This Saturday I will be proudly marching with the Hartlepool Trades Council banner in the greatest celebration of Trade Unionism and the Labour movement in the Country; the Durham Miners Gala. Apart from being a marvellous day out, it truly is a unique blend of tradition, history, politics and fun. This year the ‘big meeting’ as it is fondly known is in its 135th year. All praise must go to the Durham Miners Association for their hard work in keeping the Gala going over the years, especially through the dark times of Pit closures and the decimation of our mining communities, but it’s worth it. The Gala is the greatest coming together of like-minded people I have ever experienced and a great day out for ordinary people and families. It really does go from strength to strength, getting bigger all the time; a living symbol of the proud history and future aspirations of not only the workers and people of our region but of working-class people everywhere. It really is a wonder to behold and a truly national and internationalist event.
The coal mines may have closed now and been replaced by sites like the Dalton Park shopping outlet centre or Sunderland AFC’s Stadium of Light but all of that is within living memory; the people of the pit villages will never forget the trauma inflicted on them by the ideological destruction of the industry by the Thatcher Government in the 1980’s.
Fast forward to the year 2016 and the failure by the Government to rescue steel manufacturing in Redcar; a 99-year-old business with 2,066 direct employees. In one stroke almost our ability as a nation to not only produce the world renowned manufacturing raw materials which built the likes of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but our entire steel manufacturing base is now at risk; the current crisis in the hedge fund owned and deceptively named ‘British Steel’ has led to calls for Government intervention, with little joy so far despite the very clear and obvious need for us to consolidate our major materials production bases post Brexit. The link between the closure of the coal mines and steel production should be obvious but in case it’s not then consider this. In the 1980’s the Government imported coal from Russia after they had destroyed our own coal industry in order to cope with demand. Kill off our ability to create our own steel as a nation and we are left at the mercy of other countries and handcuffed by ridiculously high and uncompetitive tariffs as a non-EU country.
In Hartlepool we have never had coal mines; we’ve just got Sea Coaler’s who drive onto our beaches at low tide to rake up and scoop washed up coal from the Durham pits into the back of their burgeoning flat back trucks. We had ship building of course, a long-established tradition, which sadly went the way of other major industries but we’ve lost our sense of direction and our sense of purpose as a Town in desperate need to rejuvenate, regenerate and rebuild our traditional skills and jobs base.
Wrapped around our Town, literally, are industry award winning multi-million pound industrial leaders like Able UK, EDF Energy, Heerema, Liberty and Tata Steel and Seymour Engineering. All of them contributing to the local economy and each helping put Hartlepool on the map in a positive way. But in all honesty their success means nothing morally if they are not recruiting Hartlepool people to work in their businesses and on their projects and skill up the next generation of engineers and craftsmen and women. Some do, some don’t, and some have enthusiastically grasped the nettle, but the bottom line is that you can’t expect pride, dignity and a sense of purpose to be restored to our people and our great communities until it becomes the norm that they do.