The Big Meeting – also known as the Durham Miner’s Gala – is a unique event. Yesterday’s procession is reputed to have been the largest since before the 1984-85 Miner’s strike at over 200,000 – and yet, as Dennis Skinner reminds us here, there are not only no working pits in Durham any more but no working pits in Britain. It’s an event that has been and is continually remade – whether by the creation of new lodge banners by children and young people from mining communities or the presence of contemporary campaigning banner such as Kill the Bill on the march.
It is difficult to quantify the actual size of an event that snakes through narrow cobbled streets and is broken up not only by banners but by brass (and an increasing number of pipe) bands from 8am in the morning . Crowds line the road and throng the steps to watch, especially as each band stops outside the (posh town centre) County Hotel where trade union leaders and often MPs applaud the performances from the balcony.
This year there was a visiting band from Notting Hill, though I am not sure whether it made it to the County at all or whether it diverted off to the Cathedral for the ‘Blessing of the Banners’ service – certainly I never got to see or hear it.
The event at the Cathedral is a part of the day I’ve always avoided – it would mean leaving the rally at the racecourse before the end and it’s not even like the service at Tolpuddle where a wreath is laid on the grave of martyr James Hammet, the only one of the six to return to the village which takes place before the march. Durham’s Anglican service started only in 1897 so 18 years after the Gala itself
One of these days I will find time to dig further into the history of the Big Meeting. After all Durham is not the place you would necessarily expect to play such a pivotal role in creating and sustaining an event that shapes and is shaped by coalfield cultures across the whole of Britain. Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire at least would all seem to have a stronger claim in terms of consistent militancy. The contrast between the town dominated by the castle, the cathedral and the university seems more evident than in industrial cities like Glasgow, Cardiff or Sheffield. But Durham produced the gala and also Redhills, probably the finest, purpose-built trade union building in Britain currently closed for long needed refurbishment.
The Big Meeting has a lengthy relationship with Labour leaders – as can be seen from this photo gallery. But it’s not an uncomplicated connection– Kinnock spoke in 1983 and 84, his first two years as Labour leader but not later. Whether he wasn’t invited back because of his increasingly conflicted relationship with Arthur Scargill and the leadership of the NUM or made his excuses not to come I don’t know.
No other Labour leader until Milliband appeared on the balcony and stage – and it seems highly unlikely that Blair was never invited. Corbyn was a hugely popular participant in the Gala which grew during his years as Labour leader. Other Labour MPs have also been among the speakers – Dennis Skinner, himself a former miner, addressed the crowd for many years and local MP Laura Pidcock was also very popular. This year no MP spoke – and while I was watching there were no MPs on the balcony at the County. Starmer apparently had a long standing family engagement…
The crowd almost turned this situation around over the heads of the organisers. Jeremy Corbyn was on the platform – one of around 30 or so up there – and was greeted with the usual refrain of ‘O Jeremy Corbyn’ as he took to the stage. At the end of the rally, the Durham Miner’s Association’s (DMA’s) Secretary Alan Mardghum gave the closing address in which he argued the importance of electing a Labour government, yes, but one committed to the policies of the 2019 manifesto. As he finished the rounds of ‘O Jeremy Corbyn became louder than the applause, quickly followed by chants of speech, speech. After a minute or two Corbyn came to the front of the stage, took the microphone and said ‘solidarity’ and then moved away. Corbyn isn’t necessarily comfortable with ad lobbing on formal occasions – but I suspect he also didn’t want to embarrass the DMA who hadn’t invited him.
That’s not to say that the trade unionists who did address the crowd were not political – if we understand that word in its fullest sense – rather than a term that only relates to council chambers or parliaments. (You can see short clips from a number of speeches as well as scenes from the procession here.)First up was NASUWT’s Patrick Roach who received loud applause when he spoke about #BlackLivesMatter. He was followed by Unison’s Northern Regional secretary Clare Williams replacing that union’s General Secretary Christine McAnea who was apparently unwell. Her populist speech came over as very radical but many Unison activists will be rightly sceptical as to whether she or her allies in the union intend to deliver.
This year’s Gala was dedicated to key workers as the banner outside the Country showed. This not only determined the General Secretaries that were invited to address us but also led to other less known voices being heard. CWU member and postal worker Rohan Kan might have been at her first Gala but took to the podium like a duck to water. “People have suffered for too long from a lack of power, but when we take action with our union, we take that power back… As a Sheffield lass, I know strength when I see it, and I know that together our unions are not just unbreakable, we are made of solid steel.”
Holly Johnston, a nurse and member of the GMB who was herself hospitalised during the pandemic and as a result of Long Covid is not currently able to return to her full time job on a cancer ward also spoke powerfully. We also watched a short video showing the contribution that other key workers made to keeping the world turning during the two long years where the pandemic meant the Gala was cancelled.
Rohan was followed by Grenfell’s Yvette Williams, asking that we “never say silent about anything” and explaining why the steel band from the biggest Carnival in the south had come north for the day. She was followed by the UCU’s Jo Grady who explained the four key lessons her miner father had taught her, of which the most important was “Nobody is better than you, but never think you are better than anyone else.”
Unite’s Sharon Graham got her first chance to address the Gala as leader of that union and spoke movingly about how she was the niece of a Durham miner killed in an industrial accident – for which the family received scant compensation. “The working class are sent out every time to deal with crises while others sit in their homes, and then when the crisis is over they expect us to pay for it… they have one hand in our pocket and the other one up our back… not this time… move the share price as well as the picket line”.
“We have to end the cycle of defeat and we have got to end the trap that has led us to trade our industrial power for political promises.” So far well said I thought, though I would have liked something more concrete. But then when she said “We don’t need legislation to co-ordinate our action, we can do that anyway” I was less happy. It’s fair enough to debate whether we need to enshrine the right to strike in law – but its absolutely above argument that the antiunion laws have shackled our movement for decades. Yes they need to be defied by industrial power – but they also need to be scrapped. (Listen to Sharon’s speech here)
The loud clapping and chanting that greeted the fact that the RMT’s Mick Lynch was next to address us paid tribute not only to that individual but to the huge boost so many trade unionists have received from seeing that union standing up to both bosses and government over recent weeks. “ A message must go out from this Big Meeting, we are back, the working class is back. And as you just heard from Sharon and the other speakers, we refuse to be meek, we refuse to be humble and we refuse to be poor anymore.” After speaking about the massacre of jobs at P&0 and why he didn’t care who was the leader of the Tory Party, he continued: “the RMT is ready to lead, and we will lead, but we need the big battalions of the union movement with us. … we need a co-ordinated campaign of strike action…. Rise up, solidarity” (Watch all of Mick’s speech below)
Back in London I’m already longing for next year’s Big Meeting as well as looking forward to Tolpuddle this coming weekend. Check out more about the Gala here here and here. Become a Marras (Friend of the Gala) here. And remember the slogan of the Durham miners’ Association is one we need to carry in our hearts during what could be a long hot summer: “The past we inherit, the future we build”
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