What do people in Westminster and the media tell you when they talk about the Durham Miners’ Gala?
Everyone tells you about the left wing politics and the paper sellers from obscure political sects. Most tell you about the brass bands. Some will tell you about the pride in community.
But no-one ever tells you about the fairground rides.
They dominate the cricket ground, eliciting “WHEEEEEE” and “ARURRRGHHAA” noises throughout the day – and amusing, during the political speeches too. Because although politics may play a big part in the Gala – first and foremost, this is a family day out.
True, there were speeches from trade union leaders, and there was a leftist tinge to the day. But that’s a symptom on what the event is, not what defines it. It is shot through with the working class Labourism that defines communities and outlook and – yes – politics in the region.
But most of all this wonderful spectacle is about regional pride, a pride that extends to the whole North East but is particularly specific to what was once the all-important Durham coalfield. The fires in which the industrial revolution was forged were lit with coals from this place, and the communities that surround the old pits – shattered by Thatcher in the eighties – are still phenomenally, and rightly proud of that.
It’s that community spirit which makes the whole day so special. When most people think of marches they imagine them as dour at best and angry at worst. Yet the mood in Durham on Saturday was anything but. It was proud, and joyous, and defiant and deliriously happy. People of all ages danced in the streets. Communities that have often had so little to celebrate revelled in what makes them special – unalloyed pride.
That pride is a large part of why Ed Miliband’s attendance was neccessary. The people of the North East are proud, and yet for decades we’ve felt ignored. London feels distant, but decisions taken there can make a break the North. London sneezes, Durham catches a cold.
That saying was true in the 1920s, the 1980s and is just as apt now.
Few regions will miss their Regional Development Authorities as much as One North East will be missed. The final projects that were funded by it rumble to their conclusion, but soon the money will be gone – probably nudging unemployment in the region over the 10% mark. Again.
Feeling like you’re being overlooked during the good times is one thing. Being ignored when things are going downhill is another thing entirely.
And that sense of being ignored isn’t solely the responsibility of the Tories either. In 13 years of government our party did a great deal for the country, and much of that could be felt in the North East. But this region, which stood behind Labour when others wouldn’t, wasn’t a priority when the tough decisions needed to be made. There are few marginal seats in the Durham coalfields or elsewhere in the North East.
So we were easy to overlook.
Turnout, unsurprisingly, fell. And suddenly there were a few marginal seats in the North East after all.
Despite ten years of a North East MP serving as PM, staunch Labour supporters would still tell you that Labour didn’t care enough about the region. I heard it countless times growing up – and too many times to be discounted. The people of the North East may love the Labour Party – but they felt let down by it too.
So the North East needed Ed Miliband to come to the Gala yesterday. To tell a proud region on its proudest day that he too was proud of us. That although we may not be a region of key seats, we still count. That he wasn’t ashamed of being seen with or speaking to us. That our values are British values and are to be cherished.
Even just attending was in many ways enough for the region. It led the local news before and after, and before he even had a chance to speak he received a sustained ovation. 23 years of feeling ignored and overlooked had come to an end.
“If politicians are serious about reengaging working class people in politics, they can’t do that from Westminster and they can’t do that by looking down their noses at events where working class people can show pride in their heritage. Some might think that Miliband speaking is a lurch to the left. They would be wrong. He would be joining previous Gala speakers, such as Hugh Gaitskell, Jim Callaghan and Denis Healey – none of whom have a particular reputation as being raging Trots.”
In truth he didn’t moderate his message when faced with a large crowd. There was a nod to clean coal, but few expect to see mining become a major employer in this region again. In the main it was what we might call the early greatest hits of Ed Miliband – Murdoch, banks, energy company rip offs, and jobs for young people. I’ve always felt that Labour’s policy platform was a little light, but when reeled off on Saturday it got sustained applause. Perhaps not as light as I thought. It certainly wasn’t a lurch to the left. More a lurch in the direction of the concerns, hopes and aspirations of ordinary working people. A direction Ed needs to lurch further in, not shirk away from.
Predictably, the Tory Party attacked Ed for attending the Gala. Theyw ere wrong for all of the reasons that I and David Skelton have outlined. And by doing so they confirmed what so many in the North East have believed for decades. The Tories don’t understand how they live. They don’t understand their lives. And they’re a million miles away from winning the votes they need in the North to have a fighting chance of a decent majority in 2015.
More fool them…