Hilary Benn shares memories of Durham Miners’ Gala – but says Labour cannot commit to funding the event

Labour figure Hilary Benn has told of fond childhood memories attending Durham Miners’ Gala, but admitted a Labour Government could not offer money for the under-threat event.

The Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary, whose much-admired father Tony Benn was a fierce defender of the miners during Margaret Thatcher’s time in power, recalled the magic of the Big Meeting when he watched banners pass the County Hotel balcony.

But he said his party, which was founded by the union movement, could not offer cash to back the Big Meeting.

The event was founded by the Durham Miners’ Association and has a long and rich history as a celebration of the region’s heritage.

Tory Communities Secretary Eric Pickles seized on the chance to criticise Labour and accused them of failing to “respect their roots”.

The Gala’s future is uncertain as the association is struggling to find fresh funds, organiser, general secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association Dave Hopper told the crowd in 2014, though it will go ahead on Saturday July 11.

Hilary Benn, who followed his father into a career in Parliament and is campaigning to be re-elected in Leeds Central, said he shared Mr Hopper’s fears for the event.

“One of my earliest childhood memories was my dad taking me up to the Gala,” he said. “There must have been about 11 of us on the famous balcony of the County Hotel, including Harold Wilson.

“We watched the banners go past the hotel in the procession. I was struck by how it was a great day of trade union solidarity and it is a great Labour tradition.”

But it is a sure signal of just how tough times are that the Labour Party can’t offer any money towards the event.

He said: “The Labour and trade union movement have always been big supporters of the Gala, and we will do all we can to support it, but we can’t make specific spending commitments.”

The Miners’ Gala was first held in the city’s Wharton Park in 1871.

Numbers grew strongly during the miners’ strikes to attract huge crowds of as many as 300,000.

Though the North East mining industry is a shadow of its former self, the Big Meeting continues to pull thousands of visitors.

Lodge banners are marched through the city and hundreds gather at a field near banks of the River Wear in what is a proud celebration of the North East’s heritage.

Tony Benn was one of the great figures of the left that have spoken at the event.

Labour Leader Ed Miliband has told colleagues he will give a speech this year, sharing a stage with long-serving parliamentarian Dennis Skinner.

The association said it was left with a £2.2m legal bill after losing a six-year court battle on behalf of former miners who have osteoarthritis of the knee.

Critics, including Labour’s North Durham candidate Kevan Jones, however, say the association had £6m in its accounts when it was a union in 2007.

Mr Pickles said a Conservative Government would not offer any help but insisted the party’s plan to create jobs would see more people support the event.

Mr Benn said one of the things the unions, many of which will be represented at the Gala, will fight is the rise in zero-hours contracts which grew four-fold under the Coalition government.

Mr Pickles, however, said: “As it is predominantly Labour Party and trade union members involved you would expect them to respect their roots.

“What we can promise is more jobs and more prosperity and more pounds in people’s pockets.”

Source –Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 06 Apr 2015

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