ABSENT friends were remembered at the biggest event in the socialist calendar over the weekend.

The passing of left wing legends, Tony Benn and Bob Crow, formed the basis of many of the speeches as thousands gathered in baking heat on Durham’s racecourse.

Crowds had shuffled through the cobbled streets following the traditional parade of banners from former pit communities, along with trade unions and brass bands.

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Mr Benn and Mr Crow, who died within days of each other in March, had each been popular orators appearing several times at the Big Meeting.

Derbyshire MP Dennis Skinner, the Beast of Bolsover, gave a passionate 20-minute speech calling on The Labour Party to come up with policies that would bring an end to the Coalition Government at the next election and create a fairer society.

The 82-year-old former miner said: “This Big Meeting inspires me. I think Cameron didn’t know about this place when he talked about the Big Society.

“I have been coming here since 1978. It is inspiring. I know that when I come back here there will be a warm reception

“There are two people who have left us, Tony Benn and Bob Crow, if they were here they would be cheering to the echo and that is what Durham means to us all.

“Never let the spirit die. Let’s start building the manifesto, the Durham manifesto, for Tony Benn and Bob Crow.”

Mr Benn, the former veteran Labour MP who renounced his hereditary peerage, spoke at 20 Galas and Mr Crow, general secretary of the RMT transport union, delivered a call from the platform at last year’s Gala for unions to form a new political party to fight for their interests.

GMB general secretary Paul Kenny, Mick Whelan, general secretary of the rail union Aslef, Steve Gillan, general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association, and Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers all praised both men for their dedication to left wing politics.

Dave Hopper, secretary of the Durham Miners' Association, which organises the event, said: “We have had a grim tale of tragedy among some of our supporters. “We have lost some of the best fighters the working class has ever seen and it is a sad day today that these people are not here today, enjoying the day with us.”

As well as remembering people from the past, there were also some new familiar faces.

Former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman, believed to be conservative in his politics, was spotted listening to the speeches, and later pictured chatting to Dennis Skinner.

He was seen taking notes, prompting speculation on Twitter that the visit may feature in a future book he is working on.

Many travelled from across the North-East and beyond to reminisce about the Miners Strike, which marks its 30th anniversary this year, and discuss ways to challenge the current political climate and the impact of austerity measures.

For others it is just a family day out with plenty of things for children, such as fairground rides and sideshows.

There is, of course, some irony in the fact that on the main stage the evils of capitalism are being denounced while hungry punters are being asked to cough up a fiver for a cheeseburger and £3 for a coffee.

But the good news for the crowd from Mr Hopper was that, despite having to pay out £2.2m in court costs following a legal battle, the future of the event has been secured, in the short term at least.

He said: “Don’t worry. We’ll be back next year, and probably the year after that.”