Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Durham Miners' Gala Remains A Very Special Event

I was at the Durham Miners' Gala on Saturday.  It remains a very special event.  For those who haven't been, all of the local pit villages march through the centre of Durham and towards the 'racecourse' with banners and brass bands.

Around 50,000 ordinary, working class people from the North East of England and further afield gathered in Durham for the Durham Miners' Gala or 'The Big Meeting'. It is a great symbol of working class communities pulling together and the pride of our communities in our industrial heritage.  It is a great celebration of the glory of a great industrial past.  Although some people turn up for the left wing politics being served up, most people are there as a reminder of the sacrifices made by our forefathers and the great industrial tradition of our area.

When I was  growing up in Consett, the Gala was always a massive event and remains the biggest event of its kind in Europe.  The brass bands, the remarkable banners, the folk songs and speeches and even the cathedral service are all reminders of the working class history, sacrifice and ideas. It is an event deeply entrenched in North Eastern working class culture and as far away from the rarefied atmosphere of North London coffee shops as can be imagined.

On the same day as this massive celebration of working class history, culture and identity, the candidates for the Labour Party leadership were gathered for a hustings in Southampton!!

It wasn't always that way. The photo above shows Jim Callaghan and Harold Wilson arriving at a Gala in the 1970s. Every Labour leader until Tony Blair  attended and often addressed the Gala. Indeed, many of the banners carry images of the likes of Keir Hardie and Clem Attlee. It seems extraordinary that the Labour leadership candidates didn't speak to such a totemic, historic event, at a time when they are talking about re-engaging with ordinary working people.

Politicicians like talking about community.  I doubt that they will find many better examples of communities  pulling together in celebration and through the most severe adversity than the pit villages of the North East of England.  Politicians like talking about re-engaging with ordinary people but it is the sad truth that the Miners' Gala too often represents people who have been ignored and taken for granted by all parties for too long.  All too often, political events and hustings are regimentally organised affairs - open only to political hacks.  The cut and thrust of the open political meeting sometimes seems to be a thing of the past.

Herbert Morrison famously said that we shouldn't join the European Coal and Steel Community because "the Durham miners wouldn't wear it".  It is a shame that contestants for the Labour leadership and politicians from all parties aren't giving the same level of respect to the descendants of the people who were shown such reverence by Morrisson, Bevin and Attlee.

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