The Decline of UK Mining Unions Undermined Labour’s “Red Wall”

Since the 2019 election, commentators have noted the demise of Labour’s "red wall" in the heartlands. But few have focused on the central role once played by miners unions in sustaining a strong sense of working-class community.

Miners with banners and bands parade through Durham, England in the 1950s. (Durham Miners Gala)

Eighteen months have passed since the 2019 General Election, but Labour is going backward in the so-called “red wall.” Labour’s disastrous campaign in Hartlepool perfectly demonstrated how the new leadership’s obsession with vanquishing the Left has eliminated any attempt to engage with disillusioned working-class voters; a staunch Remainer with shady links to the closure of Hartlepool’s hospital was imposed on the CLP of a 70 percent+ Leave-voting area. The results were depressingly predictable.

Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson are premier coalfield social scientists, and their new book is essential reading for anyone who wants to dig deeper beyond vague generalizations about the “red wall” that have proliferated since December 2019. The book charts the rise of miners’ trade unionism in South Wales and Durham since the turn of the twentieth century, and by placing these case studies in their historical context, Beynon and Hudson encourage us to explore the long-term trends that have shaped the bewildering political situation we find ourselves in now — and to resist the rush to blame Labour’s failures on individuals or any niche concerns.

Coal and Community

The Shadow of the Mine documents the rise in the power of the mining trade unions over the twentieth century; what started off as a Liberal-orientated, localist federation of unions developed into the national powerhouse of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) following nationalization and achieved a stunning victory in 1972 upon which Edward Heath lost the 1974 general election. The book also pieces together various accounts of the 1984–85 strike from participants, deeming it “the last moment when trade union power was exercised as a coherent force in Britain.”

Not only do Beynon and Hudson position the NUM as a major political force, they also make the striking argument that in areas such as Durham and South Wales, the trade union was political life, and amounted to civil society itself. The democratic structures and community of the union lodge were the framework within which miners and the people around them approached politics, and the bonds of solidarity formed down the pit and through union activities was far more meaningful than any attachment to the Labour Party.

Beynon and Hudson point to electoral patterns on the two coalfields to illustrate their point. The areas where mines were slowly closed and centralized from the 1960s have seen a much steeper decline in support for Labour over the decades since than those areas where extensive mining persisted into the ’80s and ’90s and lodge organization is more recent.

The NUM After the Strike

Those outside the coalfield areas would be forgiven for thinking that the NUM went quietly into the night following the 1984–85 strike, and especially following the closure of the last deep coal mine in 1994. However, the politicization of communities involved in the strike had its own legacy, and the NUM remained active.

In South Wales, workers used their redundancy payments to cooperativize the Tower Colliery, vesting it once again as a “people’s pit” one year after privatization. The venture lasted fourteen years: fourteen years of meaningful employment and community development in the wake of neoliberal vandalism.

Meanwhile, in Durham and South Wales, the regional offices of the NUM were dealing with the health crisis that accompanied the employment crisis: men were entering the world of work outside the pit having to deal with the destruction that mining had inflicted on their bodies.

The union spearheaded a campaign to win compensation for illnesses such as vibration white finger, a condition brought on by the use of pneumatic drilling equipment which causes sufferers to lose feeling in their fingertips which makes gripping, and therefore everyday tasks, difficult. Their results were emphatic, winning settlements averaging £15,100 in Durham and £10,700 in South Wales.

Attention was also given to the difficulties of the younger generations, with the lodges of the Durham Miners’ Association remaining in areas such as Easington to organize responses to social problems. This year, the Durham Miners’ Association launched a new project to revive the lodge structure across the former coalfield, with the aim of encouraging community activism.

The fact that the Durham Miners’ Gala continues to bring hundreds of thousands of trade unionists together from across the world shows that the will to fight for mining communities and their heritage has persevered despite Thatcherism. Community organizing is the way forward for the former coalfields; while the occupational structure and demographics of these areas have changed dramatically since the closure of the mines, the exploitation of workers remains the same.

New Futures

The remedy that the Tony Blair government prescribed for the dismantling of industry in Durham and South Wales was to repackage the areas and sell them to multinational companies as sites for “cheap labor.” Durham and South Wales are now littered with empty business parks; many of the new factories did not last long before companies relocated to Eastern Europe and the Far East to cut costs.

Beynon and Hudson chronicle the experience of workers in a meat packaging factory in Merthyr Tydfil who, having spoken up against bullying management and poor conditions, were sacked and replaced by companies who could rely on the large reserve of unemployed or bring in migrant labor.

The workers of the former coalfields have been stripped of their agency, their livelihoods now determined by the financial calculations of global corporations. The reasons that these areas voted so strongly to leave the European Union are complex and myriad, but it is painfully evident that globalization has been to their detriment; meanwhile, EU regeneration projects have barely scratched the surface of the present social problems. Labour has been foolish to ignore this feeling.

The Shadow of the Mine leaves us with a sense of bleakness; the NUM was the high tide of union power in Britain when it represented millions of workers in a nationalized industry, but following the industry’s dismantling it has been reduced to firefighting social problems endemic in the former coalfield.

It is easy to feel like rebuilding the unions is an impossible task, especially considering the atomization of workers in the call centers and factories of the present-day coalfield, but Beynon and Hudson demonstrate that trade unionism was the glue that bound together the electoral support for Labour throughout the twentieth century — which means a union link between the workplace and the ballot box remains essential for achieving socialism in Parliament.

As has been pointed out by many before Beynon and Hudson, the “red wall” is not a monolithic bloc. Contained within these ex-mining communities are an array of Tory farmers, “executive housing” developments, people who commute to cities, and so on. By looking at their recent past, Beynon and Hudson have shown that it is wrong to assume that these “red wall” areas would automatically be disposed to support Labour, especially where mining memories are becoming more distant. The shibboleth of never voting Tory has been broken, partly brought on by the disappearance of the mine, and relatedly by a Blair government that forewent regeneration in favor of trickle-down economics.

Things can never be the same as they were in mining’s heyday: it is almost impossible to fathom such an all-encompassing organization of class power as the NUM. Our methods of building class power now must adapt to new realities.