Why Ed is right to speak at “The Big Meeting”

July 16, 2012

Ed Miliband is being attacked for speaking at the Durham Miners’ Gala. Apparently, it’s symbolic of the “redness” of “Red Ed” and part of Labour’s kneejerk to the left. There’s plenty of things that I disagree with Miliband about, but he certainly shouldn’t be criticised for appearing at a celebration of Northern, working class culture.

When I was growing up in Consett, as part of a coal mining and steelworking family, the Gala was always a massive event and remains the biggest event of its kind in Europe. For those who haven’t been, all of the local pit villages march through the centre of Durham and towards the ‘racecourse’ with banners and brass bands.

The brass bands, the remarkable banners, the folk songs and speeches and even the cathedral service are all reminders of the working class history, sacrifice and ideas. It is an event deeply entrenched in North Eastern working class culture and as far away from the rarefied atmosphere of the Westminster bubble as can be imagined.

Around 50,000 people from the North East of England and further afield gather in Durham for the Durham Miners’ Gala or ‘The Big Meeting’. It is a great symbol of the pride of our communities in our industrial heritage. It is a great celebration of the glory of a great industrial past.

It’s a reminder of the danger of a life as a collier, of the lives lost because of some of the hideous pit disasters over the years. Although some people turn up for the left wing politics being served up, most people are there as a reminder of the sacrifices made by our forefathers and the great industrial tradition of the North East.

I’ve talked in the past about how working class people have been increasingly shut out of politics and that a gulf has opened up between politicians and the people. Parliament is disproportionately dominated by people from fee paying schools and engagement in politics in working class areas has diminished.

In the 2010 election, only 57 per cent of skilled working class voted (down 20 per cent since 1992) compared to 76 per cent of ‘AB’ voters. In 1992, the gap between ‘AB’ turnout and ‘DE’ turnout was 6 per cent. By 2010 the class gap in voting turnout had become a chasm of 19 per cent. And our recent ‘Northern Lights’ research showed that more than 80 per cent of voters think that “politicians don’t understand the real world at all”, rising to a higher percentage amongst working class voters.

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.

Politicians like talking about community. I doubt that they will find many better examples of communities pulling together in celebration of their communities and in memory of some of the most severe adversity than the pit villages of the North East of England. Politicians like talking about re-engaging with ordinary people but it is the sad truth that the Miners’ Gala too often represents people who have been ignored and taken for granted by all parties for too long.

Herbert Morrison famously said that we shouldn’t join the embryonic European Union because “the Durham miners wouldn’t wear it”. The descendants of the people who were shown such reverence by Morrison, Bevin and Attlee have been pretty much ignored by politicians for decades. In attending the Miners’ Gala, Miliband isn’t lurching to the left – he’s taking seriously the issue of working class disengagement. And that’s an issue that politicians of all parties need to be concerned about.

This article originally appeared on LabourList’s website

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