Coal miners finish the final shift before closure at the Kellingley Colliery in Yorkshire (John Giles/AFP via Getty)
Artillery Row Election 2019

Mining for votes

Lewis Baston on the link between coalfields and the 2019 election

If, like me, you enjoy watching re-runs of election night television from the glory days of David Butler and Bob McKenzie trading facts and quips from the studio floor, you will have seen them gloss quickly over the results from the mining constituencies. These tended to produce boringly large and unchanging majorities for a phalanx of working-class ex-miner MPs who served their communities well but had no ambitions to Cabinet status. Election night programmes in 2019 will be very different; there will be excitement and suspense at the counts for seats such as Bolsover (represented by Dennis Skinner since 1970) and Don Valley (a Labour seat since 1922) as the Conservatives target these former Labour heartlands. What has changed, and why?

The Tories were hoping for a big harvest of seats in white working-class seats with Labour traditions in 2017. Although they fell short in many of their targets, it is important to recognise that they did achieve some breakthroughs in Theresa May’s election. North East Derbyshire and Stoke South fell for the first time since 1931 and Mansfield elected its first Tory MP ever, although Labour recovered Gower which had been an unprecedented Tory gain in 2015.  The 21 seats the Conservatives won in ex-mining Britain in the 2017 election was their best result in a century, excepting the one-off landslide of 1931. Several of the gains came in seats which had a solid middle class, home-owning anchor for the Tory vote, provided by the suburbs of Trentham Park in Stoke South and the commuter town of Dronfield in NE Derbyshire. Their sights in 2019 are set on some more deeply working class territory – Bolsover’s demographics make Mansfield look positively metropolitan.

It would be a mistake to see the electoral competitiveness of the coalfields as being an aberrant product of the conjunction of Corbyn and Brexit, although no doubt these factors have hastened the change. David Cameron’s Conservatives achieved some staggering swings in Midlands ex-mining seats – there was a 16-point swing to the Conservatives in Cannock between 2005 and 2015 (despite the 2010-15 MP Aidan Burley being indirectly dubbed a ‘twat’ by Cameron himself) followed by a further 3.5 per cent swing in 2017. But we need to go back a lot further than the Cameron era to get the full picture.

Although Conservative gains in Bolsover or Don Valley would be dramatic, they would not be a sudden revolution in electoral behaviour. There are some much deeper forces at work, as becomes apparent when looking at the long history of the mining industry and the politics of the places where coal has been king. Labour’s dominance was achieved quite quickly, almost a century ago, and lasted intact for nearly fifty years, but the seams of Labour support have been gradually exhausted over the period since the mid-1960s. One can trace the slow decline of the solid Labour coalfields alongside the rundown of the industry itself, region by region, over half a century. 

Since 1970 the Conservatives have done better and better in former coalfields

Employment in the coal industry peaked in the early 1920s at 1,248,000 workers but the industry shrank steadily thereafter and barely existed at the end of the 20th Century; the number of working collieries fell from 2,851 in 1920 to 958 at the time of nationalisation in 1947 and 28 in the year 2000. Wilson’s government presided over a huge pit closure programme in the 1960s. The geography of the industry also contracted, with marginal coalfields going first (Somerset in 1973, Shropshire in 1979) and then the heartlands in Yorkshire, Durham and South Wales. These communities were left after the end of mining with some severe problems – lack of jobs, poor health, low educational qualifications and weakening social solidarity. The problems have been recognised, to varying extents, by successive governments since the mid-1990s through extra development aid and social support. Most ex-mining communities are still overwhelmingly white working class. Although there are very few coal miners left, there are still many people with an ancestral connection to the industry. In September 2015 there were 162,000 members of the mineworkers’ pension scheme, and many more people with a family connection to mining; it still, just about, makes sense to think about coalfield communities.

Mining was an early, dominant element in the development of the British working class and the coal industry has a central role in the history of Labour’s core vote. Miners were the first element of the organised working class to take a part in parliamentary and electoral politics, with two miners elected in the 1874 election as ‘Lib-Lab’ members for the constituencies of Morpeth and Stafford, with the support both of the trade unions and the Liberal Party. Mine workers were relatively late to adopt the Labour Party as opposed to working with the Liberals, with the Miners’ Federation and its sponsored MPs affiliated to the Labour Party only in 1909, although Morpeth’s long serving Thomas Burt remained Liberal. Miners’ voting behaviour showed that Liberalism was still strong in the coalfields as late as 1914, when most of the Labour vote collapsed in favour of the Liberal candidate at a by-election in North East Derbyshire despite the union’s support for Labour. The Conservatives gained the seat because of the split vote.

The general election of December 1918 was a confused contest, and the coalfields were divided between the Labour movement (Labour Party and others) and Liberal supporters of Lloyd George. But the Liberal-Conservative government was a grave disappointment to the miners in particular; wartime controls on the coal industry were lifted in March 1921 and were followed shortly afterwards by wage cuts and the industrial unrest that culminated in the 1926 General Strike. There was a gigantic swing to Labour in many mining seats in 1922, clearing out nearly all of the Coalition Liberal presence and establishing them as safe seats. As early as 1929 the mining seats were nearly uniformly Labour – 70 out of 73, with the three others being only marginally qualified as coalfields (Barkston Ash, included although the Selby coalfield had not yet been developed, plus Dover and Bosworth). The foundations for Labour as a party of government are built on coal.

 

Mining communities were the sort of places where strong loyalties formed and persisted over generations. Work and home were close to each other, often in villages and small towns that were dominated by the coal industry; mining (with odd local exceptions like Forest of Dean) was collective work in which men worked together and literally depended on each other to survive in a hazardous environment. Trade unionism, even the closed shop, came naturally. The danger from fatal accidents (over a thousand died each year in the 1920s, and the worst disasters like Gresford near Wrexham in 1934 could kill hundreds at a time) and the long-term consequences of very common physical injuries and lung diseases could only be fought collectively – in unions, families and communities and by the state. Solidarity was strong among the women of pit communities as well, particularly during and after the big strikes. The collectivist ethos of mining extended to the other permanent parts of these self-contained communities – doctors, teachers, shopkeepers. From 1922 onwards, the electoral expression of this ethos was in voting for the Labour Party. A study in 1970 found that the mining constituencies in South Wales and Yorkshire were particularly strongly Labour even given their class composition.

Even the Conservative-led coalition landslide of 1931 left Labour fairly strong in the coalfields – with 29 seats surviving, well over half of the Parliamentary Party represented mining communities. Labour dominance was restored at the next election in 1935 and extended to monopoly status in 1945. The first post-war election in which the Tories managed to win even a tenth of the mining seats was in 1970. This was largely the result of the run-down of the smaller coalfields in the south and midlands and the growth of middle-class suburbs into constituencies such as Cannock and Belper, which ejected senior Labour politicians Jennie Lee and George Brown. 

 

Conservative seats in the coalfields in ‘good’ Tory years
Midlands and south North, Wales, Scotland
1935 6/21 2/53
1955 2/23 3/55
1970 8/23 1/55
1983 14/24 1/56
2017 17/25 4/55
2017 plus 5% swing to Con 22/25 10/55

 

Since 1970 the Conservatives have done better and better in former coalfields in the elections they have won, the tide gradually lapping higher. Forest of Dean and Loughborough followed in 1979 where Belper and Bosworth had gone in 1970, and were even joined by a working coalfield seat, Sherwood, in the 1983 election. The constituency of Morley & Outwood fell to the Tories in 2015 as commuter estates spread over the erased colliery lands. The exception to the general upward Tory trend in the mining seats was 1992, when Labour did well to recover seats like Sherwood and North Warwickshire, in part because of the Conservatives’ pit closures in the years after the great strike of 1984. Ex-mining seats were still capable of voting nearly uniformly for Labour in the Blair years thanks to the core working class vote and the support of swing voters, but the tide continues inexorably. Ex-mining seats are converging towards what might be expected given their class, age and ethnic composition and their lack of graduates and liberal professionals. 

Some Midlands ex-mining seats are now relatively safely Tory, such as Mid Derbyshire, North West Leicestershire and South Derbyshire, as commuters have discovered the villages and the bonds that made them mining communities are increasingly abstract history rather than lived memory. Even if there were a solid 5 per cent swing back towards Labour, the Tories’ representation in the mining seats would be on a par with their performance in 1983.

The Conservatives’ advance in terms of seats won has up to now been nearly entirely in the always more marginal Midlands and the peripheral coalfields of southern England, with the huge Labour majorities in the North and Wales eroded rather than overturned. A further coalfield swing to the Conservatives of 5 per cent is projected in the chart above. Such a result, well within current possibilities, would produce nearly complete Tory dominance in the ex-mining Midlands and a toehold in the larger coalfields – seats such as Wrexham, Bishop Auckland and Rother Valley would fall. This would chip into some hitherto solidly Labour territory: Labour had a majority of over 10,000 in Rother Valley in 1931, an election that saw the party reduced to only 52 seats nationally. A five-point swing to the Tories would give them 32 out of 80, which would be a real transformation in British electoral politics.

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