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Davey Hopper: union man

Huw Beynon reflects on the life of his friend and comrade Davey Hopper, the tough and imaginative Durham miners’ leader, who died in July

November 8, 2016
10 min read


Durham Miner’s Gala secretary Davey Hopper (right) with Jeremy Corbyn on the Balcony of the County Hotel at the Old Elvet, as annual parade passed below. Photo: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Dave Hopper – or Davey as he was universally known to his friends – was secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association, once the Northern Area of the National Union of Mineworkers. To celebrate his life, with talk and music, a wake was held in the Sacriston Miners’ Club on 28 July, followed by a humanist service at the historic Redhills miners’ hall the following day. There were no hymns – the music was provided by Bob Marley and Paul Robeson – and Jeremy Corbyn spoke on both occasions. The service was chaired by former Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe and attended by over 700 people, half inside the hall and the remainder outside, in and around a marquee surrounded by trade union banners.

The mourners included Len McCluskey of Unite and several other union general secretaries alongside a wide array of friends and supporters. The Morning Star devoted six pages to obituaries and notices from individuals and diverse organisations, including the Institute of Employment Rights and Wortley Hall in Yorkshire. Trade unions predominated, with the GMB writing of ‘a true giant of the labour movement’; the RMT described a ‘working-class fighter and comrade of the RMT and the global trade union movement’; Unite wrote of a ‘true friend of working people’.

This response to the death of a trade union official in a remote part of England was remarkable and says a lot about the man and the times in which we live.

Mouth of the Wear

Davey was born during the war in Sunderland, the coal-mining and shipbuilding town on the mouth of the river Wear. He left school in 1958 to work in the local Wearmouth colliery, where his father was a miner and committed trade unionist. Encouraged to become active in the local lodge, he was elected as lodge secretary in 1982 and then, after the year-long strike of 1984-85, regional secretary and full time official of the National Union of Mineworkers, based in the grand Edwardian hall that was the union’s home in Durham City.

As a young miner, he remembered that he had looked upon Redhills miners’ hall with a mixture of fear and awe. At that time the Durham area was dominated by the right-wing politics of Sam Watson, regional secretary of the union and an enormously influential figure nationally. He was chair of the Labour Party’s international committee and the urbane power behind the throne of Hugh Gaitskell, the first leader of the party to try to remove its Clause Four commitment to public ownership. In Durham he was known by friend and foe alike as ‘the little dictator’ and that was how Davey remembered him, blaming him for his support of right-wing policies, of colliery closures in the 1960s and for the incompetent men – christened ‘Tweedledum and Tweedledumber’ – who followed him.

In the 1980s these leaders were challenged by a Left Group of rank-and-file miners set up to campaign for progressive policies, especially in relation to the impending closure of coal mines. Davey was centrally involved, and in 1983 the group was successful in defeating the officials and getting a rank-and-file member elected to the NUM national executive. This hugely symbolic victory saw the Left Group in a position to run the year-long strike that followed in Durham, and for Hopper to be elected as regional secretary in 1985 with a commitment to sweep away the old order.

The two Daveys

With his experience and shrewdness, he had the capacity to be an excellent negotiator. However, he was faced with the National Coal Board relentlessly determined to impose a draconian work regime, coupled with an escalating number of colliery closures and redundancies. Along with his president, David Guy (the ‘two Daveys’), he made a decent fist of it, focusing initially on the men sacked during the strike.

The Horden miners also received their support in opposing the closure of the mine and being the first to test the new modified colliery review procedure (gained by the supervisors’ union NACODS in return for not following through with strike action in 1985) and find it wanting. When the second wave of closures was announced in 1992, a strong Durham delegation went to London on two occasions in the space of three days to lobby parliament during the debate on colliery closures and then to lead the massive march to Hyde Park organised by the TUC. Although unsuccessful in changing government policy – all the mines in Durham were closed prematurely – 1992 marked a change in the public mood, revealing powerful emotional support for the miners. Within the trade unions there was a sense that, in their struggle against enormous odds, the miners and the NUM had become the conscience of the labour movement.

In Durham, Redhills miners’ hall was now a much more inviting place, often carrying banners in support of local and national campaigns. It became a centre for film – The Happy Lands and Still the Enemy Within were both screened there to large audiences – and for exhibitions and discussions. However, it was in the fight for compensation for industrial injury that the new leadership made its biggest impact, when it backed legal action aimed at proving the National Coal Board negligent in relation to vibration white finger. This condition was associated with extensive use of pneumatic drilling equipment and was widespread among miners. The action was successful and followed by another in relation to emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It was a remarkable achievement and, allied with the decision to work with the progressive trade union lawyers Thompsons, enormously beneficial for their retired and prematurely redundant members.

The ‘Big Meeting’

At the same time, and even though the mines had closed, they decided to continue to organise the annual Gala – or ‘Big Meeting’ – in Durham. This had once been the major event in the Labour calendar thanks to the political acumen of Hopper’s predecessor Sam Watson. In the post-war years, Watson had harnessed this visual spectacle to his support for Gaitskell, the USA and Israel, inviting a range of influential guests through the generous hospitality of the union. In time, as the industry contracted, the Gala lost its impact, with the old leadership resisting any change away from a local miners’ event and an inevitable ending.

But Davey Hopper shared Watson’s understanding of the power of the Gala and the enormous popular support it engendered across the county. The decision to continue it confounded all expectations as it grew in size year on year. It attracted more and more people, men and women, old and young, from the North East. ‘Banner groups’, often organised by women, were set up in villages to raise funds to purchase replica banners of the closed mines and build new communities in their place. In Durham they were joined by trade union delegations and community groups from across the UK, including women who had been part of Women Against Pit Closures, with the platform involving speakers drawn from beyond the political elite. The new leadership’s openness to a broader involvement saw the Gala transformed into a national trade union celebration with internationalism of a different kind evoking Cuba and Chile, Spain and Australia.

All this came at a time when trade union membership was in decline and national leaders had become open to the idea of links with social movements and developing popular campaigning as a way of widening their support. So the re-emergence of the Gala as a platform for left-wing ideas and discussion was both timely and welcomed by the activists who travelled north (and south) to attend. Speaking with them, they often mentioned having their ‘batteries recharged’ and of experiencing ‘something unique’. It was an enormously successful collaboration.

Power of personality

There is no doubt that Davey Hopper’s personality, his mix of congeniality and obduracy, played a critical part in this success, not least in his ability to identify big political issues in small events. Such an event occurred at Sunderland Football Club, whose new stadium was built on the site of the old Wearmouth colliery and incorporated the old lodge banner. In 2013, the club appointed Paolo di Canio – a man with well-known links to fascism in Italy – as manager.

Troubled by the rise of right-wing political groups in Sunderland, Hopper identified in the banner an alternative symbol of the community, one that emphasised solidarity. He used the threat of removing the banner to press for a stronger anti-racism programme in the town and for di Canio to disavow his past. Soon afterwards he travelled to speak at a conference of the train drivers’ union ASLEF and, he remembered: ‘I had a standing ovation before I had even started to speak. Before I had opened my mouth!’

All this contrasted with his experience of the Labour Party. He had resigned his membership of 30 years over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and after Tony Blair, MP for the local constituency of Sedgefield, had persistently turned down invitations to speak at the Gala. Frequently, in moments of melancholy, he would question whether socialism was even on the agenda any more – something he conveyed to Labour canvassers in 2015: ‘You are asking for my vote but I have no idea what you are going to do. What are you going to do?’

‘Even better than the strike’

Against this background the campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn came as a revelation. After speaking at the packed rally in Newcastle, he rang me in a state of exhilaration. The experience had been ‘even better than the strike’, he said. Here he saw the possibility of the political change he had hoped for all his life. He was aghast at the response of Labour MPs and viewed the no-confidence vote and shadow cabinet resignations as ‘betrayal’. So much so that, with his executive committee, he withdrew the invitations to MPs to join Corbyn and the other speakers on the platform this year at what turned out to be the biggest turnout for a Gala in living memory – in Davey’s view ‘the best ever’.

In his assessment of Davey, Len McCluskey wrote that, ‘His legacy will live on in the Gala, the most vibrant union gathering in the world’. It was a fitting tribute, endorsed by each of the eulogies and combined with a determination that in its new form as a national popular event it would continue, building understanding and solidarity across occupations and support for all people in struggle.

Davey Hopper, 1943–2016.

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