This year’s “Big Meeting” saw around 250,000 people gather to celebrate the traditions of the labour movement. The record crowd in attendance reflects the politicisation and radicalisation taking place in society, with workers and youth coming from far and wide to hear Corbyn and other leading figures speak about the fight for an alternative.
The Durham Miners Gala – “The Big Meeting” – is a major annual labour movement event held to celebrate the traditions of mining communities and the wider working class. This year’s event, which took place last Saturday on 8th July, saw the Gala celebrating its 133rd year of existence. And what a celebration it was!
It is estimated that an enormous crowd of between 200,000 and 250,000 people attended this year. This is akin to taking nearly the entire population of Newcastle Upon Tyne and cramming them into the narrow streets of Durham city centre. This huge number is the largest attendance for the Gala since the 1960s, highlighting the heightened political mood and radicalisation following the General Election last month.
The Gala is a day that everyone from the North East is proud of. It represents, not only our heritage, but also our future. Year after year, pride and hope bursts out of the North East, making this a nationally renowned event for the working class and miners. The Gala never fails to provide an enthusiastic atmosphere; and with recent events only adding to that enthusiasm, nothing else could have been expected this year from the biggest gathering of workers in Europe.
The politicisation in society could be gauged at this year’s event from how many people sat in the field to listen to the Gala’s speakers, with Jeremy Corbyn headlining. The massive field at the centre of the Gala was absolutely packed with people as far as the eye could see. One comrade said that this was the most people he had ever seen gathered in the field for the Miners’ Gala and imagined this must have been what the Gala looked at the peak of the labour movement.
The political mood was evident not just through the size of the crowds, but also from the plethora of Corbyn t-shirts and numerous Labour Party banners on display. By comparison, there was very little visible Labour Party presence last year.
Banners brandishing the images of Karl Marx, Keir Hardie and others couldn’t have been in a more fitting environment. There was a lively turnout from almost every aspect of the left, with an overwhelming number of people standing and watching the speakers in an almost equally overwhelming heat, brandishing red flags and placards.
The crimes committed against the miners and the working class as a whole are very much remembered here, and those wounds are still sore, as exemplified by the presence of campaigns such as the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign and, in a more humorous notion, doormats with Margaret Thatcher’s face on them.
Every single speaker took to the podium with a message of how the tides were turning in “our favour”.
One of the most eye-opening and passionate of these speeches was given by the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Matt Wrack, who focused mostly around the tragic events of Grenfell Tower. Informing the crowd about the bravery of the firefighters who had been involved, Wrack highlighted how their hard work and sacrifice was being undermined by the constant bombardment of austerity and under-funding by a government that is dangerously out of touch. This was a point that was reiterated by every speaker following.
The Gala also welcomed film producer and veteran of the labour movement, Ken Loach. Loach spoke on the need for another “Spirit of ‘45” where working class and trade union leaders “not only talk left, but act left”.
This rallying cry was then aptly followed up by Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite. McCluskey’s speech covered ground that many other trade union leaders might normally go out of their way to avoid, decrying the Grenfell Tower fire as “an act of murder” and announcing that “Blairism is finally dead”. Most impressively, McCluskey called out for a “socialist alternative” to our current system, a statement that was loudly approved of.
Jeremy Corbyn took to the podium last, being greeted by an ovation that would have taken the roof off of any indoor gig venue. Since Kier Hardie’s maiden appearance in 1906, Labour leaders and prime ministers have graced the stage at the Gala. None would likely have received the reception that Corbyn did at this year’s event, however, underlying the massive changes that have taken place within the Labour Party and wider society.
Corbyn touched on the fact that a radical manifesto had brought Labour to the brink of power. He hammered away at the fact that Theresa May’s government was unstable and unfit to rule and wryly mentioned that “they can feel free to resign at any time”. The nationalisation of the railways and the NHS were also brought up as key demands for Labour in the next election, as were calls for a national investment bank and a foreign policy based on peace and democracy. The massive crowd that had gathered by this point hung on his every single word.
The Durham Miner’s Gala is always a key barometer for the mood within the working class itself. Given this, and on the basis of this year’s event, it is clear that the potential for socialist ideas has never been greater.