The Durham Miners’ Gala is the largest gathering of trade unionists in the country. This year it will also be a huge demonstration against Tory austerity, writes Peter Frost
“THE people’s flag is deepest red.” The words of that proud labour anthem come alive when the multitude of banners flutter in the breeze over the Gala in Durham.
The gala is an amazing heart-warming sight. Wave after wave of red and gold banners fill the streets, many feature working-class heroes from Lenin to Tony Benn. Many banners are accompanied by a brass band.
The many union banners all have their own individual stories to tell.
They are stories of struggle, of heroism, of suffering and of outstanding victories.
The banners all have one thing in common. They have inspired generations of working people, lifting the hearts and heads of those involved in working-class struggle. They still have the power to inspire militancy and unity today.
The miners’ gala — always known locally as the Big Meeting — has been going for 131 years.
The first was held in 1871 and since the very first event it has always been a thorn in the side of the ruling class. Cruel and greedy coal-owners hated it, but Maggie Thatcher hated it even more.
As well as a political meeting with speakers from the labour and trade union world dealing with the latest campaigns, it is also a rich festival of all that is best in working-class culture.
This year a major campaign has been launched to build support so that the Durham Big Meeting will carry on and mark its 150th anniversary.
A broad-based group met in Durham to form Marras of the Durham Miners’ Gala. “Marra” is a north-east term for friend or mate.
A leading voice in the new support group is veteran north-east actor Alun Armstrong.
The Get Carter, Braveheart and New Tricks TV star, originally from Stanley, Co Durham, told a preparatory rally in Durham last week that the gala was part of the “culture, heritage, and communal values of the north-east.”
Armstrong went on to tell the rally: “I’m proud to support the Friends of Durham Miners’ Gala and the marras campaign.
It is amazing that the gala goes from strength to strength even though the last pit closed 22 years ago.
The Gala in 1947 Picture from the Beamish Collection.
“Then, everyone thought the gala would fold but the people of the county have been joined by trade unionists from all over Britain and beyond.
“It is phenomenal that people still value their culture, heritage and communal values in such a positive display of solidarity.
“It makes me even more proud to be from the north-east and the son of a miner. It’s that pride that I’m sure brings people back to the gala year after year, generation after generation.”
It is now more than two decades since Thatcher’s vindictive attack on the British coal industry and the people who worked in it closed the last pit in the Durham coalfield.
Yet last year’s Big Meeting was bigger than for many years. The 2014 event was attended by more than 100,000 people, who cheered speeches by Labour MP Dennis Skinner and the NUT’s Christine Blower.
Also at last year’s gala two enormous losses to the labour movement Tony Benn and Bob Crow, both Durham gala heroes, were remembered.
Northern TUC regional secretary Beth Farhat told the Morning Star: “Durham Miners’ Gala is as important now as it was in the years when miners fought for justice and fairness in the workplace.
“It is great to see communities marching behind their banners to remember and preserve the civilising effect that collective action had on our society. And it is great to see so many unions from across the country making their way to Durham to join the celebration.”
Durham Miners’ Association general secretary Dave Hopper said: “Support for the gala is an inspiration to the rest of the labour and trade union movement. There has rarely been a time when that inspiration was needed more.
“It is only right that the other trade unions stand alongside the Durham Miners’ Association to keep the gala going. The miners’ association cannot go on forever, but the gala must and will.
“We hope the marras campaign will touch the hearts of all those who love the gala and its reasons for being. With the support of a mass membership, we can look forward to the 150th Durham Miners’ Gala and beyond.”
The friends have developed an online and social media membership service to allow supporters to contribute to the cost of staging the gala.
A spokesman said: “The rallying call is ‘Marras stick together’ and will feature strongly in this year’s Durham Miners’ Gala this Saturday.”
The appeal for mass membership comes after the Durham Miners’ Association announced two years ago that it needed backing to continue the historic gala.
“It is hoped that many of the 150,000 people we believe will attend this year’s gala will sign up.”
The Friends of Durham Miners’ Gala is run by a broad group of north-east trade unions, from teachers to firefighters. The group’s aim is to support the gala as being Britain’s biggest demonstration of community values and socialist principles.
You can find out more on the Friends of Durham Miners’ Gala website http://www.friendsofdurhamminersgala.org.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 11 July 2015