Durham Miners' Gala The 135th Durham Miners' Gala, Saturday 13 July 2019. Photo: @DurhamMinersGala

The Miners’ Gala showed how strong a left united against austerity can be, reports David McAllister

The 135th Durham Miners’ Gala was, as always, an electrifying event, where around 200,000 gathered on a procession through the town and onto the racecourse where speeches were heard from various leaders of the labour movement, and where unions and other organisations campaign to build the movement and highlight the past, present and future of class struggle in Britain and around the world. 

The Gala, also known as the Big Meeting, is organised by the Durham Miners’ Association, which its Secretary, Alan Mardghum, says was

“founded on principles of justice and self-organisation of working people and we aim to ensure the Gala carries forward those values for generations to come.”

There is so much about this event which never fails to inspire. First of all, there are of course the huge brass bands marching through town with the huge colliery banners, which have done a fantastic job of continuing the heritage of the coalfields in Durham and beyond. This is a stark reminder of what was lost under Thatcher, and yet an inspiring demonstration of the culture of solidarity which existed in the coalfields, and which ought to inspire future generations. Although the spirit of the event is centred round the miners, the Gala has long been a massive rallying event for all parts of the labour movement and the left. Every major union makes its presence felt, as do the banners for Labour Party branches, Stop the War, Palestine, various anti-racist organisations, and against climate change. It is also inspiring to meet the activists of LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) at this event every year. Their story, dramatised in the film ‘Pride’, is a valuable lesson in how oppressed groups can find expression through collective struggle. Today, if you are looking to fight for an alternative to the status quo of neoliberalism, austerity and war, then you are missing out if you have not yet been to this event.

The event is one of remembrance. Alan Mardghum opened the rally with tributes to the late Dave Hopper, who became the General Secretary of the DMA at the end of the Miners’ Strike 84-85, and in 21 years in this role did so much to fight against pit closures, support sacked miners, and successfully fought for compensation for those suffering from industrial injuries. He also fought to keep the Gala going in the most trying of circumstances, helping to make it one of the biggest labour movement events in the world. Tributes were also made to Myrtle McPherson, who died at the age of 90. She was one of thousands of women who were instrumental in keeping the Miners’ Strike going, by cooking hundreds of meals a day for poverty-stricken miners and their families, joining them on the picket lines, and continuing to fight pit closures in the years following the strike. The band on stage played during a very moving minute’s tribute to her.

This year’s Gala comes at a dangerous time for the Corbyn project. In the wake of relentless smears over Labour antisemitism, most recently in the form of the Panorama hatchet job, and the campaign to divert the Corbyn project down the road of a second referendum instead of a general election, the need to organise and push back could not be more urgent. Despite the dangers, the Tory government is in absolute disarray, and it is very unlikely that either of the two leadership candidates will change that. The appetite to go on the offensive could be felt very clearly at the Gala, in terms of the speeches and the cheers, as was the need to counter Tom Watson and the other right-wing wreckers within Labour. 

Calls were made for the broadest possible fight back against the Tories. Dave Ward of CWU made it very clear by asserting that ‘change is not a spectator sport’ and that our fight remains the same, whether or not we leave the EU. Dave Prentis of Unison and Kevin Courtney of NEU pointed out the absolute disgrace that there are over 4 million children in poverty in one of the richest countries in the world. Links were also made to Britain’s foreign policy, when Prentis called for the scrapping of Trident, and Courtney called for an end to the threats of war on Iran.  These, and several other contributions, were powerful reassertions from the left of what our priorities as a society ought to be. The issue is not money itself or GDP, but how that wealth is distributed. As the late Tony Benn would say, if you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people.

A major highlight of the day came from Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite. After, the hatchet job on Corbyn on Panorama, and in particular Tom Watson’s cruel targeting of Labour General Secretary Jennie Formby, currently undergoing chemotherapy, McCluskey had a very simple message which summed up perfectly the anger everyone has been feeling:

“you should be f***ing ashamed of yourself.”

In a period of disorientation for the Labour left, this event really ought to refocus a few minds on what our priorities are. It is this kind of fighting spirit which enabled Corbyn to become Labour Party leader in the first place, and that insurgency needs to be rebuilt.  Framing our response to the crisis as a choice between Tory Brexit and Remain is no line of attack for the left. It reduces Labour to a mere consultation with the establishment rather than a challenge to it, and consigns them to opposition. This is of course precisely what Tom Watson and his friends want as long as Corbyn remains leader. 

The overwhelmingly sentiment at the Gala, however, pointed in a different direction – that of an insurgent fighting left. It’s still about austerity, and about building the class unity required to defeat it. It’s not about whether you want a Tory Brexit or Remain. It’s about whether you want a Tory government or a Corbyn government. 

The immediate priority going forward now is to make the People’s Assembly demonstration at the Tory Party conference in Manchester Saturday 29th September as big and as vibrant as possible. As austerity continues to burn through people lives, and the Tory government responsible for it tearing itself apart in the midst of a massive existential crisis, the opportunities are there for the left to go on the offensive.

In her excellent speech, Durham’s very own Laura Pidcock MP offered words of encouragement which everyone would do well to heed:

“Take your anger, take your pain, take your frustration, take your deep dissatisfaction with this system and occupy every single space with your politics without embarrassment, without hesitation, and without fear because there is nothing more important than this political project.”