16 July 2019

Back to the future at the Durham Miners’ Gala


As a Durham lad born and raised, it’s always great to get back up north. As a card-carrying Conservative, my visit to the 135th Durham Miners’ Gala meant I was well and truly out of my comfort zone.

While it would not be most Tories’ first choice of leisure activity, the Gala is a fine example of how the left is able to create a series of powerful messages that resonate with a large section of the electorate – that’s something that conservatives could certainly learn from.

For all the fun of the fair, there’s no doubt the Big Meet represents the dying embers of a bygone era. In the first half of this year coal power plants provided only 3% of the UK’s electricity, compared to 33% just a decade ago. Coal is the fuel of the past, but it’s a past the Gala still celebrates today with great pride.

But I don’t agree with those who think these kind of gatherings have had their day. The Gala is a vehicle to celebrate working class culture, to recognise the struggles of the past and to look forward to the future. It works – and nothing is more emphatically conservative than sticking with what does the job.

It’s a fun day out too, with fairground rides, burger vans and stalls brimming with leaflets promoting everything from Amnesty International to the black sheep of the Labour family, Chris Williamson.

Unlike a normal trade union march it does not have a start or finish time, or even one central location. Instead, it plays out – quite literally – with colliery bands marching though their own Durham villages early in the morning and then arriving in the city from all directions.

The Pidcock Question

My own day took an unexpected turn thanks to Laura Pidcock. I’d made my way into a media scrum around the local Labour MP, who quite unsurprisingly faced questions about anti-Semitism in her party.

After the interview I recorded a short but heated exchange between Pidcock, her staffer and a Sky News journalist. Both Pidcock and her aide said it was unfair to have been asked about anti-Semitism when she wanted to talk about the Gala.

Shortly after the incident I posted the clip online and it quickly went viral. Pidcock has since posted a statement on Facebook which weirdly not only confirms she did exactly what I said she did “my assistant and I pointed out that this wasn’t fair, because it wasn’t what we’d agreed” but it also goes on to insinuate I’d actually done something else (which I had not).

To be very clear, at no point have I said or insinuated that she refused to answer any questions, merely that she and her staff member thought it was unfair to have been asked about anti-Semitism. If she had simply said ‘I’m more than happy to answer any and all questions but could people also ask more about the Miners’ Gala because it’s an important local event’, then I don’t think this situation would have blown up.

Back to the future

Back at the Big Meet, the atmosphere was as jubilant as ever – sadly the speeches were not quite as engaging.

The speakers, a mixture of trade unionists and Labour apparatchiks, were generally somewhere on a scale ranging from partisan to delusional.

For instance, Doug Nicholls of the General Federation of Trade Unions claimed that if you took the wealth of the richest 1,000 people in England and used it to fund youth services at 2010 levels, you could keep them going for 2,400 years, a classic of the ‘X could fund Y’ school of meaningless rhetoric.

In this case, Nicholls’ sums didn’t even add up. In 2010/11, Local Authorities in England reported spending £1.18bn on youth services, in 2018 the wealth of the richest 1,000 people in the UK was an estimated £724 billion, so if Doug was to run Youth Services for 2,400 years he’d be using just over £302m a year, which works out about 25% of the 2010/11 levels. If you’re going to suggest expropriating people, you could at least get the maths right.

Then came the turn of the capo di tutti flat capi, Len McCluskey. Every time he visits the Gala, Len told the assembled throng, “my mind goes back to the evil of Margaret Thatcher”. He’s going to be furious when he finds out how many mines Harold Wilson closed (hint: it was more than Thatcher).

Of course, when a certain brand of leftwinger talks about Thatcher they aren’t really making a political or factual point so much as a cultural and emotional one. McCluskey even made the bizarre boast that the spirit of the miners lives on, while the former PM is “pushing up the daisies”.

Even almost three decades since she left office and six years after her death, Len and his comrades remain oddly obsessed with the Iron Lady. It’s as if some trade unionists are more interested in the ghosts of their own past than they are with dealing with the conundrums thrown up by the present and the future.

All of that was just a warm-up though, for the main event: JC himself.  Corbyn’s arrival at the podium was magnificent, serenaded by the dulcet tones of the theme tune from the Rocky films, which I’m quite confident he’s never watched. The first five minutes were tributes to comrades past and present, with the seasoned campaigner not quite managing to get his head around using a microphone.

He too argued that the Royal Mail, the railways and water companies had been bought “at cut prices under the Thatcher government” – a bizarre claim, given that rail privatisation was under John Major and the Royal Mail sale was overseen by none other than Vince Cable. So haunted are the Labour left by Thatcher that they hold her responsible for every policy they dislike, even those that took place after her death.

There was the usual railing against PFI and a promise to found a new Commission on Social Justice, whatever that means (again, probably whatever John and Jeremy say it means).

Coming away from this afternoon of leftwing fantasy politics I was struck by a few thoughts. If Labour are so convinced by the power of their message and their own rectitude – and judging by Saturday’s speeches, they certainly are, why can’t they manage to get even the most basic of facts right?

But there was a lesson here for conservatives of both the big and small c variety. For though it’s often easy to pick apart the failings of Corbyn’s policy offer, politics is about more than just policies – it’s about connecting with people on an emotional level too.

Perhaps as much as policy, forging that kind of emotional connection is the big challenge facing whoever becomes our next Prime Minister.

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Gareth Milner is Head of Digital at the Centre for Policy Studies