Year 2000 No. 110, July 11, 2000

Speeches at the Big Meeting Recall the Traditions of the Working Class and Ask What Tasks Must Be Taken Up to Transform Society

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Speeches at the Big Meeting Recall the Traditions of the Working Class and Ask What Tasks Must Be Taken Up to Transform Society

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Speeches at the Big Meeting Recall the Traditions of the Working Class and Ask What Tasks Must Be Taken Up to Transform Society

At one o’clock on July 8, thousands gathered on the Durham Racecourse field for the 116th Big Meeting. From the Gala Platform, David Guy opened the proceedings and gave a warm welcome on behalf of the Durham miners and the trade unions who had marched there with their bands and banners. He said that this was a magnificent display of solidarity. He said that it was the type of solidarity that will encourage the Durham miners to strive to continue to have the Gala on an annual basis into the distant future. To announcements marked by warm applause, he thanked the branches and mentioned new branches that were attending this year as well welcoming the Northumberland miners’ and Durham mechanics’ representatives. He gave a warm welcome to the Czech asylum seekers and then went on to mention the trade unions and national and international guests on the platform.

Alan Simpson MP

Following the civic welcome of the Mayor of Durham, the first speaker to address the Big Meeting was Alan Simpson, MP for Nottingham South. He said that he wanted to stick to matters of family and community. He said that the Gala had reminded him of why he was sent into Parliament, which was to defend the rights of families and the communities that he had grown up in to a life based on dignity, of sufficiency, on the right to offer a future to our children.

Speaking about the youth, he said that "one of the lessons that the Labour Party has to learn as a government is that it isn't our job to turn on the young people and say that it is our job to criminalise them and get tough on them". He said it is our job to put back a sense of place, purpose and worth into their lives and we do so by restoring wages and work and wellbeing to all of them.

Talking about the economy, he said that global companies should be told if they want to sell here they should make here. Britain's future, he said, was in the making of things rather than in the selling of insurances or the "dark satanic" call centres that are set up to replace real jobs. He said he though it was possible for a Labour government to have a manufacturing policy instead of throwing up their hands in horror and despair and say that is the product of globalisation. He commented that the idea that exists, that we have to be in some competitive race for the Thatcher-defined middle England died at the end of the last century. This century is actually the reclamation of real Labour.

Referring to old Labour after the second world war who put in place the welfare state when the country was poor, he asked why we can't do that now when we are a rich country because, he said, we have the wealth. What we lack is the courage to stand up and redistribute it in order to deliver that. He said that we could do that if we show some of the spirit that passed through the streets of Durham today, a spirit that is proud to be part of a community that would not surrender, to dream dreams and share those dreams in solidarity with each other. This is the only basis on which New Labour can win another election, he concluded.

John Pilger

The next speaker was the journalist John Pilger. He began by saying that he was honoured to be asked to speak at the Big Meeting and that he grew up in a mining community in New South Wales, in Australia. He said that community is society's real enduring strength and it is reflected here in Durham even though the pits have gone. He spoke about his experience of the 1974 miners’ strike, which the miners won and for which they were never forgiven. The wilful destruction of the mines by Thatcher was the price they paid, he commented. He said that he was in Murton during the 1984-5 strike when the government waged political war against the miners and their communities, when paramilitary forces cut off villages and assaulted people and as was later revealed most arrested miners had committed no offence and their arrests were illegal. He said that it was all political and made absolutely no economic sense. He said what happened in 1984-5 was a counter revolution against ordinary people fighting for basic rights and as a result people are now forced to work in call centres and fast food outlets and in other kinds of sweat shops and that this is not progress but a crime.

He went on that when young people are deprived of hope and turn to drugs, this is also a crime for which they are not guilty. He said that it was important to remember but not out of nostalgia. Firstly, these long and heroic actions meant that ordinary men and women once again stood and fought back against corrupt power. Secondly, it is important that we remember because the shadow that has since fallen on working people and lately under a so-called Labour government is the shadow of a kind of madness that all humanity must have a bottom line, a market value, a profit margin.

He said that when they say workplaces must be restructured they mean that people are expendable. It is a madness in politics where "nothing is what it seems, where left is right, war is peace and everything is for sale". He said that regardless of this, the great struggle has begun again. He said the general public are registering their own protests by not voting in record numbers, the number of people who vote being down to less than 30% in recent elections.

He said that all over the world people are stirring again. On May Day, 600,000 people demonstrated against globalisation, 100,000 have demonstrated across Latin America. The great events in Seattle last year were just one of many mass actions that represent the coalition of trade unionists and others protesting against the status quo and determined to do something about it, he said. He pointed out that among the pioneers of this coalition were the Liverpool Dockers who set up an international network of solidarity. He told the meeting to watch what working people do in France and Germany as they reject over the next few years the creed of bankers and something their governments call stability. In Britain, he said, the one urgent issue is the defeat of Thatcher's anti-trade union laws. He said that they are against the spirit and letter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they have been condemned by the ILO and they are disgrace on this country. He said that every politician elected who says he, or she, opposes Thatcher should oppose them in Parliament and oppose them everywhere else. Only this, he remarked, will lift the burden on ordinary people and he said that history will leave behind the leadership of working people, the leadership of a trade union movement that doesn't listen to the unending pressure for truly democratic change from its rank and file. He asked what is trade unionism for and answered that it is represented in the spirit of the Durham Gala and is both the heroic past and the exciting future and none of it will be extinguished, he concluded.

Rodney Bickerstaffe

The General Secretary of UNISON Rodney Bickerstaffe then spoke. He said he was humbled by the sheer tenacity of the miners and their communities and their determination at whatever price to keep the traditions alive, and paid tribute to the communities in which we live as well as our community of shared values.

He said he would restrict his remarks, but he would like to talk about getting rid of nuclear submarines. I would like to say, he said, that the blockade by the Americans of Cuba should be lifted. He said he would like to talk about the asylum seekers who need a lot better deal than they have got. He said he would like to see the debts of the poorest nations on earth being cancelled and he said it was about time Palestine got statehood. He said that the drug companies should cut the prices to the people of Africa so that they could stop the raging AIDS epidemic.

He went on to say that his union was pleased when New Labour came to power with many of the issues tackled by the government but, he said, they were elected to power to do the things that we wanted them to do. We want a more just, equal, and fairer country he said. He then he said, dare I say it we want a socialist country.

He asked if the government had lost the plot, and answered by saying that the way forward can never be the road privatisation, of private contracting and making profits out of the sick and the elderly and the dying. He said the way cannot be the designing, building and maintaining of hospitals and schools through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). PFI is about the short term, he continued, it is about hospitals and schools now and paying through the nose for them for the next 100 years. It is ridiculous, he said. PFI must be stopped. He said the way forward cannot be the use of best value, as this was front for contracting out for private profit all those local services in local government to which so many of us directly depend.

Then there is pay, he said. He opposed low pay in the public services and called on the government to uprate the minimum wage every year and to extend it to young people. He then denounced the insult to the pensioners of a 75p increase.

Concluding his speech, which, as he said, was the last time he would speak as General Secretary of UNISON, he thanked the miners and working people of Durham for their support and friendship and said that his aim had always been to have a world where there were no elites and no untouchables. He pledged that as long as UNISON existed there would always be a Durham Miners Gala.

Inez McCormack

The next speaker to address the Big Meeting was Inez McCormack, President of the Irish Council of Trade Unions. She started by conveying the congratulations of all the working people of Ireland, from all communities and all traditions, for keeping the best traditions alive and keeping alive that the human spirit can triumph.

Firstly, she spoke about the connections between the Irish and English workers. She said that when the working class of Ireland supported the miners in the 1984-5 miners’ strike it was not just support for the struggle. It was to pay back dues from the 1920s when the famous lock-out strikes took place in Dublin, when Larkin and Connolly organised the workers and when the bosses organised the lock-out. Children of Waterford were kept alive and families nourished by subscriptions organised in pits in the mining communities of Britain. She went on to say that the ruling class keeps these connections invisible and pointed out that many Irish workers fled to the North East in the 19th century to escape the ravages of the Irish famine. She said that these Irish immigrants in Britain will understand from their parents, or grand parents that there were many signs up in places in Britain saying "No Irish Need Apply". "As we say in Ireland as we hear the vicious racism against the asylum seekers and people of different colour and skins I have a very simple message to members of the movement – how can we forget."

She then went on to say that Margaret Thatcher had called the miners of Britain the "enemy within". She said that the real enemy within is characterised by greed, by arrogance, by the unaccountability of decision making, and those that are characterised by that have no understanding what working people are about here today. She said what is here today is about the values of co-operation and social solidarity. The Gala demonstrates how human beings can behave towards each other and stand up not only against the wrongs that are done to themselves but the wrongs that are done to others. She said that produces a very "dangerous people" and that is why these connections are kept invisible.

Inez McCormack went on to talk about the union contingent she had come with from Ireland – men and women of Republican and Loyalist backgrounds who have fought together against the evils of Thatcherism and who campaigned for the yes referendum in the north of Ireland. She spoke about the Good Friday Agreement and the efforts of these community activists in both communities who contact each other to alert each other when trouble is breaking out. She said that ten years ago many people regarded this as too dangerous, too determined, too irrelevant, too idealistic just to battle for a different type of vision. She concluded by saying that to those "dangerous people" and you "dangerous people", it is not about rejecting the past but about bringing the best of the past into the future and taking forward these values of social solidarity and an understanding in the words of Larkin and Connolly: "An insult to one is an insult to all".

Tony Benn MP

Tony Benn, MP for Chesterfield, gave his address. He started by saying that he had spoken at the Big Meeting for 40 years. He said that there was unfinished business in respect to the mining industry and that the victimised miners have got to have justice and that is a demand that the meeting is entitled to make to a Labour government. He said that, looking at the banners, they contain the wisdom of the trade union movement: United We Stand, Divided We Fall! An Injury to One Is an Injury to All! Fellowship Is Life! Learn From the Past Build for the Future! He said what he always felt about the Big Meeting was that if there were working men and women from any century and any country they would understand what the Durham miners are saying.

He spoke about what he called the victims of the Thatcher period, the homeless, the pensioners, people who are now asked to pay to go to college. He said that we live in a world of grinding poverty and he pointed out that the gap between rich and poor is wider than it was 100 years ago. He said that it was worth reminding ourselves that things only changed in Britain when the trade union movement was founded. He mentioned the role of Tommy Hepburn in getting the miners organised into a trade union. He said that he supported the Chartists because the miners realised that if you had a union and the laws were made in Parliament then the laws were made by people with no interest in working class citizens. Then, he said, it was Kier Hardie, a miner, who argued for the foundation of the Labour Representation Committee and the Labour Party because he said that now we have the vote we want to have our own people in Parliament. That was how the Labour Party came to be formed.

The speaker then said that it was miners’ leaders before the First World War who campaigned for the public ownership of the mining industry. Then in 1918, he said, when the Labour Party had its founding constitution, what the trade union delegates said was that we don't just want political power – we want to use the vote we have to get control of economic power. That is why the famous Clause 4 was passed, he said, calling for us to secure for the workers by hand or brain the full fruits of their industry. He said, that in his opinion remains one of the finest aspirations.

Developing his theme, he then said it was a Welsh miner, A. Bevan, who gave us the National Health Service and another Welsh miner, J. Griffiths, who founded the welfare state. He spoke about the internationalist character of the trade unions and then went on to speak about Europe. He called for a "people’s Europe" and not a bankers Europe around a single currency that we do not control and run by people we did not elect and cannot remove.

Tony Benn then said that he was giving up Parliament and that this would mean that he could devote more time to politics! He said that every single gain that has been made has started outside Parliament and that it was only when the struggle was strong that the people at the top have to listen. Our job in the labour movement now, he said, is to try and make demands on the system under which we live that cannot be resisted. He raised the question that we have a Labour government now but why are we not getting what we want? He answered by saying we have to put on the pressure and if we do, he said, he was confident that if we lifted the trade union laws we will liberate the trade union movement and liberate ourselves.

He concluded by saying we are at a turning point and whether we succeed or not depends not on people at the top but on us ourselves.

After a message of thanks from David Hopper of the Durham Miners the Big Meeting was concluded.

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