“It’s infectious, and I’d bet any trade union member attending for the first time will want to return to the Durham Miners’ Gala,” said plumber Pat McCourt, chair of the Unite Yorkshire and Humberside regional committee.
Sometimes called ‘Durham Big Meeting’ the Gala was first held in 1871 and last year’s, on Saturday July 10th, brought over 100,000 on to the windy cobbled streets of the historic Cathedral city of Durham.
Ed Malcolm was a miner until the Tories closed Westoe Colliery, where he worked for more than 20 years. Today he is employed as an advice worker at Middlesbrough Citizens Advice Bureau. He said: “It’s always marvellous to see so many people. I’d describe the gala as a carnival of working class solidarity and community spirit. Which is why it was important to keep it going, by inviting other unions to get involved, after the mines were closed in the 80s and 90s.
The closures were major acts of industrial sabotage. We had the cheapest coal in the industrialised world, but the Margaret Thatcher and John Major Government’s wanted to destroy the post-war social-democratic consensus. To do so they needed to cripple the National Union of Mineworkers as an example to other trade unionists. Coal from places where workers were little more than slaves, such as South Africa and Columbia, replaced British coal in the electricity generating stations.
They also made sure research efforts to develop clean coal technology and carbon capture were starved of funds. I was on strike for a year in 1984 but eventually we were virtually starved back to work and the pits were closed. But if the Tories hoped to extinguish people’s spirits the turn out at the gala shows they’ve failed.”
John Chilton, the Unite Convenor at Cleveland Potash Limited near Whitby agrees saying; “as one of the UK’s few remaining miners I find the Gala to be an uplifting event and each year we are finding more members are wanting to get involved. Our aim is to have a new banner made in time for this year’s and we will march proudly behind it.”
Which is exactly what Unite finance sector members were doing last year, their new banner having its first outing. One of those accompanying it was Ruth Creaney, senior workplace rep for Barclays across the north of the UK, who said she was “fully behind keeping alive this traditional trade union event that is built on the values of collective organising and solidarity. It’s also a very colourful spectacle and it’s great to see the dozens of Miners’ banners from across Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire being paraded and listen to the accompanying brass bands.”
According to Pat McCourt: “The banners are one of the real highlights of the Gala. Each miner’s lodge/branch had or has one and the decision as to what to include on it is very important. At Dean and Chapter in Ferryhill, my father’s workplace for many years, the banner shows two white and one black miner. This represents the internationalism of the trade union movement. Other banners depict important political figures such as A J Cook the mineworker’s leader in the 1926 General Strike. They make an impressive sight, including the new ones.”
In 2010 there were two new banners, from Eldon Drift and Usworth, on display. Costing as much as £15,000 their design and creation is a community effort in which children play a prominent part.
“They are the future of the region, but it’s important they have some understanding of the past and the banners are a creative way of interesting the children in local history. It seems to work as each year more children and young people are getting involved in the banner projects, often working alongside their parents and grandparents” says Ed proudly.
Other youngsters are also getting involved in the Gala through the brass bands that accompany the marchers behind the banners. The bands have always been an important part of cultural life in mining communities. Today they continue to provide opportunities for cash strapped working class young people to learn how to play a musical instrument they could never afford to purchase themselves.
According to Paul Meszaros, who works for Hope Not Hate in Yorkshire, the combination of marchers, banners and brass bands is “a powerful one especially when each Miner’s lodge halts to play a popular tune and receive a salute from the VIPs on the balcony of the Royal County Hotel. They then proceed down to the Racecourse ground next to the River Wear where there were stalls, fairground attractions and a chance to have a picnic with friends and family before the speeches started after lunch.”
Last years speakers included Ken Livingstone, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Chris Baugh, PCS Assistant General Secretary, Adla Khalaf, an advisor on water issues to Palestinian negotiators and Unite assistant general secretary Len McCluskey, who said that in light of the attacks to be faced by working people from the new Government “the community spirit and solidarity on display was going to be needed more than ever in the future.”
In the past speakers have included Labour Leader Clement Attlee, Mrs Bessie Braddock MP, Harold Wilson, Arthur Scargill, Bob Crow and Dennis Skinner. Skinner, a regular at the Gala, is a big fan of the day saying: “I think people leave the Gala feeling better. It is the kind of place where they get lifted in good times and in bad.”