British Politics Still Lives in the Shadow of the Coal Mines

Coal mining regions were central to Britain’s labor movement, and the industry’s decline has left a gaping hole. This social crisis and political vacuum made Boris Johnson’s election victory possible — but the Tories haven’t conquered the coalfields yet.

Two miners at Betteshanger Colliery in Kent, 1986. (John Downing / Getty Images)

In May 2021, the Conservative Party won a high-profile by-election in the former shipbuilding town of Hartlepool for the first time since the constituency was formed in 1974. Meanwhile, an even more fundamental change was taking place across what used to be the adjacent Durham coalfield, as Labour lost council seats in droves across former mining settlements.

These shifts followed on from the Brexit referendum result in 2016, as well as the Conservative breakthrough in towns and villages across the North of England and Midlands at the 2019 general election. Although the Euro-skeptic middle class of England’s southeast provided the core of the Leave vote, traditionally Labour-voting, deindustrialized areas pushed it over the line.

It was the former colliery city of Sunderland in northeast England that declared the first results and indicated the likelihood of a vote for Brexit. Wales, the only nation in the UK currently governed by the Labour Party, also voted for Brexit. The Leave vote was especially pronounced in the densely populated Valleys, at the heart of a coalfield that had employed a quarter of a million miners around a century before.

Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson’s The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain offers a long-term historical explanation for the atrophy of social democratic politics in deindustrialized settings. It provides a comparative assessment of the Durham and South Wales coalfields, which were at the heart of Britain’s labor movement throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Coalfield Politics

Beynon is from the Ebbw Valley, where he grew up in a coal and steel community. He is best known as an industrial sociologist: his pioneering 1972 book, Working for Ford, was a study of workplace relations and trade unionism at Merseyside’s Halewood car factory. He also edited the Digging Deeper collection of essays on the 1984–85 miners’ strike. Hudson worked alongside Beynon at the University of Durham, where they critically assessed the reshaping of regional economies by deindustrialization.

In 1991, the two authors jointly wrote a book about the postwar experience titled A Tale of Two Industries: The Contraction of Coal and Steel in North East England. Their latest book picks up where that earlier study left off, detailing the impact of the final coal closures and the long-term aspects of changes to labor markets, class consciousness, and gender relations.

The first half of The Shadow of the Mine surveys the development of coalfield politics, concentrating on the period between the nationalization of British coal mining in 1947 and the final large-scale closure programs that affected both regions during the early 1990s. An introductory chapter outlines two “distinct coalfields, where miners were easily the dominant occupational group.”

The authors powerfully evoke memories of coal’s centrality to the rhythm of life in colliery villages: it was pit hooters that marked out times of the day. In each coalfield, miners constructed “complex political machines” that “networked across their coal-based economies.” These distinctive foundations had lasting consequences.

Benyon and Hudson see the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) in terms of a tradition of cooperation between the Liberals and the Labour Party, as well as a political culture where full-time officials dominated a highly centralized trade union. Conversely, the lodges of the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF) prized local autonomy, with officials held to account by less deferential workplace activists. A pamphlet called The Miners’ Next Step summarized this syndicalist approach to trade unionism shortly before the First World War.

Based on these contrasting pillars, the Labour Party prospered in South Wales, even when the 1931 election saw it routed in Durham and across the rest of Britain. The formation of a more centralized National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) shortly before nationalization brought the DMA and the SWMF into greater contact — and, at the time, conflict — with one another.

Under the leadership of Sam Watson, the DMA was a bastion of the union’s right wing, whereas South Wales was a bulwark of its left, along with the Scottish and Kent Areas. Two Welsh Communists, Arthur Horner and Will Paynter, successively served as NUM general secretary between 1946 and 1969.

Beginnings of Decline

A sense of long-term economic history informs this volume. Beynon and Hudson note that the coalfields had ceased to be central to Britain’s capitalist economy by as early as the 1920s, taking on the role of “peripheral areas, secondary to the new manufacturing belts emerging around London.”

These tendencies intensified during the postwar period. Although coal was initially vital to the recovery of Britain’s industrial economy, the government’s objective was to rationalize the sector, increase productivity, and redeploy miners to modernized, mass-production manufacturing workplaces.

Investment by Hoover in a household appliances factory in Merthyr Tydfil and Caterpillar’s earthmoving equipment plant at Birtley in Tyne and Weir exemplified the new industrial labor market. These developments consolidated the peripheral status of the coalfields, leaving them dependent on a regional policy regime which rationed employment at factories that were dependent on subsidies and decisions made in London or in foreign boardrooms.

Coal mining employment halved across the 1960s, with the North East and South Wales bearing a disproportionate brunt. By this stage, the National Coal Board (NCB) had designated them as contracting areas and manpower reservoirs. Miners could find jobs with greater security and higher wages by relocating to the central coalfields of Yorkshire and the Midlands, and the NCB induced them to do so.

Beynon and Hudson are highly critical of the impact of public ownership on the coal mining industry, and of the consensual approach that NUM leaders took to labor relations during the early nationalized period. New Left analyses of bureaucratized capitalism influence the book’s assessment of the NCB. Given the age and political associations of both authors, this is perhaps unsurprising.

The book depicts the Coal Board as having presented miners with “a significant political bureaucracy” that “ramped the industry up, then closed half of it down” between the late 1940s and late ’60s. Its authors offer vivid descriptions of the experience miners had of repeated, frustrating relocations between closing collieries, and of management’s pursuit of productionist objectives through rapid deployment of new technologies.

Beynon and Hudson also examine the place of coal in the wider energy economy as it faced competition from Middle Eastern oil imports and an uneconomic, heavily subsidized nuclear program that combined national security objectives with the utopian aim of generating a near-limitless energy supply. These pressures contributed to ongoing dangers in the industry. Eighty-three men died underground at Durham’s Easington Colliery after an explosion in 1951. The horrific Aberfan disaster in South Wales in 1966 claimed the lives of 144 people, mostly children, after a colliery spoil tip collapsed.

These criticisms are of particular relevance since public ownership has once again become a significant left-wing objective in Britain, after it grew in popularity during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. In the book’s conclusion, Beynon and Hudson emphasize that the nationalized coal industry cast “a dark shadow across and the landscape and lives, undermining local government and democracy — not through too much socialism but because the approach was not socialist enough.” Their perspective on the limitation of public ownership is no doubt important, but it may overlook some notable successes.

The nationalized industry’s health-and-safety record was a clear improvement on what it had replaced. While rationalization may have followed a relentless market logic, it was still implemented within the parameters of an industry broadly committed to preserving economic security for miners. A recent book by Jim Phillips, Scottish Coal Miners in the Twentieth Century, provides an alternative perspective, one that stresses the achievements of the coal industry under public ownership.

According to Phillips, the industry made significant strides due to joint regulation of collieries with trade unions. Before 1979, it also managed colliery closures in line with a moral economy that secured the welfare of miners, both individual and collective, through negotiation and the provision of suitable alternative employment.

After the Strike

There is a tension throughout the book’s first half between providing a national picture and cleaving to its regional focus, with the balance often tilting toward the former. Nevertheless, it offers a useful summary of British coal mining history for those unfamiliar with the terrain. It is the second half that supplies much of the real novelty with its concentration on the experience of the coalfields after the 1984–85 miners’ strike, looking at the closures of the late ’80s and early ’90s and the reconstruction of labor markets since.

These chapters benefit from the shared investment of Beynon and Hudson in both coalfields and their extensive research background, especially in Durham. They bring to life the consequences of deindustrialization through the stories of men crying on the last day of work at Westoe Colliery in South Shields during 1993. Those men subsequently had to navigate deteriorating local labor markets, going from jobs that had paid them up to £600 per week to be offered work as a security guard for just £1.60 per hour. Men “missed being miners” as the decay of social infrastructure associated with the pits — Miners’ Welfares, sports teams, and brass bands — accelerated.

The authors identify some important continuities or lingering influences of coal in each region. The continuation of the Durham Miners’ Gala, and its rebirth as a national event colored by the socialist politics of the post-strike DMA, is one of the industry’s positive legacies. Tower Colliery was reborn as a cooperative in South Wales, becoming “the people’s pit” before its eventual closure in 2008, demonstrating that miners could still exercise agency and achieve a measure of social justice even after the defeat of 1985.

There have also been important battles fought to win compensation for miners who were made disabled by their work. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign has addressed another festering wound, the politicized policing of the strike under Margaret Thatcher. Scottish miners recently won a belated victory through an independent review under the auspices of Scotland’s devolved government that recommended pardoning men convicted of offenses related to the great strike.

Before its final closure, Tower was increasingly rare as a source of manual employment that was reasonably secure and well-paid. Former miners often withdrew from the labor market: sickness benefit payments induced them to do so, but this left them vulnerable to reassessments of eligibility at a later stage. Beynon and Hudson present a thoughtful perspective on women’s opportunities within the new service-based economy. Women were now more likely to be employed: even if these jobs were often exploitative, short-term, and poorly rewarded in both economic and cultural terms, they nevertheless became sources of confidence and independence for those who had them.

Rising divorce rates were a product of women’s independent decision-making power as well as the pressures of deteriorating economic and social conditions. Female and male workers have both fallen victim to the failure of a regeneration regime promoted under New Labour rule. In each region, expensive flagship projects had little success generating reliable employment in a context of increasing global competition. The South Korean electronics firm LG paid a brief but very costly visit to South Wales, while its fellow chaebol Samsung relocated from northeast England to Slovakia in 2004 after receiving £10.5 million in subsidies.

Divided Kingdom

The Shadow of the Mine ends with an overview of the Brexit referendum and the 2019 general election. This chapter contains some important localized assessments, including a useful distinction between West Durham, where the Conservative breakthrough was most pronounced, and the former coalfield’s East around Easington. In the latter area, while the pro-Brexit vote had been high, Labour still held on in 2019. This was an area where the DMA had retained more of a residual influence, partly because the final colliery closures in East Durham came at a later stage.

The book’s discussion of Wales is more limited and does not give much consideration to Labour’s continued dominance of Welsh politics — which was affirmed in the recent Senedd elections — other than to note devolution’s failure to arrest the economic and social damage inflicted by deindustrialization. This is a significant omission, since the book seeks to account for the political shifts associated with the end of mining.

The success of Scottish nationalism in the former coalfields lies outside the remit of this study. However, when seen alongside Labour’s successes in Wales, it does point to the distinct political conditions that now exist in the UK’s three former coal-mining nations. Despite these divergences, there is a shared affinity with a national political project in each of the three cases. This may go some way toward explaining the Conservative ascendency in Durham.

Beynon and Hudson point to the perceived loss of status that manual workers — especially men — have suffered as a result of deindustrialization. However, their account of political transformation concentrates on Labour’s failings rather than Conservative successes and does not draw out the full implications of these developments. Readers keen to grasp the long-term trajectory behind the shift toward a more nationalist Welsh Labour Party might enjoy the critical perspective put forward by Daryl Leeworthy’s Labour Country.

Disintegration of a Culture

The Shadow of The Mine is a brave book, written by two scholars who are partisans of the labor movement, coming to terms not just with major industrial and political defeats, but also with the long, slow disintegration of coalfield political culture. Beynon and Hudson’s perspective benefits from an understanding of the historical process that culminated in the last colliery closures, labor market reconstruction, and the final eclipse of the “coal mining production regime.”

As early as the 1920s, the coalfields were already experiencing decline. A long contraction shaped the economic and social conditions that in turn gave rise to the political cataclysms of the 2010s. The authors draw impressively lucid connections between high politics, policymaking, and working-class experiences, especially for the years after 1985. They use sociological studies and testimonies from former miners, their wives, and other coalfield residents to bring these structural changes to life.

Much of the book’s first half treads more familiar ground, and its assessment of nationalization is somewhat one-sided. But more pertinently, perhaps, the Left needs an assessment of why the Conservatives won in 2019 as much as one of why Labour lost. Why were the Conservatives victorious in the North East of England but not in South Wales? We need to look beyond this book for answers to that question.

Nevertheless, anyone interested in the transformation that has reshaped Britain’s former coalfields should read The Shadow of the Mine. It joins a growing volume of scholarship that looks beyond the defeat of the miners’ strike to explore subsequent developments and understand their roots.