The Shadow of the Mine review – an enlightening story of decline

When Jeremy Corbyn addressed the 2019 Durham Miners’ Gala, there was a fierce backlash from his critics on social media. “So much posh boy fetishising about miners this weekend,” one account opined, followed by a flurry of expletives.

It was under Corbyn’s leadership that Labour’s loss of coalfields support finally cost the party seats in the so-called “red wall” on a massive scale. But the seeds of the party’s defeat were sown decades before, in the aftermath of the 1984-85 strike and the deindustrialisation of Britain. The present-day Miners’ Gala celebrates not the industry of mining, but the solidarity and collectivism that characterised the sector’s workforce for more than a century. By outlasting the end of deep mining in Britain by five years, it seeks to keep this spirit alive in the broader labour movement.

The Shadow of the Mine reminds us why this spirit has lived on in the coalfields, in spite of people feeling a sense of political betrayal going back decades. Through numerous interviews, archive research and years of work with mining communities and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson chart the story of two key coal-producing regions – south Wales and Durham – from booming profits and worker militancy to post-industrial devastation, via multiple scenes of class conflict.

Beginning with a straightforward history, they examine the turbulent politics of the 1926 general strike, postwar nationalisation and the steady stream of pit closures from the 1950s onwards. After 1947, the NUM worked closely with the National Coal Board to mitigate the damage of closures, with large numbers of miners transferred to surviving pits with the promise of life-long employment.

This conciliatory approach ended abruptly with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Now market was king, the miners’ victory in the 1973 national strike could not be allowed to stand. Beynon and Hudson examine the secret report drafted by Nicholas Ridley, a key proto-Thatcherite, calling for the next Tory government to take on “the full force of communist disrupters … on ground chosen by the Tories”. The most successful weapons in the government’s strike arsenal – stockpiling at power stations, coal imports, social security cuts and police protection for strikebreakers – were planned in minute detail. Notwithstanding the huge mobilisation of communities and the labour movement in support of striking miners, the war was won a decade before it was declared.

Arthur Scargill’s prophecy of a run-down of the whole industry – much scorned and denied at the time – came to pass sooner than almost anyone expected. The coalfields were promised “regeneration”, but “inward investment” came in the form of low-paid, low-skilled private sector jobs. Beynon and Hudson convincingly argue that the “detrimental” focus on “job creation and responding to the needs of large corporations” led to a failure to rebuild communities and address a spiralling health crisis, which continues to blight generations born even after the pit closures.

Moreover, the jobs that came to the north-east and south Wales often disappeared faster than they materialised, reinforcing a sense of betrayal created by Labour’s support for pit closures in the 1960s and exacerbated by Neil Kinnock’s refusal to support the great strike. When Samsung moved production from Teeside to Slovakia in 2004, it blamed high labour costs in north-east England. Tony Blair – a north-east MP as well as prime minister – said: “It is part of the world economy we live in.” As some remainers continue to blame former mining communities for voting against their own economic interests, Beynon and Hudson remind us of the material realities that cemented the perception that globalisation would only benefit a select few.

More than other industrial workers facing a post-industrial job market, miners struggled to adapt to life above ground – a feeling powerfully voiced by many of the authors’ interviewees. If there was a sense of exceptionalism, it had developed with the state’s active encouragement. In 1947, the newly formed NCB employed seven film crews to produce NCB News bulletins for broadcast in cinemas, depicting a heroic and Stakhanovite ideal of the miner. In the same year a report commissioned by Durham’s Labour-run council actively discouraged industrial diversification: coal production was just too important.

These localist insights are enlightening, but the authors’ focus on just two regions ultimately lets them down. Missing from this picture is Nottinghamshire, which suffered the same fate as every other coalfield, in spite of its loyalty during the strike. The post-industrial landscape of Scotland, brilliantly documented in Ewan Gibbs’s Coal Country, pre-figured the north-east’s collapse in support for Labour – and could have helped in understanding its nuances.

The Shadow of the Mine has been billed as a “key explainer for what happened to Labour’s ‘red wall’”. But while it provides plenty of vital context, the section on the 2019 election is disappointingly sparse. Two years before, Labour had increased its vote share in many post-industrial heartlands, in spite of rapidly rising support for the Tories, as the Ukip vote collapsed. So what changed? Beynon and Hudson blame it on there being “no coherent effort by the Corbyn leadership to build on the platform of 2017” as he engaged in firefighting with internal critics.

This glosses over the coordinated campaign from centrist MPs in metropolitan constituencies, backed by a small section of the ultra left, to shift the party’s Brexit position from critical support in 2017 to a so-called People’s Vote. Had Labour instead held its line, the longstanding sense of political betrayal would not have disappeared – but we might now be looking at a very different government.

The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain is published by Verso (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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