'The Past we inherit, the Future we build': Lessons from the Durham Miners' Gala

A city's character is both constantly negotiated in the struggle between its constituent parts, and shaped and re-shaped by its relationship with local and global economies.

A city’s character is both constantly negotiated in the struggle between its constituent parts, and shaped and re-shaped by its relationship with local and global economies. As David Harvey has written, cities are defined by a hierarchy in which ‘local centres [dominate] local hinterlands [and] more important metropolitan centres [dominate] lesser centres’ 1. In Durham, this struggle plays out very much in public. Its city centre metropole draws in daytrippers from periphery ex-colliery towns at the same time as it grants temporary visas to Home Counties econ students. Durham City has no collective accent; it is at once Consett’s Barry Venison and the Financial Times’ Sebastian Payne. But to take a train north on the second Saturday of July is to understand none of this. For the duration of the Durham Miners’ Gala, the city belongs to those hinterlands, lesser centres, daytrippers, 200,000 strong this year.

Readers of this journal will likely know the radical traditions of Durham’s miners as celebrated in their annual show of solidarity. This 8 July saw the 133rd such gathering, brass orchestras supplying theme songs for folk memories of 1926 intransigence and 1984 defeat – and, perhaps, hopes of a sort of 21st-century rebirth (of militant politics at least). To the uninitiated, the Gala must feel daunting and disorientating, at once ancestral procession and almighty piss-up. To those for whom the Gala is part of the furniture, it is nonetheless deeply resonant. Where post-industrial north-eastern communities in the neoliberal decades have hobbled, at the Gala, they march.

In the context of a continued marginalisation of working class voices and lives, events like the Durham Miners’ Gala are important. That said, its popular relevance is surprising. In some marked ways, the fortunes of the Gala dovetail with that of Corbynism. Once an essential date in the Labour Party leadership’s calendar, the event was cast as an irrelevance or, worse, relic during the years of New Labour. Before Ed Miliband’s symbolic 2012 appearance, no Labour leader had addressed the Gala in 23 years. (It could be that they were scared off by the experience of Neil Kinnock. In 1985, Tony Benn writes in his diaries, ‘[Kinnock] was so unhelpful to the miners that, when he began speaking, the bands started up and they marched off’).2

When Jeremy Corbyn took to the Durham stage during his first Labour leadership contest in 2015, the Gala’s future was in doubt. The organisers – Durham Miners’ Association (DMA), an affiliate of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) – finding themselves bereft of funding turned to an innovative membership model to protect its future. For a small donation, attendees could become ‘marras’ of the Gala. Like the Labour Party, where once it depended on generous donors, the Gala is now funded by friends and supporters. Corbyn’s message in 2015 meanwhile could hardly have been more of a departure from the Labour of Yarl’s Wood and right accommodationism: ‘There is no way forward in blaming migrants and minorities for our problems; the only way forward is unity in struggle’. A year on, he returned to give arguably his most accomplished speech, this time during the second contest, drawing on the intellectual force of Paraguayan former goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert:

There is no pressure on me, none whatsoever. Real pressure – real pressure – is when you don’t have enough money to feed your kids, when you don’t have a roof over your head, when you are wondering if you are going to be cared for, when you are wondering how you can survive, you are wondering how you are going to cope with the debts you have incurred, you are wondering if your lovely employer is going to give you a call to give you a couple of hours work or not bother, or change their mind when you are on the bus on the way to do that job.

Prior to 2017 and his returning to a hero’s welcome, one imagines panicked, out of practice trumpeters furiously trying to learn the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army in anticipation of the now famous chant.

That the ‘modernisers’ of New Labour objected to Durham Miners’ Gala is no surprise, their political project underpinned, as they perceived it, by a need to adapt ‘traditional Labour Party views, or old-style socialism’ to a transformed world. This misses that the Gala was never about ‘old-style socialism’. Those in Durham who carry their past above their heads are rather instrumentalising ‘tradition’, their recall serving the purposes not of nostalgia but, perhaps, ‘modernisation’. The banner of South Hetton Lodge reads, ‘Lest we forget those who went before us’. One of many such messages, it is useful to read alongside a famous NUM injunction oft-repeated at the Gala: ‘The past we inherit, the future we build’. This is a view of history in keeping with that of Marx and Engels; that is, ‘history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims’.3 In this injunction, static heritage is rendered living history. It is ‘tradition as weapon’, as the Africanist Jan Vansina put it in a different context.4

There are lessons to be learned here for the Labour Party. For one, the Big Meeting represents something of an example of Corbyn’s proposed ‘kinder politics’, which after all ought to incorporate the twin strands of fellowship and militancy. There is no contradiction in hardness to authority and kindness to those upon whom authority’s hardness itself falls. This was a truth instinctively grasped by the late Davey Hopper, former General Secretary of the DMA, so celebrated by 2017’s speakers and attendees, and one that permeates the lodge banners, Chopwell and Follonsby boasting likenesses of Lenin, Marx, Keir Hardie, James Connolly, and trade union leaders A.J. Cook and George Harvey. The Big Meeting is, however, in one crucial way an imperfect example of what our politics should be.. Groups such as Women Against Pit Closures, LGSM, and this year the WASPI women are integral to the Gala, but its podiums have historically failed to reflect this diversity.

The much-discussed promise of Corbynism is to marry the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left, with a caucus of socialist representatives in Westminster guided and influenced by a deep network of social movements and community groups. Surprisingly, given widespread electoral pessimism and establishment panic around hard left movementism, the project has been rather more successful in securing seats than it has mobilising action at the grassroots. As pointed out by Alex Niven in a perceptive essay on what he cautiously calls the ‘English Rustbelt’, one partial exception even to this electoral breakthrough has been the deindustrialised Durham coalfield. By engaging with events such as the Gala and taking seriously once more its attendees, Corbyn’s Labour can make good on its promise to put the Party back at the heart of communities. Constituency parties can learn, for example, from the the Big Meeting’s Education4Action initiative, which stages film screenings, hosts public lectures, and promotes a programme of young and adult political education from its Redhills base. It may sound trite, but radical social democracy is radical local democracy.

Niven is right, too, that it is only by challenging social conservatism where it does exist among working class communities – rather than pandering to the ‘legitimate concerns’ of a ludicrously ill-defined if not illusory ‘white working class’ – that solidarity can be built and voters won. Durham Miners’ Gala stands at the interstices of a sort of labour movement provincialism and the best traditions of working class internationalism, and it is telling that some on the left would valorise one and deny the other. Since 2011, Durham speakers have included Carlos Barrios Contrera and Carlos Bugueno Alfara, two Chilean survivors of the Copiapó mining collapse; two more striking Asturian miners; delegations from Venezuela and Cuba; and Gerardo Hernandez and Rene Gonzalez, two of the unjustly imprisoned Miami Five. The DMA has also supported the delivery of ambulances to Cuba and during apartheid stood side-by-side with black South African mineworkers, some of whom were invited to spend time in the homes of their Durham counterparts. Just as the close of Corbyn’s 2017 speech imploring government action in response to the refugee crisis was met with applause, so did ordinary attendees take an enthusiastic interest in international struggles and donate to far-off solidarity funds.

In recent years, and especially post-Brexit, a rival internationalism has come to overshadow its left variant and near-monopolise the concept, its definition capital flow rather than solidarity. From his jollies at Durham Miners’ Gala in 2015, for example, the FT’s aforementioned Sebastian Payne tweeted, ‘Representative of Cuban mineworkers urges crowd to “think beyond borders” after attacking NAFTA and free trade agreements’. Commentariat comrade John Rentoul meanwhile sneered at Labour’s 2017 manifesto commitment to responsible supply chains in the Global South, assuming potential working class Labour voters unable to comprehend evidently necessary concepts like environmental sustainability. This is not in fact internationalism at all, but Boris Johnson’s self-described ‘liberal cosmopolitanism’. It is the logic of the ‘Barista Visa’. Indeed, it requires a defence of ‘cosmopolitics’ against the cosmopolitans, confronting the myth that working class people are unwilling to ‘think beyond borders’ and encouraging political communication rooted in the connectedness of struggles. Nadine El-Enany is right that the recent Grenfell atrocity must be seen in its correct context of coloniality and state racism, but it recalls also a feature of 19th and 20th century pit disasters: namely, elite complicity in the deaths of the oppressed.

Corbyn has described Durham Miners’ Gala as ‘Europe’s biggest demonstration of working class culture’. While this might be true, it is useful only because ‘culture’ is leveraged in the same way as the pit banners leverage working class history. Without a recognition that its culture cannot but be linked to class, and a resolve to construct from that culture a moral, outward politics, Durham on Gala day would exist as a kind of enlarged Beamish Museum, more artefact than ‘weapon’. In Stuart Hall’s memorable turn of phrase, ‘[Popular culture] is not a sphere where socialism, a socialist culture – already fully formed – might be simply “expressed”. But it is one of the places where socialism might be constituted. That is why “popular culture” matters. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, I don’t give a damn about it.’ 6 If we in Labour are serious about reaffirming solidarity as that which underpins our project, the Big Meeting ought to be held up not as idle reminiscence, but as an exercise in future-building.

  1. David Harvey, Social Justice and the City, London: Edward Arnold, 1979, p.262. 

  2. Tony Benn (ed. Ruth Winstone), A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries, London: Arrow Books, 2013, p.150. 

  3. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Critique, trans. Richard Dixon, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956, p.125.  

  4. Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, Oxford: James Currey, 1985, p.102. 

  5. Étienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene, trans. Christine Jones, James Swenson, Chris Turner, London: Verso, 2002. 

  6. Stuart Hall, ‘Notes on Deconstructing “The Popular”’, in Raphael Samuel (ed.), People’s History and Socialist Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), pp.227-240, at p.239.