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 oclock 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.
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.
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
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
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 "peoples 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
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.