If you want to understand the labour movement in Britain, go to Durham Miner's Gala (14 July). At Durham you see our movement it all its pomp and all its poverty, its great strengths and its many weaknesses.
This year was my first Gala, and apparently it was bigger then it had been in recent years. Local newspapers reported up to a 100,000 people came to Durham for the event.
It is a family day out for many people in the north east, especially from the old pit villages. People follow the Brass Bands and the old NUM branch banners from their community. More people probably go for the brass bands then come for a the trade union rally aspect. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it shows how the unions have genuine and deep roots in working class culture.
The first Gala happened a few years after the Paris Commune (1871) and 30-odd years before the birth of the Labour Party. That it has survived is a great testament to the enduring organisations that the working class have built.
With the historical defeat of the great miners strike of 1984/85 and the politically-motivated destruction of the mining industry the Miners Gala's days looked number. When the NUM had hundreds of thousands of members they forced often reluctant Labour Party leaders to come to Durham. As a sympton of the decline of the mining industry the last Labour leader to address the Gala was in 1989 and the last big figure was John Prescott in 1997. However by bringing in other unions and making it a more general show of trade union strength the event has re-built itself. Surely it is these unions that pressured Ed Miliband into attending this year
The calibre of speaker from the platform was much higher then even big trade union marches. There was no TUC regional general secretary giving a obvious speech on why the Tories are bad. Also the organisers made no effort to modify the platform to cater for Miliband. An awkward looking Ed had to listen to and applaud to prominent trade union lawyer John Hendy making a closely reasoned argument for the repeal of the anti-trade Union laws and Mark Serwotka leader of the civil servants' union PCS rebuking him for criticising workers striking over pensions and for Miliband's acceptance of the wage freeze for public sector workers.
Miliband had to join in the standing ovation for two Spanish miners who spoke about their strike against the Rajoy government in which the most militant tactics have been employed. Miliband's speech was brief, bland and uninspiring, but some Gala veterans were moved to tears. I think more because this was a culmination of years of patient work to rebuild the event then anything Miliband said.
Whilst it is very easy to get swept up in the moment there are things that all the most inspiring banners and the most moving brass bands in the world cannot hide. The event like much of our labour movement is very backward looking. Amongst all of the speakers apart from John Hendy, there was a complacency about the state of our unions and the failure so far to organise the mass of casualised workers in the service and retail sectors. There was no accounting for the union leaders' capitulation over pensions and all in all a bit too much reverence accorded to the often rotten leaders of our movement. This made it hard for revolutionary socialists to intervene.
But the resurgence of the miners Gala is a very positive thing and it is significant that the Labour leader felt obliged to come this year. Our movement with its banners flying and bands playing is an inspiring sight and I have every intention of being their next year.