Why the Durham Miners’ Gala Matters

133rd Durham Miners’ Gala – July 2017

In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell famously described a “startling and overwhelming” realisation upon arriving in Barcelona. As a result of the revolution, the city had been transformed into something he had never experienced before: “It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle”, he wrote.

On the second Saturday of each July, this is what you’ll find in Durham.

Durham City, an island of economic prosperity in a sea of deprivation will be completely transformed by a colourful, joyful procession of some 200,000 people marching with their miners’ and trades union banners. These ornate miners’ banners, which celebrate working-class history, achievements, heroes and values – as well as expressing future aspirations – are accompanied by some of the finest brass bands in the country, playing a mix of traditional and contemporary music.

When the second Durham Miners’ Gala or “Big Meeting” was held in 1872 – the first to march through the city – it sparked fears from the city’s well-to-do inhabitants, who were so troubled about this “invasion” of “their” city that the authorities moved to line the streets with militia men and police. Of course, these fears – borne out of class prejudice – were completely unfounded. Some 60,000 miners and their families marched through the city centre before gathering to hear speeches which emphasised the importance of trade unionism. Within a few years the Gala had grown exponentially, and a Miners’ Service in the Norman Cathedral was incorporated into the ritual of the Gala day. It quickly became the pre-eminent annual event in the labour movement’s calendar, a role which was sustained for almost the entirety of the 20th century.

In the 1980s and 1990s, attendance declined and there was talk in certain quarters that the Gala might not continue. Perhaps, as a result of the of the brutal 1984/5 strike and the devastating pit closure programme, the trauma and pain had left many in the local mining communities unable to celebrate “Durham day”. Politically, it was shunned by the ascendant “New Labour”, which treated working-class traditions with contempt and the Gala became a bastion of an increasingly marginalised “Old Labour.”

But it continued because ultimately, despite the destruction of their industry, the mining communities were not broken. In many of the pit villages, banner groups sprung up which raised funds to restore or replace their community’s miners’ banner. And the Gala evolved, as the procession was opened up to allow various trade unions and community and campaign groups to take part. Now, we are witnessing the unlikely fact that more than 20 years after the closure of the last pit in the County Durham, the Gala attracts crowds not seen since the 1960s – and there is the distinct possibility in the near future the Gala will be addressed by a Labour Prime Minister.

There is no definitive interpretation of what the Gala means to those who attend. Some go to meet up with friends and family. Some to honour the memory of loved ones. Others express their pride in their own community by marching with their colliery banner. Many socialists and trade unionists travel from all over the country to get fired up or feel rejuvenated. No doubt for some, it will be a combination of all these things.

Inevitably, because of what it represents, there have been attempts to dismiss this extraordinary festival as merely an excuse for a booze-up or a futile exercise in nostalgia. But no-one who has attended could come away with such a misguided impression.

So, if you’ve never been before, put the Durham Miners’ Gala on your bucket list. Soak it up for just a few hours. Listen to the brass bands, whether they are playing “Walking on Sunshine” or “Gresford”. Go to the Miners’ Festival Service and witness the banners being blessed in the Cathedral. Watch working-class communities collectively and individually express total pride in who and what they are – and get a little glimpse of what our society could one day become.

In the words of the hymn “These Things Shall Be”, which inspired previous generations in the mining communities: “Every life shall be a song/ When all the earth is paradise.”

Pelton+Fell+

Pelton Fell Lodge Miners’ Banner

Advertisements
Standard

“Nowhere Else to Go”: The Truth About New Labour, Corbyn and Labour’s Heartlands

14947909_10157552543312355_3408696240562499623_n

Jeremy Corbyn at the Durham Miners’ Gala in July 2016 {Photograph ©Tom Eden}

In recent times, various claims have been put forward in defence of the New Labour project. However, the latest by Phil Wilson MP is so fantastical that only a true believer could have the audacity to make such remarks with a straight face. Wilson’s claim is that New Labour was somehow the product of and informed by, working-class demands. According to an account of a recent seminar in The Independent, Wilson told the audience that New Labour was “rooted in making a difference for the working-class communities of the former coalfields of the North-East.”

In reality, the exact opposite was true. New Labour consciously and deliberately shunned working-class communities. One of its fundamental articles of faith was that working-class voters did not matter because as Peter Mandelson put it, they had ‘nowhere else to go’. Instead, it was ‘middle England’ that had to be courted. As for the organised working class – the trade union movement – Blair boasted of having ‘the most restrictive labour laws in the Western world’ and became the first Labour leader to refuse to address the Durham Miners’ Gala – Britain’s most important and historic working-class festival. The New Labour machine repeatedly parachuted in middle-class MPs into working-class constituencies. Think Blair in Sedgefield, David Miliband in South Shields, Peter Mandelson in Hartlepool, Tristram Hunt in Stoke or Douglas Alexander in Renfrewshire. Unsurprisingly, New Labour’s tenure in office saw working-class support collapse, something which Ed Miliband proved incapable of addressing during his time as Labour leader.

Wilson’s prescription for Labour’s dismal election result of 2015 was to revert to Blairism – a view shared by only 4.5% of the party membership. Since Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, Wilson has relentlessly been on the attack, showing total disdain for the views of the membership in the process. He was an active player in the ‘coup’, accusing Corbyn of ‘sabotage’ and demanded his immediate resignation after the EU referendum result, as well as backing the ‘no confidence’ motion in the PLP. Still unable to come to terms with the democratic verdict of the party membership, during last year’s general election, he issued an incredibly reckless and self-indulgent leaflet which stated, “I put local people first. If this means standing up to May, I do. If this means opposing Corbyn, I do.” Such was its design and content that, at first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking it was not the literature of a Labour candidate. For good measure, he then told the press: “People don’t like Corbyn; I don’t like Corbyn”.

18601248_1335910869834097_1150418367_n

Wilson’s election leaflet which included an endorsement from an Independent Councillor.

Despite being proven decisively wrong by the general election result, Wilson has not relented. Immediately after the election, he criticised Labour’s immensely popular policy platform, branding our tuition fees policy as “middle class”. Quite how New Labour’s abolition of universal education through the introduction and subsequent trebling of tuition fees helped working-class students is never explained. In fact, evidence points the other way. As Professor Claire Callender recently concluded: ‘Working-class young people are far more likely than students from other social classes to avoid applying to university because of debt fears.’

Last year’s general election result vindicated the much-derided supporters of Corbyn. Despite all the warnings of impending doom and despite the unhelpful antics of the mischief-makers within our own ranks, Labour’s vote increased, including amongst working-class voters.

Wilson has made much of an apparent working-class ‘swing’ towards the Tories, yet the story was not one of working-class Labour voters abandoning Corbyn’s Labour for May’s Tories. It was simply inevitable that with the collapse of UKIP, the working-class Tory vote would increase. The idea that UKIP posed the greater threat to Labour was, to a large extent, a media-driven exaggeration. Its Thatcherite, anti-Europe agenda always appealed most to Tory working-class (as well as middle-class) voters, which in many cases rendered Labour the beneficiary of a split right-wing vote. Last summer, the majority of these voters simply returned to the Tory fold.

At long last, after years of neglect and complacency, the long process of winning back the trust of working-class communities is underway. As the election showed, we are reconnecting with people in our traditional heartlands such as Wales and Scotland. And here in the North East, Labour’s vote went up in every single constituency, including those in the former coalfields. Even in Bishop Auckland, which Wilson points to in support of his thesis, Labour’s vote saw a substantial increase compared with 2015 and 2010. The notion that vote increases in Blaydon, Blyth, Wansbeck and Easington can be attributed to “students and middle class voters” should be treated with the derision it deserves. We are re-connecting in other important ways too. Labour’s association with the trade union movement is now a source of pride and our leadership backs workers in industrial disputes.

As all Wilson appears capable of offering in support of his claims are anecdotes, I have one of my own. When canvassing in Bishop Auckland during the general election, I spoke to a man who had never voted before but was voting Labour because of our commitment to a £10 an hour minimum wage.

If you want to see where unchecked Blairism leads to, look at Labour’s electoral disaster in Scotland in 2015, where New Labour devotees such as Jim Murphy, Douglas Alexander and John McTernan led the charge into oblivion. Or look around at the recent dismal electoral performances of the SPD and many of our other European sister parties which have failed to break decisively with the so-called “Third Way”.

The saving grace is of course that thanks to a democratic revolution in the Labour Party, the leading lights in the New Labour clique no longer hold sway. Instead, they now appear reduced merely to unconvincing attempts to rehabilitate their own record and indulging in increasingly incoherent and self-serving criticisms of Labour’s modern mainstream.

Standard

7 Ways Jeremy Corbyn’s Leadership has Changed Labour for the Better

Britain Refugee March

Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a solidarity with refugees demonstration 12th September, 2015. (AP Photo)

A curious notion that is seemingly gaining traction is that under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour still essentially stands for the same polices as we did under Ed Miliband. So here’s my attempt to set out some clear differences, which I believe represent substantial improvements in several key policy areas.

  1. Austerity: For the previous leadership, committing to an anti-austerity economic approach would jeopardise our “economic credibility”. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls announced that a Labour government would stick to Tory spending plans, which would involve making severe cuts. Labour now unambiguously rejects austerity as a means of economic recovery and new Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s “fiscal rule” does not commit Labour to any cuts.
  2. Welfare: On numerous occasions under Miliband, Labour failed to oppose government attacks on welfare. On the Bedroom Tax, the Labour leadership prevaricated, as Shadow DWP Minister Liam Byrne refused to commit to abolishing the Bedroom Tax, and it wasn’t until September 2013 that Miliband actually pledged to scrap it. Worse was the abstention on the government’s illegal use of workfare in March 2013. A year later, Labour MPs were whipped to vote for the welfare cap. Under Corbyn’s leadership, every single attack on social security from the Welfare Bill (in October 2015), Tax Credits cuts and cuts to PIP and ESA has been opposed outright.
  3. Trade unions: When public sector workers took strike action in June 2011, Miliband gave an interview in which he repeatedly said “these strikes are wrong”, and later went along with the fabrications about Unite’s role in the Falkirk selection. Contrast this to Corbyn and John McDonnell, who have stood in solidarity on picket lines and rallies with the junior doctors. Furthermore, Corbyn has committed Labour to significantly strengthening trade union rights in Britain, such as a return to collective bargaining.
  4. Railways: Previous Labour policy was to legislate to allow a public sector operator to be able to bid for franchises alongside private operators. Corbyn by contrast has pledged to return railways back into public ownership as the franchises expire.
  5. Education: Miliband backed the idea of tuition fees, arguing that fees should be reduced from £9k to £6k a year. Corbyn has repeatedly argued for the total abolition of tuition fees.
  6. Foreign policy: To his credit, during his tenure Miliband did whip the PLP against bombing Syria and for recognising the state of Palestine. And on the Iraq war, Miliband stated that Labour was “wrong”, although Corbyn went considerably further by making a full apology. But Corbyn represents a very clear break, given that Miliband backed the bombing of Libya in 2011 and Iraq in 2014 and supported Trident renewal.
  7. Immigration: Ahead of last year’s general election Miliband indulged in a crass attempt to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment with a ‘controls on immigration’ pledge, which was infamously carved into stone and printed on mugs. There was also a pledge to ban new EU migrants from receiving any kind of social security for at least two years. Contrast this to Corbyn, who has repeatedly praised the contribution of migrants to society and the economy; pointed out during the EU referendum campaign that Britain could not have access to the single market but reject freedom of movement and whose first act as Labour leader was to address a demonstration in solidarity with refugees.
Standard

Davey Hopper: A working class hero

12046814_10156558255452355_1175985035930613064_n

Hearing of the death of Davey Hopper on Saturday evening was incredibly sad and came as a terrible shock. Just a few days earlier I’d shared a lovely lunch with Dave and his wife Maritza. Dave was in great spirits after the Gala, which had seen a record number of people on the racecourse and was particularly enthused that so many young people had been there. Already, he had his sights set on the campaign to get Jeremy Corbyn re-elected and was looking forward to playing his part.

I have heard many accounts of Davey’s activities in the NUM, including his heroics during the 1984/5 strike and his activism in the Labour Party over many decades, which I hope other tributes do full justice to. But I can only really speak of what I’ve seen first-hand in the past couple of years.

On a personal level he was a very generous man, who always had time for people. He had his firmly held views and was never afraid to express them, but he was not a remotely egotistical person. In fact, he was very self-effacing and was constantly talking up and encouraging others. He also had a great, often mischievous sense of humour and was a brilliant raconteur.

Davey’s commitment to the class and community that he came from was absolute. Were it not for the endeavours of Davey and his colleagues at the DMA, thousands of people in County Durham and beyond would not have received a penny of compensation for terrible, debilitating industrial diseases such as vibration white finger, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Not only that, but many people would have gone without representation and support in employment tribunals and social security claims.

In addition, along with his friend and comrade the late Dave Guy, he made sure that the Durham Miners’ Gala not only survived after the closure of the pits, but continued to thrive.

He was a proud socialist and a critic of wars and nuclear weapons, believing that instead, those funds should be invested into jobs, housing, health and education for the benefit of ordinary people. He was also a passionate internationalist, who had a real knowledge of workers’ struggles in other countries and always ensured that the Gala’s great internationalist tradition was upheld by inviting international speakers.

Over the past year Davey was as active as ever. He attended countless trade union conferences, urging delegates to stay strong and never give in. He backed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid from day one, and memorably delivered a blistering speech at the North East rally in support of Jeremy which earned him a standing ovation. He was a strong supporter of the local anti-racist and anti-fascist movement, the local Socialist Clothing Bank and was at the forefront of forging links between the DMA and LGBT rights activists. Furthermore, just in the past few months, in the face of a lot of pressure, he stood in total solidarity with local teaching assistants facing a pay cut and of course, continued to stand shoulder to shoulder with Jeremy Corbyn. And just a few days prior to this year’s Gala, he addressed an NUT strike rally in Durham. For Davey, solidarity was not just a word; it was a way of life.

Since Davey’s untimely death, I have frequently cast my mind to the Gala earlier this month. What a moment of triumph and vindication. Davey was one of those who kept the flame alive in some very dark times for our movement: when Thatcherism ripped the heart out of the mining communities and when New Labour shunned working-class communities and the trade union movement. And yet, last Saturday, there he was, side by side with his old friends Jeremy Corbyn and Dennis Skinner, being cheered on by a massive and youthful crowd, the like of which has not been seen in recent times. After many years of condescension and derision about being “stuck in the past”, here was irrefutable proof that in fact, it is Davey’s vision for society which represents the future.

A fighter, an organiser, an intellect, an orator – Davey had it all and I miss him greatly already.

“He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”

Rest in peace Davey and thank you for everything marra.

Standard

The myth of Jeremy Corbyn’s social media ‘echo chamber’

7b6286a7-f8c3-4040-826f-e589437f2c60-1360x2040

One of the big misconceptions about doing politics on social media is that it invariably amounts to nothing more than an inward-looking ‘echo chamber’ or ‘bubble’ in which the converted merely preach to the converted in a sealed off parallel universe.

This claim has repeatedly been made in relation to Jeremy Corbyn’s use of social media during his leadership campaign, with MPs such as Tristram Hunt and Caroline Flint as well as publications from the New Statesman to the Spectator all making this assertion. 

But as the following Facebook messages show, far from being an insular ‘echo chamber’, through social media, Jeremy Corbyn was able to reach out well beyond his existing supporters in the Labour Party and successfully engage with lots of people, many of whom felt completely disengaged from politics.

‘Hello I’m a non-voter (or been on the voting register) because I’ve never agreed with any parties!! I’ve been long awaiting a hero like Jeremy … I want him as our nation’s leader!!’ – Gareth

‘Never had I trust of politics before. You are the first politician I have made a donation to. You are the hope of millions.’ – Sohail

‘I have not voted for years due to all the parties standing to the right of middle. But if you are elected Labour leader I will join your party for standing up for the poor/working class and not the corporations who run our country today.’ – Paul

‘Good luck Jeremy!! have everything crossed!! You have given a desperate single mum hope for a better future for myself and my children. Bless you.’ – Rachael

”What an amazing and inspiring few weeks this has been… I joined the Labour Party two weeks ago – aged 47 and the first time I have belonged to a political party. The campaign is incredible.”   – Amanda

‘Jeremy I am excited about politics again for the first time in a long time. I am waiting with bated breath for the announcement due at about 11.30am. I am nervous but pray that you will become the leader of our Labour party. A leader I can trust in to run Britain correctly and ethically.’ – Rosie

‘Congratulations Mr Corbyn. I felt compelled to message you to congratulate you on your successful leadership. I have never voted Labour nor Tory as to be honest I have never really come across anyone in any party that has made me want to vote for them or trust them but having followed you and listened to your views and outlook you are the first person who has really caught my attention as a man who is true to himself and true to his values, I think politics and governments have lacked these qualities for a long time and I have faith that a man like you can really make the difference and be the voice that we are all needing. Keep up the good work and you have my vote I guarantee. Congratulations again.’ – Stuart.

‘Congratulations on winning Labour leadership you are a flash of hope for millions of people like myself who thru Tory policies are struggling to survive you are the bringer of hope.’  – Bernadette

‘Congratulations Jeremy Corbyn very pleased you have spoken up for so many of us who felt no one was listening, keep up the brilliant work. A very happy supporter.’ – Sean

‘Staying true to my word I have left UKIP and come back to the Labour Party, well done Corbyn!!!’ – Sam

‘I’ve never been a member of any political party but I would join and vote if Jeremy was a candidate. I’m sure plenty of others would do the same.’ – Jo

‘Well, I’m in! A politician that seems to have integrity, that’s a bit of an oxymoron these days. I like what you’re saying Jeremy Corbyn, you can count on my vote. Thanks for giving us a voice.’ – Rex

So, social media should not be caricatured. It is by no means a silver bullet, but it does have the potential to engage, to challenge, to convince, to inspire and to empower people. Which may well explain why some are so keen to dismiss it.

Standard

Why Jeremy Corbyn showed just as much respect as anyone else

Jeremy Corbyn is a republican and a non-believer, so it would be totally insincere of him to sing the national anthem: ‘God Save the Queen.’

jez anthemInstead, he chose to stand in respectful silence: remembering those who died, as well as remembering his mum who served as an air raid warden and his dad who served in the Home Guard.

A generation of brave men and women fought fascism so that people could live in a society where they were free to choose to think and to act as their conscience dictates.

Those who want to force their beliefs onto others seem to have forgotten that.

Standard

5 reasons why Jeremy Corbyn can win in 2020

  1. Increasing the electorate: The idea of engaging with people who have stopped voting is often dismissed with a remark along the lines of: ‘the trouble with non-voters is that they tend not to vote.’ But this is because many people feel that they haven’t got anything to vote for. Worryingly, between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost 5 million voters, the vast majority of whom didn’t vote for other parties but simply stayed at home. Under Jeremy, all that can change. Even his critics cannot deny that Jeremy is enthusing people who were previously disengaged by politics, as well as crucially, inspiring young people, a group of people who haven’t voted in large numbers in recent elections. 15 million people didn’t vote at the last election. Low turnouts always benefit the Tories and harms Labour’s chances.

    Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally in Glasgow, 14th August 2015

    Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally in Glasgow, 14th August 2015

  2. Winning back Scotland: Winning back Scotland in 5 years will be a mammoth, if not impossible task. But we can only begin this process if we recognise the SNP won a landslide in Scotland largely because it was able to position itself as anti-austerity and more committed to traditional Labour values, outflanking Labour to its left on issues like Trident, tuition fees and prescription charges. Jeremy’s stance on all these key issues chimes with the Scottish electorate and can win people back to Labour. (Similarly, only through this approach can we ensure that Plaid Cymru does not continue to erode the Labour vote in Wales for similar very reasons).
  3. Winning back Green voters: Although the Greens polled a just over million votes nationally, it had a devastating impact on Labour. For example, in Morley and Outwood, in which Ed Balls lost to the Tories by just over 400 votes, the Greens got over 1200 votes. In total, there were 10 seats which Labour would have won had they secured the bulk of the Green vote. Jeremy’s policies connect with many Green voters and members, some of whom have already been won back to the Labour fold.
  4. Winning back UKIP voters: It’s perfectly possible for Labour to simultaneously win back voters to the left and the right. That’s because although UKIP was founded by, is led by and funded by ex-Tories, many ex-Labour voters turned to UKIP not because of its Thatcherism but out of protest and frustration with Labour taking them for granted. Jeremy can reconnect with these voters and indeed it was no real surprise that a recent poll showed he was the most popular amongst UKIP voters. Furthermore, instead of pandering to UKIP’s solutions (remember that ‘controls on immigration’ mug?) which unsurprisingly didn’t work as it only reinforced UKIP’s credibility, Labour can win voters back by highlighting the real causes of low pay, the housing crisis and unemployment and putting forward serious solutions which address these concerns.
  5. Shifting the centre ground: A lot can change in 5 years. If we start to set out a clear and coherent alternative now, we can shift the so-called centre ground of British politics away from Thatcherism and back to where it should be. As long as austerity is seen as ‘common sense’ and the only option the Tories will have the upper hand. Jeremy can win support by putting popular policies like taking the railways and utilities into public ownership back onto the agenda which will translate into electoral support in 2020. His proposals are perfectly workable and credible. In fact, there’s not one policy which Jeremy has put forward whether it be a living wage, public ownership of the railways or rent controls which isn’t already working in practice elsewhere in Europe.
Standard