It is one of the biggest celebrations of working-class culture anywhere in the world and this year, organizers predict, it will be bigger and louder than it has been for decades.
After a two-year hiatus, Durham miners’ gala returns on Saturday with more bands, banners and general oomph than at any time since the UK miners’ strike.
More than 200,000 people are expected to attend the gala, which has been held in the historic city of Durham since 1871. Only national strikes, two world wars, and the Covid-19 pandemic, have stopped it.
It will be the gala regular visitors recognize – crowds, socialising, brass bands, political speeches and a bit of drinking. But it will also have a different feel, say organizers. The gala is “not a historical re-enactment society”, said one.
A new cultural exchange will see London’s Mangrove Steelband parade through the city and, in return, the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) brass band will take part in the Notting Hill carnival in August.
The back-with-a-bang feel of this year’s event is partly down to pent-up enthusiasm after the pandemic-forced break and pent-up enthusiasm. But as the cost of living crisis escalates and more unions take and contemplate strike action, there is unquestionably something in the air, said Stephen Guy, the chair of the DMA.
“There is anger, and it will be directed towards the government on Saturday,” he said. “I socialise in the mining communities of County Durham. I’m also employed as a trade union official … there is a sense of injustice. We are seeing history repeating itself and we know that key workers have not been given a fair deal … at all.”
This year’s gala is dedicated to those key workers, said Guy. “People will want to say a sincere thank you. Not the platitudes we received from government about standing on your steps on Thursday and clapping – this will be a genuine thank you. The Durham miners have chosen to put key workers on a pedestal, that they rightly deserve.”
The gala has always been a politically charged affair, addressed by trade union bosses and Labor party leaders.
The question of whether the Labor leader will attend has been one of the annual stories of the gala. Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn have all given speeches, while no-shows have included John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Sir Keir Starmer was not asked to speak, but organizers say that no politician was asked to make an address this year. Instead, five union leaders, including the RMT’s Mick Lynch, will address the crowds to represent key workers. At the top of the bill will be a nurse, Holly Johnston, and a postal worker, Rohan Kon.
Starmer was not being snubbed, said Guy. “There is no intention to diminish the relationship with politicians, and they will be on the platform sitting alongside key workers. It is just that after the terrible two years we’ve had, and we are still having, we think it is crucial that key workers are recognized.”
The Labor leader will not be at the gala because of a prior family engagement, but his deputy, Angela Rayner, is expected to attend.
The last deep mine in County Durham, in Easington, closed in 1993 but the miners’ gala continues. The day focuses on politics, identity and togetherness. In 1946, as the gala returned from a six-year break after the second world war, shopkeepers nailed wooden planks to windows to prevent the crowds of 250,000 people falling through them.
By contrast, the gala in 1965 was, the Guardian reported, “a damp and dismal gala at which unusual security precautions were taken after threats of demonstrations by left-wing groups at Durham university, which came to nothing”. An anonymous threat to shoot Harold Wilson was never followed through.
The gala on Saturday is expected to be more like the one held in 1946.
Kon,one of the key speakers, also believes something is in the air this summer. “Something exciting is happening in this country right now … the tide is turning,” she said.
“We are at a crossroads right now, and this gala is about us sending a loud and clear message to the bosses: we are going to fight for our lives.”