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‘I am standing on the shoulders of giants. I could not be prouder’

The Durham Miners’ Association has a new leader. ALAN MARDGHUM talks to Morning Star reporter Peter Lazenby

ALAN MARDGHUM is steeped in the militant politics of the Durham coalfield.

Once a coalface worker, he is the new secretary and chairman of the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA).

Today for the first time he will chair the Durham Miners’ Gala — the 135th Big Meeting — Britain’s biggest national celebration of the labour and trade union movement.

Mardghum, 63, didn’t start his working life as a miner.

“I’d served my time in a bakery,” he said. “I did that for five or six years. Then my brother and me went to work at Wearmouth colliery in the 1970s. I went in 1977 and Ian went in 1978. He’s 18 months younger than me. I was 20 or 21.

“It was a total change. I started off on the belt line, working on supplies, then did my face training and worked on power loading as a face worker.

“I was at Wearmoth until December 10 1993, when the pit closed. It was the last deep mine in County Durham when it closed.”

He told of Wearmouth’s proud history.

“A strike at Wearmouth was responsible for the founding of the Durham Miners’ Association,” he said.

“It was over the pitman’s ‘bond’ in 1869. The bond tied the miner to the pit. He couldn’t leave.

“The pitmen’s attorney WP Roberts argued that it was unfair to ask men to sign something they could not read. Many were illiterate. The court agreed.

“Later that year, in November, there was a meeting in the Market Tavern — four men — and that was the embryo of the Durham Miners’ Association. 

“So Wearmouth has been influential, and involved in the formation of the union, and then it was the last deep mine in County Durham.”

Working at Wearmouth influenced his politics.

“There were people like Davey Hopper and Stan Pearce,” he said.

The late Hopper, former DMA secretary, and Pearce were leading figures in the coalfield and in the labour and trade union movement.

“They got me involved in the union,” said Mardghum. “I started attending committee meetings, lodge meetings, and I was elected to the lodge committee in 1980. I went to conferences, demonstrations, and got really involved in the union. Then I was financial secretary of the lodge at the pit.

“At times I represented the lodge at area meetings, summer schools, learning more and more about the running of the union, and of course I met people from other coalfields, the ones of massive influence like Kent, south Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire — the areas of militancy — which was the way I decided was the right to go.

“Then there was the strike, and after that Davey Hopper and Dave Guy were elected to the area, and I took over as lodge secretary at Wearmoth, and was there until it closed.”

It is down to the efforts of Hopper and Guy as secretary and chairman of the DMA that the Durham Miners’ Gala survives today.

As pit closures swept through the coalfields and union income plummeted, other areas abandoned their annual galas to save money. 

But Durham was steadfast in its determination to keep its event going. Now it increases in attendance every year, not only as a celebration of a the coalfield’s militant past, but as a declaration of current political defiance.

After 1993 Mardghum worked in the probation service for about 12 years, while still doing welfare work for former mineworkers.

Then in March this year DMA secretary Alan Cummings and chairman Joe Whitworth, who had succeeded Hopper and Guy, retired.

Mardghum took on the dual role as secretary and chairman on April 1. He works from the DMA’s historic headquarters, Redhills, in Durham.

“One of the things, walking into that building, I am standing on the shoulders of giants, attempting to follow in the footsteps of some massive characters in the labour and trade union movement. I could not be prouder,” he said.

One of the biggest responsibilities is maintaining and running the Durham Miners’ Gala.

“Although we haven’t had a pit for over 25 years the Gala goes from strength to strength — 200,000, 250,000 on the streets of Durham,” said Mardghum. 

“And we will be paying tribute to Davey Hopper and Dave Guy.”

With no membership income, the Gala is an annual financial challenge for the DMA. So it has established the “Marras” scheme. Marra means mate, fellow worker — the man beside you on the pit face, your life depending on him, and his on you.

“The Marras scheme does a tremendous job, and we’re asking more and more people to join if they want the Big Meeting to continue. 

“And there’s no better feeling to see the bands playing and the banners flying,” he said. “It’s the focal point. Some marras only see each other once a year, and it’s at the Gala.”

Maintaining and restoring Redhills is another challenge.

“With this building and what it represents — we don’t want it to be a museum. We’ve got plenty of them. Redhills is for learning and education.

“But the roof needs replacing. Over the years it’s only ever been patched up.”

Funds are being raised though individuals and organisations sponsoring a seat in the building’s Council Chamber, where for decades delegates from Durham’s coalmines made momentous decisions with national repercussions — such as the 1926 miners’ strike which led to the General Strike.

There are more than 300 seats in the Council Chamber, one for each pit delegate — that’s how many coalmines operated in the Durham coalfield at the industry’s peak.

DMA is a political organisation, and Mardghum views the current national and international situation grimly.

“It makes me come out in a cold sweat when I think of Tweedledum and Tweedledee [Trump and Johnson],” he said.

“We have got the far right on the rise, not only in Britain but throughout Europe. So I see our job as promoting the core values we represent — peace, democracy and everything that goes with it — health, education.

“The woes of the capitalist system are not the fault of the people who are the victims. Yet we are coming near to electing fascists. 

“The far right are no longer just skinheads, they are more plausible — Farage. We are seeing it on the rise and it is a real danger.

“We have a choice, socialism or barbarism. We already have the barbarism of foodbanks, heating turned off in schools in winter, the public sector under constant attack.”

He challenges the activities of Labour MPs attacking the left in the Labour Party.

“From 1997 to 2010 we had a Labour government more hell-bent on beating the left in the system than they were on attacking the Tories.”

He questioned the emergence of politicians standing for positions and declaring themselves “independent.”

“I ask, independent of what? Independent of the working class? Independent of the problems facing the people we represent?”

He is also angry at the debacle that is Brexit.

“Brexit was not caused by Labour. It was caused by Cameron and Osborne. They left it with May and others who are so inept — the little Englanders. It didn’t work and it never was going to work.

“But we voted for Brexit and three years down the line they are still arguing about it.

“To the shame of some in the Labour Party we have some MPs calling for a ‘people’s vote’ — undermining democracy. We need to get democracy back.”

He sees the Gala as a uniting force for political action, particularly for the former mining communities of north-east England.

“We go out addressing meetings, putting our political point of view, and it’s important that the people in the villages have a focal point — and that is where the Durham Miners’ Gala comes in,” he said.

For more information in supporting the Gala and Redhills visit www.durhamminers.org, email admin@durhamminers.co.uk or write to Durham Miners Association, Redhills, Durham Miners’ Hall, Flass Street, Durham DH1 4BE.

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