Miliband brings Miners' Gala in from the cold

He's the first Labour leader to speak at Durham's union spree for decades, sparking cries of 'Red Ed'

It was the event that Labour leaders forgot. But yesterday Ed Miliband brought the Durham Miners' Gala back into the mainstream of the Labour movement.

For more than two decades, leaders including Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown gave the gala a wide berth, fearful of being identified too closely with an event that so openly celebrates traditional trade unionism.

Even before he began speaking at the Old Racecourse − part of Durham University and home to the gala since 1872 − Mr Miliband's opponents were already claiming that the appearance at the "largest remaining working-class demonstration in the country" marked a significant backwards step towards the old politics of the 1980s.

"By breaking 23 years of silence from the Labour leadership at the Durham Miners' Gala, Ed Miliband is handing his party back to Kinnock," Conservative Party co-chairman Baroness Warsi said. "Red Ed is using the Durham Miners' Gala to cosy up to his militant, left-wing union paymasters. He's still driving the Labour Party away from the centre ground of British politics."

It was a risky decision, for a man often lampooned as being in the pocket of the union movement. But Mr Miliband's appearance at the gala was a conscious attempt to strengthen his ties with the heartland of his party.

Although the mining industry in the county has shrivelled away in recent years, Durham remains a significant Labour stronghold – and the neglect of a succession of Labour leaders has caused lasting resentment.

"In a county that is totally Labour-controlled and where every MP since time immemorial has been Labour, Blair, Brown and Kinnock refused to come," said Dave Hopper, secretary of the Durham Miners' Association. "It was an insult to the voters in the county."

Durham was unlikely to hold a grudge against the latest Labour leader, however; in the days before the event, organisers spoke hopefully of Miliband "putting 20,000 on the gate", and guaranteeing the 128th gala a record crowd. Mr Miliband took to the balcony of the County Hotel as Labour leaders of the past have done for decades, watching some of the 80 or so miners' banners and around 50 brass bands parade past. He later listed some of the Labour heroes who have spoken before him at past galas, including Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle. "I am proud to follow in their footsteps," he said. "I am proud to be here today."

Addressing the crowd on the Old Racecourse, he hit out at the bankers, Rupert Murdoch and Britain's "rip-off" energy companies. But he devoted the bulk of his speech to an attack on the "divisive" coalition.

Mr Miliband said: "A few years ago the Tories tried to say 'we're all in it together'. But now we know they never meant it. Because we have seen what they do when they get back in power.

"One rule for those at the top and another rule for everybody else. They cut taxes for millionaires and they raise taxes on pensioners. It's business as usual in the banks and small businesses go under.

"They try and divide our country between rich and poor. Between north and south. Same old Tories."

Afterwards, Mr Miliband dismissed the claims of opponents − and warnings from some allies − that the venture had been an electoral risk. He said: "The stakes are so high in this country. If you are someone who is looking for work, whose living standards have been squeezed, or someone worried about the NHS you're not thinking, 'Why is Ed Miliband going to the Durham Miners' Gala?', you are thinking, 'What can Ed Miliband do for me?'"

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