Phil Wilson MP tells why he is speaking about the mining heritage of County Durham at a Hope Not Hate rally in his Sedgefield constituency today
There are still rows of colliery terraces in the former mining villages around Sedgefield. Where housing is not terraced, there are estates of council-built homes. I grew up on one of those estates in Trimdon. I remember that, back in the Sixties, my dad and almost every other man of working age along our street worked down the local colliery.
Entertainment was also a shared experience. The working men’s club, now the Labour Club, was the social hub of the village. The club hosted the leek show; the pigeon lads met there and still do. One day every summer, the club organised a family day out. Twenty buses would drive in convoy the 20 miles to Redcar beach. Community spirit was strong.
Still is. During the coal mining era community was a necessity because for many people self-help wasn’t enough. For example, at least 1,560 men and boys lost their lives down the many collieries in Sedgefield. The community had to rally round to help those families pull through. The shared lives of those generations led to shared values.
Compassion and solidarity can be traced through the genetic code of the local people. The union lodges, one for each colliery, were the basic building blocks of the code. They were the centres where compassion ensured that the sick and aged were provided for, where solidarity meant defending the many. Co-operation was the watchword.
Each lodge had its own identity expressed through the famous banners carried through the streets of Durham City on Big Meeting day. Each banner was an expression of the miners’ hopes and values. They contained emblems portraying scenes from the colliery, portraits of political leaders and religious symbolism. Each had a motto. For example, Deaf Hill’s expressed its faith in the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Go thou and do likewise”; Trimdon Grange’s was “Unity is Strength”. One of my favourites is from my father’s colliery of Fishburn: “The cause of labour is the hope of the world”.
The banner became as important to the miners as a flag to a regiment. Years after the collieries closed, the banners still hang on the walls of local community centres. They are still taken down on special occasions, such as the Big Meeting, to be paraded once again as a symbol of local values. Mottos sewn into the fabric of the banners need to be articulated in a different way for a new generation which remembers little of those times. There must be no appeal to nostalgia, yet the language of new Labour needs to be given an accent understood by those who feel left behind as well as by those who have moved on.
It is 16 years since the last colliery in the Durham coalfield closed. Communities are not broken. People are relatively better off and their needs are changing. Club life is not as vibrant and there is no longer the communal trip to the seaside. Instead, today, the equivalent to my dad’s record player, which could stack six LPs, is an iPod. To hold a conversation is to text. But even as times change, some things stay the same. Nothing could be more profoundly true than the values proclaimed on those banners.
Compassion and solidarity are still needed because self-help is still not enough. As Labour learns to articulate for a new generation, some in communities where the mining values gained foundation look for another set of standards where compassion is made callous and discord replaces solidarity.
CHANGE has breathed life into the far right, especially in those communities where industrial change has been the most dramatic. But for all the extremists proclaim that they are the saviours of the white working class, they are the complete opposite to every sentiment on every lodge banner carried through the street of Durham on every Big Meeting day from the 19th Century to the 21st.
The far right and the British National Party are a canker on the soul of the white working class. I know they will not succeed because at every Big Meeting there is a banner present from the Dean and Chapter lodge in Ferryhill. The banner’s emblem is a portrait of three men meeting in friendship. One is white, one is black and another is Asian. The motto beneath reads: “Fellowship is life. Fellowship for all”.
The banner, words, portrait and sentiment are of the white working class. I am proud to be of the white working class too, and I honour the heritage that they created because fellowship is life and fellowship is for all.