Redhills, the headquarters of the Durham Miners’ Association, is one of the glories of the British labour movement. Opened in 1915, it remains a symbol of self-organisation, pride and collective power, rivalling in splendour the mansions built by the region’s wealthiest mine owners. On the first floor, a colourful painting from 1947, Years of Victory, celebrates the nationalisation of the coal industry; smiling, suited miners and their wives march through Durham city, in front of a banner featuring former the Labour party leaders Clement Attlee and Keir Hardie.
Since December, that kind of happy optimism is in short supply in the corridors of the DMA, traditionally a bastion of “old Labour” values. The scale of the unprecedented humiliation of the party at last month’s election, when swathes of County Durham and northern England turned Conservative for the first time in generations, felt like much more than a bad night at the polls. As seats such as Bishop Auckland, Sedgefield, North West Durham and Blyth Valley have fallen, there is a feeling that Labour’s identity – its sense of itself – has been diminished as well as the party’s parliamentary numbers.
In a bleak conversation with association stalwarts, a now familiar list of causes is cited: lack of clarity on Brexit; an overloaded manifesto, the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn on the doorstep and the issue of antisemitism. The role of Momentum, perceived as an anti-democratic movement, is also criticised. But for those whose politics were tempered in the fire and fury of the 1980s miners’ strike, there is a fear that the true source of this malaise lies much deeper, rooted in long-term industrial decline in which Labour governments are perceived to have been complicit. And there is trepidation that the worst may not be over.
“People in the north-east and working-class communities generally feel let down by Labour over generations,” says Alan Mardghum, the DMA’s general secretary. “There is a perception that they haven’t done enough, they haven’t sufficiently been on working people’s side. We’ve seen a steady decline in support over years. My fear is now that Labour in the north-east is in the same situation that the Labour party found itself in Scotland, and they’ve been absolutely decimated there. Wiped out. If they don’t address the issues and talk to people, and I’m not talking about the chattering classes in London, I mean the people up here who didn’t vote for them, I fear for the future. We need to put it right.” A backer of Jeremy Corbyn, Mardghum is not yet willing to be drawn on who he might favour as Corbyn’s successor.
The profound disconnect between the party and former heartlands that he identifies is easier to diagnose than to fix. Cultural continuities and political loyalties, which in regions like Durham appeared to survive the collapse of the industries that generated them, appear to be breaking down. The DMA still runs the well-attended summer gala and offers support and advice to ex-mining communities. But the Sedgefield and North West Durham constituencies lost their pits more than two generations ago. “Margaret Thatcher didn’t succeed in her ambition to smash the ethos as well as the industry of the coalfield,” says Stephen Guy, an ex-miner and former Labour councillor. “But with the passage of time, the sense of community is beginning to break up and fragment.”
Mary Stratford is 64. A labour activist all her life, she volunteers with a miners’ heritage education group. “Let’s face it,” she says, “Up here you’ve got a mainly white working class and you’ve got an ageing population, as a direct result of the fact that jobs have disappeared and young people are having to leave if they want to find work. That left a vacuum and there have been warning signs [for Labour]. I remember in the Spennymoor area, around 2010, I was shocked by how much support the BNP had built up in those areas.”
Nationally Labour has new bastions in the cities which could never countenance a cultural shift to the right, particularly on issues such as immigration, in an effort to win the new breed of “blue-collar conservative” back – and some have argued that in the course of the attempt to regain the “red wall”, the interests of minority voters and other crucial parts of the party’s coalition have been forgotten.
Stratford recognises the issue and the challenge. If the Labour movement is to have a future, she says, it must wake up to the truth that “the working class has changed. A trade unionist is just as likely to be a woman as a man. A worker is an Asian Uber driver, or someone working for Deliveroo. We need to re-connect with the solidarity and community of the past but we can’t go back to some of the old insular ways and views.”
But how can that be done? At times, she believes, Labour has shown a tin ear for what local communities value and desire. In the aftermath of the election defeat, Stratford finds herself thinking back to a row in Lumley, the ex-mining village where she lives. “The community wanted a boxing club and that idea was blocked, primarily by Labour councillors. I think they thought boxing was a dangerous sport, not the right thing and not to be encouraged. There was a massive reaction. A residents’ group was formed and it led eventually to the election of an independent councillor. I sometimes think now that people perceive the party as being more concerned with its own interests and preoccupations than with those of the community it represents, which feels taken for granted.”
The battle for the boxing club, and the resentments it generated, strikes a chord with Lisa Nandy, the MP for Wigan and an increasingly powerful presence in the Labour leadership race. A Guardian poll published on Wednesday found that a large majority of senior Labour figures in so-called red wall seats backed either Nandy or Keir Starmer as the next leader of the party. Starmer made a theme of the need to win back the trust of the post-industrial regions. But it is Nandy, who, since founding the Centre for Towns in 2017, has most actively tried to navigate the complex politics of post-industrial decline.
If the relationship with regions like County Durham is to be renewed, she says, a relationship of mutual respect has to be re-established. “Stretching back four decades under successive leaders,” says Nandy, “the Labour leadership has disconnected from people in these kind of places; it has more or less given the impression that ‘We don’t understand you and we don’t particularly like you.’”
The emphasis during that period on investment in cities, as dynamic drivers of economic growth and magnets for the young, has compounded the sense in older, smaller communities that they are now disregarded, having outlived their industrial usefulness, and that Labour has not fought their corner.
“There has been investment in cities, but not much of that benefit of that has been felt outside. The trickle-down effect has not been there. That’s how we ended up in the truly bizarre position of campaigning on the doorstep for Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, against a Boris Johnson-led Conservative party and hearing, ‘you’re all the same’.”
A major part of the solution, according to Nandy, lies in recognising that a common aspiration unites the disparate communities of Britain, whether they are in the cities, towns or countryside. “There is a desire for control and the restoration of agency, whether that’s in Leigh, or Lewisham in London. The future of governance, should not, must not, be about small policy groups producing top-heavy manifestos and delivering them to a grateful nation. People want to have pride in using their own knowledge, assets and skills.”
She points to the Preston model, where public procurement is leading the way in keeping and circulating money within the local economy. In Liverpool, near the Anfield football stadium, a community land trust run by local residents has begun the re-generation of a derelict area of terrace houses, building on the success of a bakery taken over by locals and run as a co-operative. For Labour, nationally and locally, to renew the ties that bind, Nandy believes it must enable, empower and see the emotional value of this kind of enterprise – and trust in the open inclusive ethos it will create.
In County Durham, given the struggles of the last 30 years or so, there is an understandable tendency to look back to happier times. But dewy-eyed nostalgia, acknowledges Mary Stratford, can be a dangerously distorting lens through which to view the world. She wryly recalls the tendency for important union decisions in the 1980s to be taken at 6pm, when any women present had left to collect children from school. “The DMA was never just a union,” she says, it was the central core of any community. But its culture could be very male.” In terms of gender, ethnicity and the nature of employment, the working class has changed beyond recognition.
Nevertheless, she shares a belief with Guy that memories of past solidarity and cohesion can inform a better future: “I wish we could transport you in a Tardis,” he says, “and get you back to the east coast and the mining communities of the 70s and 80s; back to Seaham, where I’m from. We had an olympic-sized swimming pool with a 10m diving board, bowling, a youth club, a library, all funded by the miners. The life of the place was so much better than now.”
Stratford chips in: “In the 1920s and 30s, the women in this region were doing remarkable things in health and social care. They were forming the basis of the welfare state. That’s what Labour needs to be at the heart of again now. People helping themselves and Labour helping them do it.” As with Mardghum, the trauma of December was so severe that she intends to take her time before picking a leadership candidate.
Redhills’ most famous feature is the beautiful Pitman’s parliament, the debating chamber in which representatives from every colliery gathered to take decisions and influence the civic life of the region. In conjunction with local Labour politicians, it was from here that housing projects were launched, hospitals funded, libraries established and sports facilities agreed upon. It is now in urgent need of restoration. The DMA has launched an appeal and applied for national lottery funding to turn the parliament into a new public space to be used by charities, education groups and artists. Helping Redhills renew itself for a 21st century role in the region might not be a bad place for Labour to start on its road back to redemption in the north-east.