Andy McDonald, former Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights and Protections and Labour MP for Middlesbrough, looks ahead to the return of the Durham Miners’ Gala.

HOW wonderful it will be when the crowds return for the Durham miners’ gala, after a three-year Covid-enforced hiatus.

What has been the longest absence of ‘The Big Meeting’ since the Second World War, has been sorely felt in our North East communities.

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The powerful anthems played by the brass bands, most strikingly the beautiful miners’ hymn, Gresford, and the evocative banners from the mining lodges, carrying messages of solidarity, will scarcely have been more poignant, following the horrors and tragedies of the pandemic.

Yet, the tens of thousands attending the gala in the great city of Durham on July 9th, will do so not in a spirit of sorrow or defeat, but one that celebrates and remembers those from our communities who lost their lives during Covid.

Just as when the ‘Big Meeting’ reconvened in 1946, a year after the carnage of the Second World War in which so many miners lost their lives, the spirit of this year’s gala will be one that demands the forging of a ‘New Deal’ for working people.

As a society, we have a golden opportunity to shift the balance of power and wealth in our society, in favour of delivering better lives and better outcomes for working people.

This ‘New Deal’ as a bare minimum must include a commitment to a £15 per hour Living Wage for all, as well as greater entitlement to sick pay, protection against zero-hour contracts, the unjust brutality of fire and rehire, and lifting the yoke from around our Trades Unions’ necks to enable them bargain and secure decent pay and workplace conditions for working people.

Let us not forget, that it is the union members who will gather in force at the Durham Miners’ Gala who represent Britain’s Covid heroes, the nurses who risked their lives on Covid ravaged hospital wards at the height of the pandemic, care workers looking after our most vulnerable citizens in nursing homes, the ambulance staff who ferried the most gravely sick people to get the treatment they needed, and many more besides.

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So many of the nations’ workers who kept our country going are the very ones who continue to suffer such low levels of pay that leaves them unable to keep up with the cost of living, and in many cases condemned to a life of in-work poverty.

As Boris Johnson premiership plummets new lows of sleaze and, callousness, with his Tory government’s attacks on the working class, and his mega-rich Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s latest wave of austerity being inflicted on our already battered public services, the return of the Durham Miners’ Gala stands out as a shining beacon of hope.

While it’s now many years since the last of the deep coal mines shut in the Durham coalfields, the Gala has gone from strength to strength, thanks to the resilience and strength of those in the mining communities, as well as the steadfast support of our trade union movement over countless decades.

Before my election as a Labour MP, nearly a decade ago, and my subsequent service as the Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights and Protections, I worked as a Solicitor for Thompsons, where I experienced at first hand the injustices inflicted on the Durham coalfield communities.

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Whether it was the long grind of seeking richly deserved compensation for debilitating conditions suffered by miners like ‘vibration white finger’, industrial deafness and chronic lung diseases, or seeking recompense for striking miners sacked and victimised simply for defending their communities, it is a long and shameful litany of injustice.

Even now the UK Tory government dogmatically refuses to order a Hillsborough-style inquiry into the policing of the strike, and the criminal justice system’s disgraceful treatment of the miners in 1984-85.

Labour members of the Scottish Parliament, led by former Lothians MSP Neil Findlay, after a lengthy and courageous campaign, were able to secure such an inquiry from the Scottish Government, albeit a move conceded after initial resistance from SNP ministers.

In the coming weeks, the Scottish Parliament will consider the Miners’ Strike Pardon’s Bill, to erase the criminal records of hundreds of men who were convicted for petty and trumped-up charges in 1984-85. Former Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard, is also pushing for a compensation scheme for the miners, as part of the Bill.

While we can expect no concessions from Boris Johnson’s Tory party, with a General Election on the horizon there is fresh hope for justice for the mining communities, against the backdrop of this discredited and wretched government’s ongoing disintegration.

Labour has, quite rightly, long since pledged to hold full-scale inquiries into the policing of the strike, and the injustices perpetrated against the mining communities during 1984-85.

As we seek a ‘New Deal’ for our Covid heroes in post-pandemic Britain, let us link that struggle to the fight for justice for the heroes of the UK’s mining communities, with pardons and compensation for all those convicted during the 1984-85 strike.

So, let’s enjoy the joyful reunion that is this year’s Big Meeting, and remember the watchwords that are inscribed on so many miners’ lodge banners as they pass through Durham city on Saturday July 9th – ‘The past we inherit, the future we build’.

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