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Pic: Joan Heath

Sunday 9th
posted by Ben Chacko in Features

JEREMY CORBYN talks about the proud tradition of the Durham Miners’ Gala, patriotism and the return of two-party politics

WITH crowds at the Big Meeting expected to reach 200,000, the Durham Miners’ Gala is the largest celebration of working-class culture in Europe.

The star act this year will be Jeremy Corbyn. At last year’s Gala he vowed on the front page of the Morning Star that he would one day address this huge gathering as the country’s prime minister.

Having smashed the Tory majority in last month’s election, that day looks closer now than it ever has.

Corbyn loves the Gala — “it’s an amazing coming together of traditions.

“The traditions of the Durham coalfield and the mining industry, the inspiration of what the miners went through.

“But also traditions of community and solidarity in so many ways. The variety of people you meet, people who are campaigning on health, education, housing — you learn a fantastic amount.”

Yet according to critic John Mann MP — who admits readily enough that he was wrong to doubt Corbyn’s ability to win elections — the crowds at Durham are precisely the sort of people Labour is still failing to win over.

“Traditional working-class voters” drifted to the Tories in key constituencies, Mann contends in what he terms the “Bolsover question” because of a 7.7 per cent swing to the Conservatives in that constituency.

Corbyn will get a hero’s welcome in Durham today, but does he think Mann has a point?

“Look, we gained votes in every part of the country, in every age group and every demographic.

“We did not do as well as we should have done in South Yorkshire or the East Midlands, so we are intensifying campaigning in those areas.

“Our message is we will invest in health and education and housing and jobs.

“We will tax a bit more at the top end so that young people can have a future and we can create opportunities for areas that have been neglected.

“We’re having a campaigning summer. We’ll be talking to people in dozens of constituencies including those — the very few — seats that we lost at the general election, learning the lessons.”

Those lessons involve looking at the stats behind the results as well as the results themselves.

“Let’s not get too despondent. Take Stoke-on-Trent South [which Labour lost by a few hundred votes] — we had the biggest vote we ever had in the constituency, but the Tories got even more because they swallowed up more of the Ukip vote.”

The same odd pattern is true in Bolsover itself, which Labour legend Dennis Skinner comfortably held with an increased share of the vote despite the swing to the Conservatives.

“We’re seeing a dramatic return to two-party politics,” Corbyn points out. Labour and the Tories are both gaining votes that would once have gone to smaller parties.

“What’s vital in two-party politics is that we’re able to project a clear alternative to the Conservatives and I’m very proud that that’s what we did, winning more than three million extra votes on our 2015 result.”

Mann, much of the Parliamentary Labour Party and almost the entire media were stunned by the party’s gains under a leader they had dismissed as unelectable.

But one man who would not have been surprised was Dave Hopper, the long-term general secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) who tragically died on July 16 last year, just a week after the Gala.

“How dare these losers condemn Corbyn as unelectable?” he demanded in our paper at the height of the “chicken coup,” warning Labour rightwingers they had “seriously underestimated the power of the people.”

Corbyn says the first thing he will do from the platform in Durham is “thank Dave Hopper and [late DMA president] David Guy.

“They gave everything to the Gala and the mining communities. In 1993 when the last pit in the Durham coalfield closed the two Davids could have walked away, saying: ‘We gave it our all, but the strike was broken by the employers and the mines have shut.’

“But they made the Gala even stronger. We’ll have a wonderful Gala this weekend in their memories, thanking them for giving us all the opportunity to learn from the people of the north-east and fighting as they did for a 21st century that is more just than the 20th.

“Young people are facing a worse life than their parents’ generation. That’s not right and it’s not fair.”

Corbyn critics on the right often accuse him of being unpatriotic, but he will have none of it.

“Patriotism isn’t just about waving a flag — it’s about making sure your community is secure, your fellow citizens are secure in work, secure in health, secure in housing.

“It’s about ensuring communities aren’t left behind and it’s about how we respond to the world: to desperate refugees, to climate change.”

Next week he’ll be in Tolpuddle for the Martyrs’ Festival honouring the agricultural labourers transported to Australia for daring to form a trade union.

“That history of radicalism is very much a strand of the real history of this country,” Corbyn maintains, reminding me he grew up in “a small village in Wiltshire and later in Shropshire” and is fascinated by the history of the rural labour movement. He praises the books of communist historian AL Morton and tells me to seek them out and have a read.

“Rural poverty is just as bad as urban poverty.” He has appointed Stroud MP David Drew — re-elected last month after seven years out of Parliament — to lead rural policy for the party, looking into “lack of opportunity in rural areas, developing policy that will create jobs, not just in crop production but the add-on jobs — processing, small industry.”

Sir John Chilcot effectively admitted this week that Tony Blair lied to convince Parliament of the need to attack Iraq, and Corbyn hopes that after that disastrous war, which spread chaos throughout the Middle East, strengthened al-Qaida and gave birth to Isis, people will realise “national security” is not best served by wars of aggression.

“As if the invasion and the bombing was not bad enough, there was the destruction of the established system of communications, of health, of policing, that made that awful situation worse. We’ve all paid.”

But now, with Labour by far Britain’s largest party and developing a community presence across the country, a movement is being born committed to a different future.

“We’ve seen a big increase in political activity over the past two years and we need to now see an increase in trade union membership; it’s gone up a bit but I wish it would go up further.

“Unions need to develop much more into social unions, dealing with issues of social justice, the local environment and issues like housing as well as the core stuff: the wages, salaries and working conditions of members.”

He has to break off our conversation: the election campaign didn’t end with the results for Corbyn, who as I speak to him is on his way to Chingford to speak at a rally in Iain Duncan Smith’s constituency.

He plans to visit 73 marginal seats to support the local Labour parties and assist with their activities. But does he really believe an election’s round the corner?

“I can’t see how this coalition can survive. A billion in public spending for Northern Ireland?

“The equivalent for England, Scotland and Wales would be well over £50bn — it’s completely unbalanced and people will be demanding answers.

“We’re keeping up the pressure as we have done this week over the public-sector pay cap that has to end. This government is not going to last.”

Ben Chacko is editor of the Morning Star.