The Defiance of Durham

The achievements of mining communities and unions are celebrated in spite of the conditions in which they arose, not because of them, and this heritage also fuels today's struggles.

An under-reported highlight of this year’s Durham Miners’ Gala was Shadow Labour Minister Laura Pidcock’s address, which combined practical promises for government with barnstorming rhetoric urging socialists to take heart when under fire. The day’s speakers, stalls and music took in not only industrial history but also contemporary workplace struggles, low pay and zero-hour contracts, as well as international solidarity. Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long Bailey’s speech drew a link between past and present generations: the political onslaught of the 1980s on organised labour and the industries where it was based had been intended to snuff out both ideological and practical bases of support for socialism, but the past few years’ surge in support for a left alternative to the status quo demonstrates how deeply it still resonates both with those who endured the 80s and with the generations that followed them.

A generational perspective is also useful for assessing the legacy of heavy industry. Despite the iconic place of coalmining, shipbuilding and steelworking in socialist politics and culture, it is also well-remembered that the majority of such workers wanted a less dangerous, injurious and exhausting job for their descendants. But the point of events like the Durham Miners’ Gala is to remember, not to romanticise: coalmining was and remains an emblematic example of how organised workers can act together to make barely tolerable working lives more bearable, with their efforts dramatically reducing death and injury rates and improving pay and conditions. The pivotal place of coalmining in British labour history is also part of this remembrance, with the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike as the last make-or-break show of mass resistance by organised labour. The strike saw miners across the coalfields stay out en masse for almost a year, in a remarkable display of solidarity, despite ferocious hostility from the Thatcher government, its police and state security forces, and the press. But rather than being simply the last stand of a workforce superseded by history, the Miners’ Strike also saw important and fruitful new solidarities forged between the trade union movement and other social movements, the most famous examples being those of Women Against Pit Closures and Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners.

The political, social and cultural achievements of mining communities and unions are remembered and celebrated in spite of the conditions in which they arose, not because of them. The Miners’ Strike, meanwhile, continues to loom large in the imaginary of the labour movement not just because of the nature of the struggle but also because we continue to live with the consequences of its defeat, and that of the National Union of Mineworkers, which then formed the labour movement’s militant vanguard (and was perceived as such by Thatcher and her allies). Numerically and organisationally, three-and-a-half decades on from the strike, Britain’s trade union movement remains a pale shadow of its former self, hindered by another of Thatcherism’s lingering legacies: some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in western Europe – laws which remained firmly in place under the Blair and Brown governments, despite repeated appeals from trade unionists at the time to at least loosen the restraints on the movement.

All this should be rather obvious to anyone with more than a passing interest in the Gala itself or British labour history. So it has been extraordinary to see some commentators appear to assume that the Gala is somehow a celebration of mining itself, a mourning for or fetishising of the good old days of lung disease, lockouts and cave-ins. Some of this inane gotcha’-ing - already excellently addressed here by Ewan Gibbs - recalled the disingenuous interventions at the time of the Miners’ Strike itself: why fight so hard against mass closure of the pits, to retain a dirty and dangerous industry which routinely killed and injured its workers?

Attachment to coalmining from this perspective is – again, quite obviously – a question of what alternative is being offered. As the economy and topography of places like the Welsh Valleys make clear, mining communities were called into being for the purpose of mining, in the service of industrial capitalism. The NUM’s arguments against mass pit closures often made this point, asserting that, with little prospect of alternative employment or strategic adjustment – none of which was being offered by the Thatcher government – the people, along with their history, culture and politics, would decline along with the mines, as expressed in the slogan “Close a pit, kill a community”. This was, of course, the plan. Little was done in the 1990s and after to ameliorate the loss of industry, and as the Blair, Brown and Cameron years wore on post-industrial areas of the country vanished from political discourse as conclusively as they had from the economy. Thirty years later, it seems fatuous to claim that communities still economically and socially scarred by the obliteration of industry are now much better off than they were with it.

It seems equally counter-intuitive, given the post-Brexit lionising of the ‘left-behind’ working class, and accusations that Labour under Corbyn has abandoned its post-industrial ‘heartlands’, to then dismiss, misrepresent or sneer at the country’s biggest celebration of industrial heritage and its function as an iconic day out for the local communities of the North East and beyond. After Blair’s strategic snubbing of the Gala, to criticise its attendance and addressing by senior Labour figures including the party leader, and to claim that an event attended by hundreds of thousands is dominated by cosplaying posh boys, is a particularly odd tactic from those with a tendency to claim in other contexts - and with validity - that ‘ordinary people’ and their agency and visibility are routinely erased in politics and media in favour of an elite.

Finally, appeals to history which frame the dangers of coalmining and the previous state of mining communities in Dickensian terms of squalor, impoverishment, overcrowding and industrial illness and injury also completely miss or erase the achievements of nineteenth and twentieth century trade unionists. Accurate enough in the industry’s early days, these are of course the very conditions which unionised workers themselves fought to change, frequently undergoing harassment, arrest and imprisonment in order to do so. This is a central part of the working-class heritage which the Big Meeting celebrates, and which continues to fuel contemporary struggles. (Also, as many respondents on Twitter pointed out, such Dickensian conditions have in fact returned for many of the country’s poorest communities under Conservative and Coalition rule.)

What is it that underlies this boiling over of liberal contempt for the Gala and its attendees? Revisiting Raphael Samuel’s withering 1982 essay, ‘The SDP and the New Middle Class’1, is instructive in light of the aggressive centrist reaction against this year’s Big Meeting: although the names have changed, Samuel’s critique remains strikingly resonant. In the essay, Samuel interrogates the nature of the then-recently established Social Democratic Party and its social base. He finds this base is largely comprised of a ‘new’ middle class, contrasted with the more traditional small-business milieu aligned with the Conservatives – a lower-middle professional cadre, apparently marginalised within the Labour Party and seeking an alternative political outlet for its frustrations. Though many members of this cadre have personal backgrounds or family origins in the working class, often performatively paraded for the purposes of what we would now call authentocracy, their success in doing reasonably well for themselves tends to inculcate in them a fiercely-held meritocratic ideology and thus reinforces a thinly-veiled disregard for those who have failed to make their own way up the ladder (this failure being considered inherently suspect, at best). The SDP was only too happy to provide the political outlet which the ‘new middle class’ sought in the 1980s, along with a safe shelter from the feared and hated ‘bovver boys’ of the trade unions and the ‘aggro’ that supposedly went with them.

Indeed, an embittered disdain for the trade union movement – combined with trepidation at the spectre of an assertive working class – is singled out by Samuel as one of the defining features of this ‘new middle class’. It is aggrieved by the fact that the labour movement, to which the Labour Party is still stubbornly, umbilically connected, refuses to be swept away by the tides of time and ‘modernisation’. The SDP, given its “vision of society as a frontierless open space”, inevitably came to view the working class as “the cynosure of all that is backward-looking” and the political party which was the expression of the working-class movement as “an institutionalised force for conservatism”. This extends to the cultural sphere as well: any residual manifestations of what Ralph Miliband called the ‘world of labour’ rankle with this liberal middle class on a deep level. Its callousness towards the working class, bearing the brunt of the early Thatcherite onslaught as Samuel was writing, and its suspicion of anyone who takes a degree of pride in remaining part of it, went hand-in-hand with a seemingly limitless proclivity towards self-congratulation. The ‘new middle class’ is intoxicated by the contemplation of its own civility, practical common sense and level-headedness:

In their own eyes at least, they are the beautiful people of politics, representing a force for civilisation and refinement. They are flexible where others are rigid, clear-thinking where they are dogmatic, sensible where they are prejudiced.

The echoes of all this in the liberal reaction against Corbynism today are clear enough. The continued existence of the wider labour and trade union movement appears distasteful to indignant, politically bereaved centrists, who now find themselves spurned, sidelined and deprived of control over a Labour Party they had grown accustomed to dominating. Its persistence serves as an inconvenient but defiant exhortation that politics is about much more than populating fantasy cabinets, or well-trained, sharp-suited technocrats trading finely-honed and perfectly-timed zingers across the Commons despatch box. Events like the Big Meeting remind the liberal centre that not everybody accepts its view of our present society as basically optimal, needing only minor tinkering and tweaking to smooth out its imperfections (insofar as these are recognised and acknowledged at all). Simply by surviving and remaining conscious of its distinctive history, the labour movement continues to insist – however obstinate, aggravating, unfashionable or uncouth it might appear in saying so – that there really are fundamental and irreconcilable differences separating exploiter from exploited, oppressor from oppressed. For the liberal centre, by contrast, all that society needs to work better (and even then, it doesn’t need to work much better) is for more people in its own image to have a hand on the tiller of the state.

Nevertheless, if only for the sake of argument, let’s assume these mistaken perspectives on the Gala are put forward in good faith – why, then, do they so catastrophically misunderstand the event? Particularly since the 1980s, the near-disappearance of trade union power and consciousness means that many aspects of industrial gatherings and culture can indeed seem alien or difficult for those outside them to comprehend, particularly now that the former awareness of bad working and living conditions as a spur to camaraderie and collective organisation has been folded into nostalgia or myth. Throughout the past thirty years of this political and cultural downturn, the Durham Miners’ Gala has sustained itself as a local, national and international focal point of solidarity, with little public or political attention paid to it outside its obvious constituencies. But industrial organisation, like socialism, is an old habit that many of us are now once more trying on for size. In 2017, only weeks after the general election that saw widely unpredicted support for Labour’s widely-derided left-wing manifesto, that year’s Big Meeting also seemed to be imbued with a new and elated mass energy. With the spotlight now back on unapologetic and positive expressions of support for socialism, all sorts of fear, hostility and opposition are being projected onto them.

Despite their obvious strategic connections, this socialist resurgence – as fragile and tentative as it remains – is not inextricably tied to either Labour or Corbyn, and, despite the fervent hopes and wishes of the liberal centre, would be unlikely to disappear completely even if the Labour right were somehow to wrench control of the party from its current leadership. Interest and activity in workers’ organisation to improve pay and conditions is on the rise in poorly-paid, casual and precarious sectors – retail, hospitality, fast food, the warehouse workers, cleaners, couriers and drivers of the gig economy – which have grown in significance under neoliberalism and often been neglected by traditional trade unions. These newly organised workers are already making gains and taking actions that, in their agile, autonomous and spontaneous nature, mirror and match the fast-paced and volatile working conditions in which they take place2.

E. P. Thompson, reflecting on the peculiar antagonism that industrial action by miners attracted in the 1970s, wrote that:

It is never safe to assume that any of our history is altogether dead. It is more often lying there, as a form of stored cultural energy… Let the power be cut off for a while, then we become aware of other and older reserves of energy glowing all around us, just as, when the street-lights are dowsed, we become aware of the stars3.

Although still subject to legal restrictions and repression, after several decades of defanged unions and hollowed-out politics, the power and potential of workers’ organisation to improve their conditions and lives is no longer something safely dormant. As past assumptions about politics, class and socialism are destabilised, the cultural energy that has sustained the Durham Miners’ Gala is finding new outlets – from #Grime4Corbyn to Salford Community Theatre – and will inevitably continue to attract the same old antagonisms. The implicit argument underlying this hostility runs as follows: stay in your lane, don’t get ideas above your station, go canvassing if you want but let your superiors handle the serious stuff. This must be seen for what it represents, namely an attack on the very notion that politics might be done differently, and must be resisted on the same basis.


Rhian E. Jones (@rhianejones)

Rhian E. Jones writes on history, politics, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is co-editor of Red Pepper and writes for Tribune magazine. Her books include Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender (zer0, 2013); Petticoat Heroes: Gender, Culture and Popular Protest (University of Wales Press, 2015); Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible (Repeater, 2017) and the anthology of women’s music writing Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them (Repeater, 2017) and Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too (Repeater, 2021).

Tom Blackburn (@malaiseforever)

Beyond Westminster co-editor