Jeremy Corbyn urged Theresa May to end the Conservative “nightmare” and call a snap general election as he addressed record crowds at a Durham Miners’ Gala hailed as a “celebration of Corbynism”.
To the now-familiar chants of “Oh Jer-emy Cor-byn”, the Labour leader demanded an end to the public sector pay cap and a public inquiry into the “national catastrophe” of the Grenfell fire.
His speech to the 133rd Durham Miners’ gala was interrupted when a woman invaded the stage and briefly refused to leave, having fought her way through the crowds.
Corbyn told the huge rally of trade unionists and mineworkers that the general election campaign was “not just the excitement of youth, not just the concerns of older people, it was a fundamental unease”.
He added: “Unease, that a society can go on in this direction with poverty and inequality alongside very rapidly rising huge individual wealth for a small number of people.”
To boisterous cheers, Corbyn went on: “I’ve got good news for the Tories: I know they’re living through a nightmare at the moment. I’m somebody, as you’re very well aware, that doesn’t get involved in personal abuse and would never exploit somebody else’s misfortune – so I want to help these Tories out of their nightmare.
“Feel free, at any time, to resign and we’ll have another general election.”
More than 200,000 people were expected on the streets of Durham for the 133rd so-called “Big Meeting”, a record turnout for the biggest trade union gala in Europe.
The march appeared as much a celebration of the north-east’s mining heritage as a mark of the surge in “Corbynism” in Labour’s heartlands, with scores of people wearing Corbyn-branded T-shirts and chanting the 68-year-old MP’s name.
Len McCluskey, the Unite chief, described the Labour leader as “the prime minister in waiting” and attacked Corbyn’s critics – singling out one-time leadership candidate Chuka Umunna – in a speech at the sun-dappled racecourse.
The union leader marvelled at the size of crowd and said: “I’ve been to many miners’ galas over the years but this has been the biggest, loudest and proudest one I’ve ever seen. Just like I’ve never seen rallies like those for Jeremy during the election campaign, it’s extraordinary this enthusiasm for our movement that has built for Jeremy’s vision.”
Corbyn left the stage to cheers and rapturous applause from the tens of thousands at the racecourse, and a standing ovation from the trade unionists and Labour colleagues on the stage.
Ken Loach, the filmmaker behind I, Daniel Blake and a prominent Corbyn supporter, addressed the crowds alongside a host of trade union leaders and the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner.
The record turnout “shows that we stand at a moment of great hope,” he told the crowd. “Why is it a moment of hope? Because we have a Labour leadership that for the first time in my memory stands with the people,” he said, to applause.
“The wind is in our sails. We nearly won a great victory and we will do next time. This wind is with us.”
There were pantomime boos as a succession of union leaders attacked the Conservative government’s £1bn deal with the Democratic Unionist party, described by McCluskey as symbolising May’s “bung parliament”.
Corbyn was joined on stage by about 20 fellow Labour MPs but many others from the north-east were blacklisted from appearing on the Durham Miners’ Association platform for the second year running over their perceived hostility towards the party leader.
The blanket “dis-invitation” was introduced last year by Davey Hopper, the association’s general secretary who died a week after last year’s march, which came at the height of a leadership challenge against Corbyn and after a vote of no confidence by his parliamentary colleagues.
Addressing the crowds, Joe Whitworth, the miners’ association chairman, said politics had eventually come back to his late colleague’s viewpoint after the Blair years. “It’s a bit like Back to the Future,” he said. “Socialism has returned. This is what socialism looks like at Durham Miners’ Gala in 2017.”
Watching from the crowd, Linda Serrechia, 35, said of Corbyn: “His speech was excellent but if he’d done that at the start of the election he could’ve been prime minister now. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see him as PM but if he came out with all this at the start it might have been a different story.”
The chants of “Oh Jer-emy Cor-byn” had a musical accompaniment as brass bands went played along to the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army as the procession snaked through Durham city centre.
Watching the procession from a grass bank across the River Wear from Durham Cathedral, Carol Stanley, 60, described the gala as a “celebration surrounded by like-minded people”. “It’s a special year with Corbyn and the way things are going,” she said.
She added: “I think we’re returning to the proper Labour party. I remember coming to this when Blair was in and the atmosphere was quite angry because people didn’t feel they were represented by him. He didn’t even bother to come here – that’s what he thought of these people.
“The chant that year, about 15 years ago, was: take back our party. There was very bad feeling about New Labour here and you did feel a lot of it at the gala.”
Her friend, Lynn Readman, 58, said she was not convinced about Corbyn – “I didn’t know whether he had the charm” – but said he had improved and that his anti-austerity message resonated where she lives in Brandon, a former mining village.
“When the miners’ strike was on we didn’t have a food bank or a clothes bank and now we’ve got both in Brandon. We’ve got a lot of families who are really deprived.”
Watching the procession near the Swan & Three Cygnets pub on Elvet Bridge, Rosemary Coleran, 34, pointed proudly to her Corbyn T-shirt and beamed: “I’ve been coming here for years but it was definitely the Corbyn factor that brought everyone out today.
“I thought we must come this year because he’s inspirational. When he gave that speech at the Sage [weeks before the election] it was electric, it was like watching a rock star, trying to get a glimpse of him.”
Her twin sister, Hannah Marshall, said his popularity was down to his straight-talking attitude. “He just speaks sense,” she said. “For people in the north-east he’s the only politician who we can relate to what they’re saying. It’s more than just turning up to do speeches, he comes and talks about issues that matter to working people.
“He’s always sided with working people his whole career and he’s been coming to the Big Meeting for years.”
Handing out copies of the Socialist Worker, Carl Richardson, a Labour councillor on Hartlepool borough council, said the mass of Corbyn T-shirts and chants had transformed the gala into a “celebration of looking forward as a united movement”.
“We’re ready for the election now,” he said as the bands and marched across Elvet bridge. “We were caught a bit off guard but now we’re fully united and even the rightwing elements within the party have kept quiet. It’s looking very good. Bring on the election – we’re ready for it.”