Imagine the mixture of pride and elation at getting a letter from the Durham Miners’ Association, asking you to speak at the annual Durham Miners’ Gala – the ‘Big Meeting’ I have been coming to year after year. Imagine getting up onto the huge stage and looking out over a sea of people, outlining the vision for working people under a socialist prime minister.
The Durham Miners’ Gala is where socialists go to politically replenish the soul for the fight ahead. It is simply the most electrifying experience in the British labour movement, steeped in working-class culture, tradition and, of course, struggle. The speech I delivered in July 2019 was partly about our confident preparations for government, and the changes a brand-new Ministry of Labour (that I would be heading) would bring. But it was also a message to activists to persevere under sustained attack. Just five months later, I found myself shaking the hand of the Tory MP, who had just taken my North West Durham seat by 1,144 votes.
In some ways, The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain, by Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson, is a story about that defeat, and many others Labour suffered in the 2019 election. But it is also about the long history, a serious piece of writing that assesses the political, cultural and social ramifications of deindustrialisation in South Wales and County Durham.
Both the 2016 European referendum and the 2019 Tory landslide are commonly analysed over too short a period of time to understand the real shifts in politics and community. Some constituencies elected their firstever Conservative MPs. These events seem like ‘shocks’. Beynon and Hudson’s book takes a longer view, which is both refreshing and necessary if we are to escape the stranglehold the right has on discourse and opinion.
It explains in loving, careful detail why working people’s relationship with Labour in former industrial communities – where ordinarily they would have had strong class identification with the party – had become complex and ultimately soured. South Wales and Durham are used as case studies to examine that dislocation, and what emerges is a rich, social history.
These coalfields were once at the heart of the economy. The state was utterly dependent on their output. With that industry came political power. Miners’ collective organising changed things, even the ability of governments to function: see the infamous Tory slogan in the February 1974 general election, ‘Who governs Britain?’, in the wake of miners’ industrial action.
What happens when that industry goes? What happens when your work is no longer of strategic importance to the government? What happens when your communities’ cultural and social activity, tied to that employment, is lost? The strategic decision of the British state to orientate away from manufacturing and towards financialisation changed so much. These are the long roots of the 2016 and 2019 votes.What happens when your work is no longer of strategic importance to the government?
The position of the Labour Party in these communities has been eroded over decades. The 2017 general election under Jeremy Corbyn was a blip. Of course, for large parts of the North East, the decision to back a second referendum may have been a catastrophic one. People felt, and still feel, a palpable sense of alienation from the political establishment in Westminster. While parliamentary tussles over the EU dominated the airwaves, the space to talk about the transformative plans we had for communities such as the former South Wales and Durham coalfields closed. We were drawn into a kind of vortex, where the rules were set by the establishment, whether on the Leave or Remain side of the divide.
For socialists within the Labour Party – who had worked tirelessly for decades to lay the foundations for a socialist leader like Jeremy Corbyn and counter New Labour’s capitulation to neo-liberal orthodoxy – there is an understanding of the disappointment in Blair and Brown’s administrations, felt so strongly in post-industrial communities. I am not sure that the party’s political shift was conveyed sharply enough under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Instead, we were drowned out by the establishment, aiming to frustrate the democratic process time and again between 2017 and 2019.
Working-class socialists want the story of these communities to be truthfully told. Beynon and Hudson do precisely this, documenting the harm done by successive governments failing to address the impact of deindustrialisation. These were political choices and those communities became collateral damage. It wasn’t an accident or a failure to plan for the end of industries. The purpose was more vindictive: crushing the potential power of organised labour, standing as it did in the way of a globalised and marketised future.It wasn’t an accident or a failure to plan for the end of industries
The Conservative government elected in 2019 prefers to describe its plans for post-industrial, northern communities as ‘levelling up’. Of course, these are hollow and vacuous words, which will not bring the meaningful change we need: an end to the vicious cuts imposed on our communities; huge investment to compensate for decades of under-spending and restrictions on local authorities.
There is potential aplenty in our regions, if only there was the political ambition from government. These post-industrial communities could become the birthplace for millions of new green jobs. There should be proper investment in transport, infrastructure, and a massive injection of cultural and leisure facilities to cultivate joy and togetherness in our community spaces.
This kind of political and restorative vision will not come from the Conservatives. Towards the end of The Shadow of the Mine, the authors discuss the solidarity inherent in the Durham and South Wales communities, and the resurgence of community spaces at Tower Colliery and Redhills. It is up to us to understand what has been done to our communities and build a politics that acknowledges, compensates and invests in them. Only a socialist response will do that.
The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain is published by Verso. Laura Pidcock is the former MP for North West Durham and currently serves on the Labour Party National Executive Committee
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