smashing picket lines and occupying villages; and the whole politics of repression. And there is the issue of deep-coal mine regeneration, the development of CCS and clean coal technology. Corbyn’s silence on these issues speaks volumes. For him the miners are only heroes of the past. Our issues and our cause are now the antithesis of Labour and TUC policy, with many young, green leftists seeing pro-coal arguments as being analogous to racism or sexism! The days of Durham as a platform for the coal communities seems doomed to oblivion, despite the fact that the gala is the largest labour movement event in Europe.
As for Matt Wrack, his contribution focused on Grenfell and the heartfelt descriptions of what his members experienced; and the consequences of council cuts and lack of safety procedures - the real dire consequences for living conditions of the poor, as against the well-heeled and rich in the same neighbourhoods and boroughs.
Among the brief distractions this year of the type not usually encountered was a sit-down demonstration by 15 Football Lads Association supporters of Tommy Robinson, protesting against his ‘unjust’ imprisonment and demanding his release. This was somewhat foolish, given the huge crowd and majesty of the occasion, with banners and bands and some very likely lads lined up en masse waiting to proceed, but seeing the possibility of having their day spoiled. They were soon shuffled off down a side street.
Later five members of Britain First with their union jacks made their way into the thick of the crowd, before we quickly pushed them back up the road again. A couple of cops threatened to arrest me - much to the delight of the now hundreds of friends and comrades who came to assist - for threatening the protestors. I pointed out to the five that they were rather outnumbered and the cops then told the Britain First mob: ‘Look - either withdraw or we will, and let that lot kick your heads in!’ Which just about summed up the situation. They were last seen complaining on YouTube about our lack of democracy. All of them were very well-spoken, by the way - not at all like the Football Lads of the earlier protest.
By 2.30pm the bands and banners were starting to leave the field and people were marching off back through the streets to buses - or to further discussion in nearby pubs.
I hope Durham does not end up like an official TUC festival with the full liberal agenda on identity et al - and coal, coal mining and what the coal communities were and remain reduced to some safe Hovis-type advert portrayal. I hope Durham will remain a symbol of the living aspirations of the coal communities, where our specific issues and concerns can be addressed against the background of the wider national and international working class struggles, as they always have been.