THE 137th Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday was loud, proud, spectacular and inspirational. Once again, the Big Meeting attracted around 200,000 participants and spectators despite the fact there’s not a single deep mine left in the entire UK.

But the historic gala, first held in 1871, has gone from strength to strength in recent years and is now without doubt Europe’s biggest annual trade union, community and labour movement event, thanks in no small measure to the internet and the growth of social media.

So with around 200,000 trade unionists, left-leaning campaign groups and potential Labour voters in town, you would imagine that the UK Labour leader and would-be prime minister Sir Keir Starmer would rate the gala as a must-attend event.

READ MORE: Keir Starmer to snub historic Durham Miners' Gala for second year

As is their standard practice the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) offered the Labour leader the opportunity to address the gala gathering, but citing an unnamed “diary commitment” for the second year running, Starmer’s office declined the invitation.

In doing so, he followed the example set by two of his predecessors – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – who apparently feared that being pictured in the Daily Mail alongside “militant” trade union leaders would damage their electoral prospects.

Or perhaps Starmer just didn’t fancy being heckled by the Durham crowd – a fate suffered by several leaders perceived to be tacking too far to the right!

Bizarrely, an article penned by Starmer extolling the gala as “a celebration of the very best elements of our movement” and “the embodiment of working-class spirit” was published on the website of the Darlington-based Northern Echo newspaper on the eve of the event … but there was no hint of an explanation or apology about why he was unable to attend.

However, the two leading left-wing activists expelled from Labour by Starmer – former leader Jeremy Corbyn and film-maker Ken Loach – were on the County Hotel balcony to view the passing bands and banners as guests of the DMA – a clear statement of where the Durham miners stand in the perennial left-right struggle in the party and perhaps another reason why Starmer chose not to attend.

In a short impromptu speech at the meeting ground, the pro-independence Loach made a veiled criticism of Starmer by commenting: “Anyone can say the word solidarity, but it’s as cheap as any other if you don’t really mean it.”

And he was cheered enthusiastically by the gala crowd when he said he was pleased to see Corbyn there and declared his support for the now Independent MP for Islington North.

The National:

DMA general secretary Alan Mardghum told me: “Keir Starmer is not the first Labour leader to give the gala a miss and he probably won’t be the last. But the gala goes on in the spirit of unity and solidarity.

“The turnout again of around 200,000 from all parts of the UK and beyond shows the gala’s enduring appeal and demonstrates that its popularity is not dependent on the availability of one individual.”

Meanwhile, the Alba Party’s national women’s convenor Yvonne Ridley, who was born and raised in County Durham, told The National: “I wasn’t in the least bit surprised by Starmer’s absence. He is not a man of the people and would have looked quite out of place at such a working-class event.

“The Big Meeting is a fine north-east tradition and his decision not to attend will be seen as a snub to the working classes and their friends who went to Durham on Saturday. While he certainly wasn’t missed, the absence of a Labour leader at such an important event stands out like a sore thumb.”

The National:

Taking to Twitter, socialist SNP member Bill Cruickshank agreed that few people at the gala would have been disappointed by Starmer’s no-show and highlighted Labour MP John McDonnell’s recent Newsnight appearance during which the former shadow chancellor commented that Starmer had allowed a right-wing faction within Labour to become “drunk on power and were on a mission to destroy the left”.

Starmer was mocked on Twitter by Gala regulars @LGSMpride – the London-based lesbians and gay men who raised cash to help striking miners during the 1984-85 strike and were the inspiration for the popular 2014 film Pride.

The National:

The group said: “Even if Starmer couldn’t spare the time to visit probably Europe’s biggest labour movement event, we were proud to travel up from London to meet up again with so many friends and comrades.”

Among the bands from Scotland in attendance, the Langholm Town Band from the Borders (shown above) gained plaudits from the crowds for its spirited rendition of the Scotland football team’s unofficial anthem Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.

A band spokesperson said on Twitter: “It was a fantastic day!”

It is a statement that will be echoed by the thousands of gala enthusiasts who already have the second Saturday of July pencilled in their diaries for the 2024 Big Meeting.

Dave Bowman is a member of the SNP and a Friend of the Durham Miners’ Gala