NEWS coverage of this year’s Durham Miners’ Gala – the biggest trade union and labour movement event of its kind in the UK – was largely limited to a few column inches in the Sunday newspapers, and sporadic TV bulletins.
However, the annual event in the cathedral city of Durham this year offered what was probably the most authentic trade union and Old Labour perspective on Ed Miliband’s recent well-publicised clash with the UK’s biggest trade union.
Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union, the figure at the heart of the controversy over allegations of attempted manipulation of the selection of Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Falkirk, was among the keynote speakers on the gala platform.
It’s now more than two decades since the last deep-mined coal mines closed in north-east England, but the Durham Miners’ Gala still continues to attract vast numbers with this year’s attendance estimated at 150,000.
So important did Ed Miliband view the event, that last year he became the first Labour leader to speak at the gala since the 1980s, when Neil Kinnock controversially stopped going to the event known as “The Big Meeting”.
Mr Miliband’s presence was largely well received at last year’s gala, which is associated with a number of iconic themes, including that of the invited speakers waving from the balcony of the famous County Hotel in Durham centre as the marching brass bands and colourful miners’ lodge banners pass by, reminiscent of the hit film Brassed Off.
However, this year was very different, with Mr Miliband nowhere to be seen and no Labour MPs speaking on the platform for the first time in living memory, although, in fairness this was probably coincidental, as speakers were confirmed well in advance of the Falkirk row.
Without exception, this year’s speakers had critical words about Mr Miliband’s handling of the row with Unite.
Mr McCluskey used his speech to defend Unite’s attempts to ensure its favoured candidates are selected to fight elections for Labour insisting the union was “giving the working-class a stake in our democracy” while Westminster is dominated by the “Oxbridge elite”.
But it was also the critical response of figures such as Trade Union Congress leader Frances O’Grady, often seen as an ally of Mr Miliband, that may worry the Labour leadership.
Ms O’Grady insisted “union money is the cleanest cash in politics” as she suggested the system of payments from union members’ subscriptions going to Labour funds was an effective way of ensuring the party retains links with working people.
It’s unlikely that the rallying cry from rail union leader Bob Crow for unions to set up a new party of organised labour will come to fruition.
But there was no mistaking a feeling of anger about the way some unions perceive Mr Miliband has sought to portray them as an electoral liability.