Also known as The Big Meeting, the Gala celebrates the North East’s coal mining heritage and consequent trade unionism, and is the biggest event of its kind in the UK and one of the largest in Europe.
The Gala began in the early morning at the the city centre Market Place where bands, banners and spectators began to assemble to prepare for the march to the Racecourse. Almost 100 brass bands were in attendance which accompanied bannered processions from surrounding mining communities.
Upon arrival at the Racecourse, speeches were made by union leaders, local MPs and other notable dignitaries. These speeches were concluded by an address from Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, who spoke to an enthusiastic audience who had gathered from across the country and in some cases internationally on a rainy day in Durham.
In his fourth consecutive year of speaking at the Gala, the Labour Party leader spoke passionately about austerity, climate change and education. Corbyn also paid his respects to the region's mining communities, which "ensured miners were fed when the Tories were trying to starve them" and declared that a Labour Government would investigate the so-called Battle of Orgreave, when 95 mineworkers were arrested, though all charges were later dropped, and some were injured in South Yorkshire during the 1984 miners’ strike. Allegations of police misconduct claim that the striking miners were assaulted and falsely arrested, and has led to the Bishop of Sheffield supporting a review of the police’s response. This is something that former Home Secretary Amber Rudd ruled against in 2016, but an independent review is a cause that many Gala attendees felt passionately about.
Corbyn furthermore discussed the effects on austerity on the North East, describing its consequences of "poverty, grotesque over-crowding and a mental health crisis". He furthered this by saying how “the area has been hit very hard by Thatcher's Government and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat administration since 2010. Ever since then, we have all paid the price. This sense of inequality simply cannot go on. Our Labour Government will one that will end the political choice of austerity and gross inequality it has brought."
Criticising the current government, Corbyn said: "What they are really against is the program that Labour offers of redistribution of power and wealth and investment and to end the privilege of the few to advance the causes of the many. I want to lead Government that will transform society and offer real hope to the next generation. I urge you do not allow our movement to be divided. Do not allow our message to be distracted. Keep your eyes on the prize of getting rid of this Government and getting a Labour Government dedicated to the redistribution of power and wealth in our society."
"We will not allow or tolerate any shape or form of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or racism in our party our country."
Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party
Corbyn also used the opportunity to address recent criticisms of alleged anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, which had been the focus of a recent BBC Panorama documentary. Corby declared: "We will not allow or tolerate any shape or form of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or racism in our party our country. The only reply to racists is one of love and unity. If you are going down the road of blaming someone because they are a different colour or faith, you are short-changing those who went before us and we are destroying the hopes of those who come after us."
Despite recent divisions within the Labour Party over issues such as Brexit, Corbyn’s speech was very well received and was followed by the 'oh Jeremy Corbyn' chant, which was first heard in 2017 and was popularised at that year’s Glastonbury Festival.
Alan Mardghum, President and Secretary of the Durham Miners' Association, said: "Jeremy is the 15th leader of the Labour Party to speak at the Durham Miners' Gala and continues a tradition that dates back to the first Labour leader Keir Hardie, who spoke at The Big Meeting in 1906."
Other speakers at the event included North West Durham MP Laura Pidcock, shadow attorney general Baroness Chakrabarti, general secretary of Unite Union Len McCluskey and general secretary of UNISON Dave Prentis.
The speeches were followed by a traditional Miners’ Service at Durham Cathedral, which was accompanied by a reading by Ken Loach, the television and film director behind I, Daniel Blake.
This year’s Gala was also notable for the ultimately peaceful and harmonious atmosphere that prevailed. Despite over 100,000 attendees flocking to the city – which usually has an urban population of only 48,000 – Superintendent Richie Allen reported that police made only two arrests during the day. Attempts to disrupt Jeremy Corbyn mid-speech were handled peacefully by stewards from Durham Miners’ Association. The BBC estimated that around 200,000 people actually attended the event.
Speaking to the Courier, Jude-Kirton Darling, Labour MEP for the North East who regularly attends the event, said: "It was fantastic to once again join friends and comrades at the 135th Miners' Gala in Durham at the weekend – as always the Big Meeting celebrates the sense of community and solidarity in the North East, as well as our rich working class heritage. These are the main reasons why tens of thousands of people gather every year to celebrate together.
"Year on year it's been great to witness a rise in the numbers of young people and students attending the Big Meeting, a clear sign that our country's younger generations have strong socialist values and a keen interest in the history of the North East. Their participation is essential in proving that, far from dying when the coalfield was destroyed, the Durham Miners' Gala is thriving as one of the biggest and most colourful celebrations of trade union and community pride in the world. "
Christina Mueller-Stewart, Teaching Fellow in German at Newcastle University, attended the Gala as part of North East for Europe, a grassroots group of concerned local residents who think believe that EU membership offers social, cultural and economic benefits to the UK and in particular the North East.
Discussing the Miners' Gala, Mueller-Stewart said: "Durham, like Newcastle, is a university town with a proud industrial heritage. I believe it is important for students to engage with the heritage of their place of study and see how students and academics fit into this heritage and its legacy. Undoubtedly, the Durham Miners' Gala, the Big Meeting, has its roots in the mining industry, and it is important that we respect and remember this. It is true that most of us will not know the hardships miners and their families endured, nor how the closing of the pits in County Durham devastated communities. Having said that, we can still proudly celebrate the heritage of the mining communities by standing in solidarity with them. There is a proud tradition of doing just this, for example, in 1984 a group of lesbian and gay activists raised money to help families affected by the British miners' strike. I was delighted to meet some them, now in their 50s, in Durham on Saturday. Students who attend the Gala are well thought of and dispel the stereotype of students not caring, or even looking down on, local communities and traditions. The bottom line is, that no one is excluded from showing solidarity.
"NE4EU are a cross party group, we have members of the Labour Party, Lib Dems, Greens and Conservatives and many, such as me, who are not members of any party. The Gala is indeed a celebration of working-class solidarity and as such was attended by the left wing of the NE4EU committee and followers. As you know, the history of the Worker’s Movement is one of the topics I lecture on in my German History module. The worker’s movement was conceived as an international movement and workers have advanced their rights most successfully when working internationally. Brexit is a direct threat to employment and workers’ rights in the North East and nationally. There are indeed small groups within left-wing politics who believe that Brexit will lead to a worker’s revolution and a socialist Britain. We in NE4EU do not believe that this is realistic. Indeed, like so many reputable economists, we believe that Brexit would devastate the communities, left bereft after the closing of the pits, all over again. Of course, our pro-EU stance is not universally popular, but we proudly stand for Internationalism rather than isolation and shoulder to shoulder with the EU27 citizens in the North East, many of whom have become the victims of hate crime since the 2016 EU referendum.
"We could not keep up with demand for ‘Bollocks to Brexit / Bollocks to Boris’ stickers, even though we had several thousand"
Christina Mueller-Stewart, German Lecturer
"We had a fantastic time at the event and were armed with thousands of ‘Bollocks to Brexit / Bollocks to Boris’ stickers and also heart shaped stickers of our own design, listing the reason why the NE loves the EU, from clean beaches, over workers’ and women’s rights to free movement. We could not keep up with demand for ‘Bollocks to Brexit / Bollocks to Boris’ stickers, even though we had several thousand. In the end we had to peel them off our own bags and shirts to give to people who were desperate for them. A group of students from Stirling specifically asked to march with us and was quickly taken under our wing. Many gave us thanks and even hugs for continuing to stand up against Brexit. The Gala has had a revival in recent years, I feel it is as relevant at ever and this is shown by the many different organisations that march as part of it and the thousands who attend it. Many modern trade unions have a big presence at the Gala and these overwhelmingly back Remain. While the Big Meeting is true to its traditions, going back to the time before universal franchise and democracy as we would recognise it, it has also evolved and provides a platform from which the issues of the day, such as our place in the EU, can be addressed."
Also in attendance was Durham University’s Working Class Students Association (WCSA), who marched at the Gala for the first time. The WCSA was founded in the aftermath of a planned pub crawl organised by a rugby club at the University which was themed around the Miners’ Strike– themed pub crawl organised by. Following condemnation by the University, the event was cancelled and the rugby club suspended. Outgoing WCSA President Neve Ovenden said: “It is a huge honour for us to march at The Big Meeting, and show our solidarity with the Durham miners. We hope students and non-students alike will join us on the day for this great celebration of unity and working class pride.”
The WCSA furthered this: "Most students at the University remain oblivious to the rich mining history of County Durham throughout their period of study. As working-class students we seek out and create spaces in which we can celebrate our working-class identity and heritage with pride. The Miners' Gala is one such place. It is a celebration of working-class unity and solidarity. As working-class students, we can often feel pressured to abandon our identity and collective history in favour of individualism and social mobility, particularly in the elitist academic and social spaces of the elite university. The Gala reminds us of our continuing role in the struggle for economic and social justice and offers a community that feels like home."