miners banner Durham Miners' Gala. Photo: James Doran

This year’s gala was blessed with a massive turnout and a mood of jubilation

The Durham Miners’ Gala is one of the great working class events. It’s a festival where brass bands from all the former pit towns and villages in the area march to the town and then process through Durham’s beautiful winding streets to the Big Meeting in a huge sports field by the river. It has kept alive the memory of the coal miners’ great tradition of struggle, but it has done a lot more than that. It has become a festival of working class resilience and resistance.

This year organisers estimated 200,000 people joined the bands and the banners on the procession. Interspersed with the miners’ bands and their historic banners were big contingents from Unite, PCS, Unison, NASUWT and RMT as well as banners from a number of campaign groups including Women Against State Pension Inequality, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and the Stop the War Coalition.

This year’s gala was a big contrast with last year’s. One difference was that Dave Hopper, the dynamic and outspoken organiser of the Gala over many years, tragically passed away last year. This year’s organisers have done his memory proud. The last one took place in the middle of the coup attempt by Blairite and other right wingers against Jeremy Corbyn. There was determination and solidarity but not much celebration. This year the gala was blessed with non-stop sunshine, a massive turnout and a mood of jubilation. Where last year there was some controversy about Corbyn’s leadership, this year the vast majority backed him and backed him enthusiastically. The crowd that assembled to hear him speak at the Big Meeting was absolutely massive, at least double the size of last year’s.

The speakers reflected this mood. Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, said he hadn’t been able to wipe the smile off his face since June 8. As he and other speakers noted, a whole lot has happened in the last year. Corbyn and his team courageously saw off the attempts to summarily remove him, then won a second leadership election and increased his majority. And when just two months ago Theresa May called a snap election to take advantage of the Tories‘ massive poll lead, as Angela Rayner MP put it, ‘she underestimated Jeremy, she underestimated the Labour Party, but most of all she underestimated the British people.’ The election result sent shockwaves through the establishment, but there can be no doubt it has transformed the mood in the working class movement. Most important, as Matt Wrack, General Secretary of the Fire Brigade’s Union, said to a massive cheer, what has happened in the last year is that socialism is back on the agenda.

Many of the speakers talked movingly about the horrors and the lessons of the Grenfell tragedy and enthusiastically about the the new programme for change contained in Labour’s manifesto. They also spoke of signs of a new confidence for action in the workplace. As Len McCluskey said, it was anger at the pay cap that spilled out on the streets in last Saturday’s fantastic Not One More Day demonstration. Huge cheers went up in support of the striking hospital cleaners, Job Centre workers taking action in Sheffield, and the Teaching Assistants who have fought and won in the North East. Film director Ken Loach talked about the significance of this, stressing that a future Corbyn government would face smears and provocations from the establishment and that increased working class organisation and confidence was going to be vital in sustaining the Corbyn project.

Jeremy Corbyn’s speech outlined a complete change in direction for British society and was received ecstatically. He didn’t duck some of what are often regarded as more difficult arguments. He stressed international solidarity and called for respect, dignity and welcome for refugees and he demanded an end to the wars that have been supported by successive governments over the last few decades. He also made it clear that he and his team are not going to be able to force through this programme on their own. ‘If we want change you are going have to stay organised’ he said ‘we are going to need all the support we can get’. Today in Durham that support was there for all to see.

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.