Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

All the pits have closed

If you visit Phil Wilson’s constituency of Sedgefield, you’ll soon be reminded of the deep heritage of the Labour movement in County Durham. Whether the monument to the Trimdon Grange disaster, the huge ballroom of the Ferryhill Working Men’s Club, or a roadsign giving you directions to Peterlee – perhaps the only town in the country named after a mining union official, reminders of the cause of Britain’s workers are everywhere.

One of my favourite examples is found on Pease Way, a quiet street in Newton Aycliffe, a postwar new town which is now the biggest town in Sedgefield constituency. A small plaque tells the passer-by that a modest house was the home of William Beveridge, founder of the welfare state, and the first chairman of the Aycliffe Development Corporation.

Beveridge was a liberal peer, not a ‘Labour man’. Yet his presence in Aycliffe says something about the confidence of the postwar labour movement – its ambition to build a better society, and the inclusive politics of it practised, nationally and locally.

Phil Wilson personifies this Labour tradition. As his pamphlet, All the Pits Have Closed, tells us, his family were Irish immigrants who came to Durham to find steady work in the mines. Each year, Phil marches in the Durham Miners’ Gala, under the banners of the NUM lodges of his father’s pits, Fishburn and Kelloe.

Yet deep connections with a community allow you to see how people seek to change, and to grow, even as they honour their traditions.

The residents of Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe wanted something better than the old pit villages and also sought to carry the community spirit with them. Equally, parents wanted something better than the mines for their families. So when Phil left school his father told him not to follow him into coal-mining. But Labour values stuck. Phil became a union activist.

In the 1980s, however, the hopes of Durham families seemed less important than the threat to their present. Strike and recession tore apart decades of unity. Phil mentions a new Labour MP, one Tony Blair, being stopped by police and turned back from visiting the Nottingham collieries as a suspected flying picket. Despite the MP’s best efforts, the strike failed, the pits closed and the cokeworks followed.

Yet even then, something new was forming. People bought their council houses, including many Labour councillors. Commuters moved in as former miners moved out, the old slag heaps were landscaped, became technology parks and actual parks.

Were these changes for the better? In many ways, yes. People’s incomes rose, they felt better off. More people stayed on at school, or went to university. Fewer memorials to tragedy were erected.

But the changes brought anxiety too. More private housing meant more private tenants, which could lead to high turnover, loss of community and social problems. New work was generally better paid, but more insecure. Many familiar social bonds decayed.

Labour fought for its proud past. But we had little to say to the new. As Phil argues ‘each person of that generation had a dream of their own. And Labour has tended to excel at the collective but to neglect the personal.’ In opposition Labour said little to either the new aspirations or the new anxieties.

Under New Labour we were able to offer an answer that helped communities revive and grow – from sure start to industrial park. Yet things have now moved on from New Labour. How could the next Labour government fund sure start, or school rebuilding?

In recognising that the Labour movement Phil grew up with has become only one part of an increasingly diverse society, not the all-encompassing political, cultural and social life of his Trimdon childhood, Phil calls for the Labour movement to rediscover the inclusiveness that led Beveridge to County Durham, and that made Peter Lee a globalist unionist.

How do we offer a better future to a worker in a Japanese-owned train plant, or those working in plastic electronics start ups? What does a union offer them? Beyond the workplace, how do we engage with people in an atomised yet connected world?

Thinking is dangerous in politics. This pamphlet is an essay on place, on community and the need for both parts of the Labour movement – union and party – to represent the changing face of modern Britain.

Yet in the press, this becomes a call for a ‘breaking of the union link’. It is nothing of the sort.

When Phil’s father told him to look for another career than in the mines, Phil took a different path to his father. He no longer lived in his father’s house. Today, he marches under his old lodge banners, and proudly represents retired miners in parliament.

Yet as an MP Phil can’t honour Labour tradition by ignoring the fact there are no more pits in County Durham. He can only honour his tradition by doing his best to speak for the children of miners who are looking for jobs in computer chip manufacturers, advanced train-makers and technology start-ups.

Equally, the Labour movement will not honour its past by failing to see that change has left unions representing a small minority of private sector workers. As believers in trade unions, and in the Labour party, we long to speak for all workers, for all families. Yet this will require us to change too. We need to change the way we represent, include and speak for our communities.

Whether in union or party, if the Labour movement cannot speak for culture, and community, for place and for people, for the aspirations of all and the anxieties of many, we will never achieve our ambitions. Yet, too often, we exclude those we seek to speak for because the structure of how people work has changed, leaving them outside our structures. This cannot be right.

To say this is not to denigrate the link between Labour and union. It is to understand how important that connection truly is.

To build a Labour movement as powerful and vital of that of Peter Lee, we have to represent as broad a swath of our society as the Labour movement did at its peak. This is not a challenge to our past or a breach with our traditions. It is the ultimate compliment to both.


Hopi Sen is a commissioning editor to Progress magazine and a Labour blogger. He blogs here and tweets @HopiSen

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Hopi Sen

is a contributing editor to Progress

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