All the pits are closed: my Labour, New Labour, twenty-first century Labour.

Author:Wilson, Phil


My Labour has a particular identity born out of the coal-mining tradition of County Durham, social housing, secondary modern schools, and workingmen's clubs. Times change. All that was certain has transformed, lingers-on, or has simply vanished.

In a globalised economy nostalgia has no role. To hark back to the way communities were does not mean they can be that way again. Communities grow organically over time. They cannot be manufactured. To bring back the past is only to manufacture the future.

I am Labour because I believe in aspiration and the need for everyone to go as far as they can with their lives. A world in which neither those who can do nor those who can't get left behind. If we want to see people get on and improve their lives and leave hardship behind, we should not criticise the same people for changing their aspirations. They have only done what we wanted them to do. Nothing, after all, is too good for the working class.

If we are not careful, Labour will no longer be the party of choice for the communities we seek to represent, but just another party to choose from. My Labour isn't just about one village in one Labour heartland. To practise only the politics of our heartlands is short-sighted, selfish, and isn't enough. If we follow that strategy, our heartlands will only shrink; to be in government means winning Stevenage as well as Sedgefield.

I've been involved in Labour politics, in one way or another, for over 30 years. My values today are those I held all those years ago. They are for all time. They are the compass by which I navigate twenty-first century politics. For Labour to do the same, and for our direction to remain true, we must lead from the centre. New Labour proved the point. Twenty-first century Labour need not call itself New Labour; but strip New Labour of its personalities and the politics are still relevant and can remain relevant for a new generation.

New Labour and twenty-first century Labour are my Labour too.

My Labour

Trimdon Village, a former coal-mining community, lies high on a limestone ridge separating Durham from the Tees Valley plain and is where I grew up, live today, and learned my politics. For centuries the inhabitants of Trimdon lived in two rows of terraced cottages on either side of the twelfth-century church. By the 1840s the Darlington and Stockton railway had opened just a few miles away from the Village, the demand for coal was escalating, and County Durham was full of it. The land around Trimdon Village was ripe for mining. The Industrial Revolution would invent four new Trimdons.

In 1840, a pit was sunk a mile or so to the north of Trimdon Village and became known as Trimdon Colliery. Five years later another opened and became Trimdon Grange. Two further Trimdons followed, each named after its purpose, Trimdon Station and Trimdon Foundry.

As new pits opened, people arrived from all over. Originally from County Mayo, Ireland, my great-grandfather arrived in Trimdon in the 1860s and worked as a collier and quarryman for years. My maternal great-grandfather left his job as an agricultural labourer in Wortham, Suffolk and settled in Fishburn, just to the south of Trimdon.

They entered a harsh world. At least 326 men and boys were killed down the pits of Trimdon. The greatest loss of life took place at Trimdon Grange on 16 February 1882, when an explosion killed 74 men and boys.

Driven by necessity, the horrors of working under these conditions created a strong community. Necessity gave meaning to solidarity. In 1873 the miners' historian Richard Fynes wrote: 'a few men who were unionists at heart ... banded themselves together at Thornley, Trimdon and Monkwearmouth, and thus formed the nucleus of the present Durham Miners' Association' (Fynes, 1923, 259). 'Banded' together they improved their lot. Self-help was endemic because there was no one else to help. In 1891, 52 per cent of County Durham's population were co-operators. They were building a big society. With the Durham Miners' Association and the union's eventual affiliation to the Independent Labour Party in 1907, Labourism became County Durham's potent political force.

Keir Hardie, once a miner himself, reflected the pragmatism of the Durham miner. Ramsay MacDonald wrote that Hardie did not believe in 'class consciousness' but 'communal consciousness'. He was hostile towards abstract dogma and Marxist theory because in Hardie's words 'it does not touch one human sentiment or feeling ... it entirely leaves the human element out of account' (MacDonald, 1921, xxii). For miners, politics wasn't a game. Politics was a choice between food on the table or starvation, having a roof over your head or eviction, safety at work or death at the coalface. Self-help alleviated some of the burden, but 'banded' together they achieved more.

This attitude was personified in the trade union leader, Methodist preacher, and political activist, Peter Lee. He did much to bring sanitation, lighting, and education to pit villages. As General Secretary of the Durham Miners' Association he secured improvements on working conditions in the 1930s. He also saw the bigger picture. He chaired the Miners' International Conference in 1934, where he said:

... may the workers of the world be knit more closely together in their trust of each other and grow stronger in their international organisations so that they may acquire real power and thus bring about that better state of things we all wish to see, when liberty, goodwill, prosperity and peace shall reign. Peter Lee died the following year. In 1948, Labour named a new town after him.

In the same year, my father, brought up in Trimdon Village, started down Fishburn pit. 3,000 men were employed in the local coal industry during the 1950s. By the end of the 1960s only my dad's pit remained and it closed in 1973. My dad took voluntary redundancy. I believe by then he'd had enough.

In the 1960s, virtually every man of working age along our street worked down the pit. We lived on the large council estate built for miners and their families, extending Trimdon to the south. There was a purpose-built village hall, a row of new shops, infant and secondary modern schools, and a pub called 'The Bird In Hand'.

Everyone was Labour, or at least seemed to be. Being a Tory wasn't an option and the Liberals were an irrelevance. The Labour Party was organised pit village by pit village, finding its strength through the miners' trade union lodge. By the end of the 1970s my dad ended up back down the mines. I had left school and dad said I could do anything I wanted, but I wasn't going down the pit.

I voted for the first time in 1979, obviously Labour. I wasn't going to do anything else. My upbringing, my...

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