Past and present
This year’s Durham Miners’ Gala, the 136th, featured the great and good of the trade union movement. RMT’s Mick Lynch, rightly, got a huge cheer. But, as David John Douglass reports, there was also the promotion of pro-imperialist politics when it comes to Ukraine
The ‘Big Meeting’ has annually marked the milestones of my life since I was a toddler carried on my father’s shoulders, as our family and just about the whole village turned out for that treasured day.
For us kids the Durham Miners’ Gala - hosted by the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) and supported by other organisations of the workers’ movement, not least the National Union of Mineworkers - was looked forward to almost as keenly as Christmas. There was the chance to win a bow and arrow or cricket set, buy a coconut or ride the ghost train. The sheer joy of the occasion never left me - especially memories of the sexy 60s, when the gala was the centre of many fleeting sexual encounters (Woodstock had little on the Durham Gala at that time!). The gala had always been a place where young men strutted their stuff and girls turned out in the fashion of the period. Photos of 20s and 30s galas show young miners in straw boaters and women in Charleston dresses dancing the jitterbug to the brass-band music.
But it was always a serious day - a day when we learned what fate befell the mining industry, what prospects there were for workers’ progress and security. It was the day when those who knew stuff about politics and changing the lot of our family, the village and the whole mining industry spoke. Coal mining, which we called ‘our industry’ because it was the endeavour to which generations of us were employed, investing our blood, sweat and not a few tears, at times had employed a million miners and it was very big around Durham. My grandfather, father and uncles were all miners - it went back eight generations in our family. Coal was always in crisis, the union always in conflict or else riding the crest of economic waves and promises of better times. So, yes, this was a fun day, but it was a day when we sat in near silence as my dad and his mates listened with earnest faces to the speeches - as he did when anything came on the radio about the mines. The fate of our family was based on the fate of coal and the position of the miners in society.
The Gala has always been about the past as well as the present. Banners on display feature each generation’s successive struggles, concerning, for example, child miners, the 1926 general strike, post-war nationalisation and so-called ‘New Era’, the great victories of the 70s and, of course, the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 and the NUM’s last stands in the 90s. All this reflected the changing direction of various moderate and militant Labour leaders, or those who aspired to be leaders of both the right and left wings. These struggles were part of the way we were - some of us had heard all about this history from the knee. We came to regard those banners as others would works of art. My dad and granddad were part of the 1926 miners’ lockout and general strike, and I knew who AJ Cook was by the time I was six.
With the last Durham mine closing in 1993, the Gala looked doomed - what good news now could we hear? What Labour salvation and charismatic leader would now thump the rostrum and conjure up visions of working class insurgency or at least militancy?
But the quality of leaders does make a difference: it is not all down to the spontaneity of the masses per se. In this we were blessed by the two Davids - Hopper and Guy, Durham NUM leaders in the late 90s-early 2000s - around which the left of the northern coalfields had organised and swung the sometimes-moderate, constitutionalist Northumberland and Durham miners and their leaders over to militancy.
However, with the demise of the last mines, the coalfields were the most deprived, impoverished areas of Britain, and the truth is that that position has changed little. The need for representation and organisation had rarely been stronger and the NUM still filled that role, fighting the biggest common-law action in history on the lung conditions suffered by miners. They represented whole families, and not just miners, at various tribunals and appeals. They acted as a major national platform in the struggles and necessary direction for the trade union and labour movement as a whole. We acted - in some quarters anyway - as the conscience and collective memory of the class.
In many ways the Big Meeting remained in the main a miners’ gala - a gala of the coal communities. But a lack of funding, and the need to expand our field of vision, ensured that more and more national unions would be brought in and the influence of the TUC and standard union and Labour Party views would start to push out the very specific memories and experiences of the miners’ long history and often radical political conclusions. The way things are done is changing. With the death of Margaret Thatcher and the widespread public celebration which followed, centred on the coalfield, there was Davie Hopper - Cuban cigar in his mouth and wearing a ‘New homes for the rich’ Class War T-shirt - announcing to the TV cameras what a disaster that woman had been for the working class of industrial Durham and Northumberland. That against a backdrop of people dancing to The witch is dead, and a banner which read, “The lady is not returning”.
When I announced that my Follonsby Wardley Miners Lodge Association was taking the famous Connolly miners banner over for the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising, Hopper immediately booked seats for the entire DMA executive and Women Against Pit Closures. Dave was a visionary - he still had his fingers on the pulse of the working class movement (and the organising vision of a theatre director as to how to mobilise it).
With the sudden and unexpected death of those two giants - Dave Guy in 2012 and Dave Hopper in 2016 - the survival of the DMA looked bleak. The great Red Hills Durham Miners Offices were crumbling and needed substantial funding. This provoked the dramatic decision to apply for lottery money to finance the necessary renovation and an agreement to hand the building over to a heritage trust as a ‘community heritage asset’.
Meanwhile, the DMA ceased to be a registered trade union, since it had no longer had any working miners. The DMA is now essentially reduced to its officials and staff, with a number of professional administrators and organisers brought in.
As a result the politics of the gala, as well as its format, the nature of the speakers, the subjects it addresses, will no more be dominated by coal mines and miners, but more general themes. This is better than the other option - which was a sort of heritage festival bereft of politics. But the downside now is: whose politics, and who chooses them? One can’t see the likes of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin or Irish republican union leader Jim Larkin ever taking that stage again - but then political leaders and movements like the ones they represented are absent just about everywhere.
What worries me too is what seems to be a silent palace coup conducted by a small, unrepresentative political faction colouring the direction of gala. The otherwise excellently produced Gala Souvenir this year annoyed and depressed me. Dave Temple - a former leading member of the Workers Revolutionary Party - handles this. His comrade in arms, Simon Pirani, one time editor of the Durham Miner, pens a feature on Ukraine. From this it seems that the NUM, such as it now is, is apparently taking its inspiration on Ukraine from elements composed of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and former WRP players, joining with ‘solidarity delegations’ and making pro-Zelensky, anti-‘Russian imperialist’ statements for the press.
I have, of course, no objection to controversial political articles appearing in the brochure, but on such a contested and controversial issue one would have hoped for a more balanced review of the arguments - especially regarding the role of Nato. Pirani tells us that Russia is not resisting Nato expansion, and that Nato has no plans to take Ukraine under its influence (‘Fact check: Russia’s war aims’ 136th Durham Miners Gala Souvenir Brochure, p43). We also learn in this ‘fact check’ that Russia is not fighting Nazis or defending Russian-speaking Ukrainians either.
The platform on July 9 hosted no party political speakers. Keir Starmer as leader of the Labour Party got an automatic invitation to attend, but nobody, given the likely reception he would receive, really expected him to show up - he did not, of course. Jeremy Corbyn was not a speaker either, although he was invited as a platform guest. He was there, sitting alongside other guests and facing what some have said was a crowd of 250,000. There were loud cheers and some chanted that idiotic dirge of his name, compelling the chair to ask Jeremy if he wished to say a word or two. In response he stood up and responded, “Solidarity!” and immediately sat down to cheers.
The platform was crowded with the top dogs of the trade union movement: Christina McAnea of Unison, Sharon Graham of Unite, Patrick Roach of the NASUWT and Jo Grady of the UCU. Yvette Williams from the Justice 4 Grenfell campaign was also speaking. Finally, the star speaker, who had not originally featured in the programme, was RMT leader Mick Lynch, who was given a hero’s welcome in view of the mass rail strikes he has been leading.
The sun was blazing down, but you needed to queue for half an hour to buy a pint, while the queues for food at the opposite side of the field were even longer. I could hear the speeches, while queuing for both (and burning to a crisp), but I confess I wasn’t spellbound by the talk of concerted action, solidarity and lines in the sand. The obvious demand I didn’t hear was that, should the government move to make strikes on public transport such as the railways illegal, the whole movement must be drawn to a general strike. Maybe in such a situation the imperative for a new political movement of the working class would emerge.
Together with my family, friends and comrades, many other former miners, needless to say, were at the 2022 Gala - it is too traditional, significant, as well as personal, for us to stay away. But is it still a Miners’ Gala? The last of the miners and their families were there in large numbers - not just from Durham and the north, but from all of the coalfields, for whom it has now become something of an annual pilgrimage. It is a place where the heroes and heroines of the Great Strike meet again, reminding us of who we were - and to great degree still are. But there were also many people this year for whom none of that means anything. Last time the gala was held - three years ago before the pandemic - a banner from Extinction Rebellion was paraded by a small group of middle class people, who had not the vaguest idea why they provoked such hostile looks and gestures. But I do not think that XR actually associates miners with coal, which is their most hated adversary. However, this year there were only two of them and they kept their little banner rolled up.
This year there was a call for a ‘black block’ of anarchists and a group of mainly Solidarity anarcho-syndicalists did parade with their red and black flags, along with a banner from the Industrial Workers of the World. Fortunately there were no Pixie Ninjas among them and they blended into the general movement - having from time to time in the history of the miners made up crucial sections of it.
I suppose the Gala still does remain controversial after all, despite everything, and I defy anyone not to be moved and stirred by those marching columns of what was once a crack battalion of the working class marching to those martial chords with their bands and banners and parading their working class pride. We former miners still remember past struggles - including fights with the police - as we tried to defend and improve workers’ conditions in the mines. Importantly, there were also children in large numbers - some part of the bands, or dressed as young miners - who were enjoying the banners as well as the fun fair.
Putting misgivings and regrets aside, it is still the gala - and still very much an annual highlight of my life.