Durham Miners’ Gala – much more than a worker’s day out


Crowd and miners' banner

The big meeting (2019). Directed and written by Daniel Draper.

Here is the Durham Miners’ Gala in all its glory. The big meeting starts as it means to go on, opening with Paul Robeson’s rendition of Deep River while the film glides along the River Wear into the city of Durham. Gala is an annual highpoint of working class culture in its widest sense, made all the more poignant for its current rarity in the country as a whole. It is currently considered to be the largest socialist trade union occasion in the world.

The city of Durham has long been taken over annually by the Gala, giving expression to the strength of the organised working class for the day. The big meeting takes us there, to the 134th Gala, held on a gloriously sunny second Saturday in July 2018.

Grassroots activists such as Dave Douglass, plus individual participants of all ages and prominent Labour movement figures seamlessly tell us what Gala means to them. This is the documentary’s only commentary and there are few talking heads. We come to see, ingrained in County Durham and NE culture, that the Gala is ‘a completely human celebration,’ as one contributor puts it. It should also be an exemplar for other areas of the UK to emulate.

This contemporary ‘people’s demonstration’ is a microcosm of today’s Labour Party: a sea of left partisans of Corbyn and what he represents for change in the Party, with a few representatives of the Labour and trade union bureaucracy scattered about. But ‘twas not always so, and we see in archive footage the preponderance of the self-believing Labour right in past appearances on the Royal County Hall balcony to watch the march past of bands and participants. These days it is different: every year since 2015, even before he was elected leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has been a keynote speaker at the Gala. In The big meeting he identifies the Gala as epitomising ‘working class culture, working class history.’

Charlotte Austin, from the People’s Bookshop in Durham, writer Paul Mason, DBC Pierre, and Heather Ward of the Durham Miners’ Association Brass Band all speak passionately about the meaning of the Gala. Durham is for the county’s working class ‘their city’ for a day: it becomes a powerful expression of politics, art, music, and all kinds of solidarity. A mighty procession ‘winding down streets as an organism’ (DBC Pierre), has been freedom personified for working miners for more than a century. For them, it was a joyous release from grim confines and blue-black air into sunshine and song. Nowadays, Gala reminds of those partisans who went before and serves a political purpose for the working class and labour movement, coming together in all its variety in unity, gathering breath for the struggles ahead. For today, though, we celebrate together, with brass band music, rallying speeches, and festive drinking at day’s end.

‘A rousing, very emotional day,’ remarks filmmaker John Irwin, who directed a 1963 black and white film on the Gala. Charlotte Austin confirms that, ‘It is more about socialist politics these days.’ Another perceptive contributor remarked that the Durham Miners’ Gala makes a statement: ‘Here’s what we are and here’s what we can be.’ Such occasions give us a measure, a snapshot of the state of working class culture and politics. The big meeting takes you there for only a short while … and enthrals. For any partisan of the working class and its class politics, Durham is certainly the place to be on the second Saturday in July.

Jim Moody

THE BIG MEETING will be released in UK cinemas 6 September