Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Mining and Me

Derbyshire Miners at an Industrial Day Release Class in 1983 - outside the WEA Centre at Chesterfield.

Although I have never worked in a coal mine, much of my life has been shaped by the nature of coal mining communities. Today is the 30th anniversary of the start of the 1984-5 Miners' Strike. It is an appropriate time for me to indicate something about what my mining inheritance has meant to me.

I was born in 1936 at Easington Colliery. At that time my father and all of his five brothers worked at the local pit, as did the husband of his only sister. His own grandfather had been killed following a fall of  large stone at Monkwearmouth pit, where Sunderland"s football ground now stands. This is telling, because my eight year old grandson is now a sixth generation Sunderland supporter, going back to our ancestor who was killed. My mother also came from a mining tradition. One of her brother's also worked at Easington's pit and her younger sister married a miner from the neighbouring Horden Colliery. Of my nine relatives who worked at the local pits, only my Uncle Arthur moved jobs by joining the RAF before the second world war. When Easington Colliery suffered a pit disaster in 1951 and 79 local miners and two rescue workers were killed, none of my relatives (which now included cousins) were amongst the fatalities. Yet my father and others were working in the pit at the time. They were in separate seams to the one in which the disaster struck. However, the father of the person who was later to become my first girlfriend was amongst those who were killed.

Mining communities weren't without their internal rivalries and disputes, yet they generally showed an exceptional form of communal coherence and self support. I came naturally to share in these co-operative norms, even though I did not always live up to them. I also followed them in their support for the Labour Party. It started as a form of tribal loyalty, but developed into a commitment to democratic socialist norms by the time I became Secretary of the Easington Colliery Branch of the Labour Party at the age of 21.

Apart from the period of my National Service and term-times when I was a full time adult student, I lived at Easington Colliery until I was 27. I then married Ann, whose father was an onsetter at nearby Shotton Colliery. We moved to Hull where I was studying. But we regularly returned (eventually with our children) to the two Colliery areas, until our parents died. So I joined the picket line on a visit in 1985. My mother was the last of our parents to survive, finally dying in 1999.  Easington Colliery and Monkwearmouth being the final two pits to close in the Durham Coalfield six year earlier.

My links with the coal miners were not, however, confined to my early and fading links with County Durham. From 1966 to 1987, I was an Industrial Day Release Tutor on courses run for Trade Unionists via the Sheffield University Extramural Department. The solid core of this work was with classes of miners from South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire. These classes ran from 10 am until 4 pm, including coffee and lunch breaks. I spent the full period with the men who attended. The main break normally being spent at a local pub for lunch and drinks. Miners attended over a 24 week period each year for three years. The South Yorkshire Miners attended one day per week, whilst the Derbyshire miners attended a second day each week in their second and third years. We studied together as equals and the tutors learnt at least as much from the experience as the students did. The main topic areas we covered were student skills, industrial relations, economics and politics. I dealt with aspects of all of these, except that I did nor specialise in economics - although it is a subject area which can't be excluded from the study of politics.

I had a range of other commitments, with classes from bodies including the Steel Industry, the Railways, my own ASTMS branch, shop stewards and mature students seeking entry to full-time higher education. These were all fine groups of dedicated students - the few exceptions tended to pack in their studies as they thought they were too much like hard work. The miners came from closely knit and inter-related communities and readily and fully joined in a form of shared education from the start. When I later became an MP, I often missed the depth of discussions in day release classes. For too much parliamentary politics is about point scoring and personal advancement. But at least I had some of my former ex-mining students around me such as Kevin Baron and the late Martin Redmond, Kevin Hughes and Terry Patchett. Then there was the late Micky Welsh who had been a fellow student at Ruskin College and had then returned to the mines, whilst teaching on our preparatory courses which were run for those looking for places on our miners day-release programme.

I had the privilege of taking miners' day release classes during the 1984-5 strike itself. Students took time out of their strike activities to attend. In the 1984-5 session itself, I was tutor for two classes of Yorkshire Miners who met on a Thursday and Friday. One student was missing for four weeks as he had been in Lincoln Prison because of a judgment about his strike activities. So immediately on his return he came to the front of the class to tell us of his experiences and to sustain a full mornings debate on policing, the courts and the prison system. He did an excellent job without any notes or any prior warning. I arranged for extracts from the classes' essays on their strike experiences to be published. One of these was from a fine, concerned, able and dedicated student called Bob Genders. Within a year of his return to work after the strike, he was killed in an accident at Rossington pit.

My first experience of meeting these miners was a telling occasion. I had been appointed to a position in the Sheffield Extramural Department, but was still employed at the North Notts College of further education at Worksop. But I was informed that it would be helpful if I participated in a selection conference to determine a fresh intake of Yorkshire Miners. This was held at the NUM Offices in Barnsley, which later became known as "Arthur's Castle". Well over 100 people attended, seeking the 20 places for a new intake. First a tutor gave an explanation of how to takes notes from a talk. Then another tutor gave a clearly structured talk from which they took notes. This would give us an indication of who had problems with writing. Yet some who had such problems were encouraged  to join one of our preliminary courses to tackle such problems. These courses produced numbers who then moved onto the normal day release programme and often became some of our best students. After the note taking exercise, those at the selection conference were divided into groups to discuss two separate topics. One of these would be about the mining industry and the other on a political issue. Tutors would chair the groups, but would swap places with a fellow tutor between the discussion of the two topics. I was initially placed on the platform which the Yorkshire NUM leadership normally operated from and had a group of about ten applicants with me. My job was to encourage everyone to contribute and see how people responded to each others points. The debate was of a telling quality, better than what I had been used to when an undergraduate. I wondered where I had landed myself and how I would manage in class. We were the only part of the University who had Government Inspectors. For a number of years an inspector came to our Yorkshire Miners' selection conferences. Not because she saw problems, because she enjoyed the day so much.

I taught the group of 20 students we selected (but as I was the novice I shared the teaching). Amongst the students were Norman West who went on to become the MEP for South Yorkshire, Terry Patchett a future Barnsley MP, Ron Rigby later leader of the Barnsley Council and Jack Wake from Cortonwood. The miners at Cortonwood walked out when faced with the closure of their pit on 5 March 1984, as the prelude to the lengthy strike. Jack was their Secretary. In all I was the tutor on 30 miners' classes, taking in 720 day sessions. Especially given the decline of the mining industry, numbers of our students moved on to adult education colleges and some went straight into university. One period of decline in coal mining reduced the size of a Derbyshire Miner's third year class to only nine students. Seven of them then moved on the full-time adult education colleges, especially Coleg Harlech.  Numbers ended up as lecturers, teachers, social workers, full-time trade union officers, NCB officials, councillors and the like. But the courses should not be measured in terms of social mobility, but in advancing commitments to the bulk of its participants to use their abilities to serve their communities - even though pit closures helped to destroy much that was best about their home territory. The impact on the tutors is probably seen in the fact that I helped establish and worked with the Miners' Support Group in Dronfield in Derbyshire. Where Ann and I have lived since 1969.

Eventually, in 1987 I moved on and served as  the MP for NE Derbyshire for 18 years. The mines were closing, although the Derbyshire Miners' Day Classes held out until 1994. I hope that I was not seen as a rat that was leaving a sinking ship. Although I could not join the NUM Group of MPs as I was a member of ASTMS (which eventually became part of present day UNITE), I attempted to take an active role in the parliamentary wing of the Coalfield's Community Campaign who operated from Barnsley - its Chair was the leader of the Chesterfield Borough Council. One of my ploys was to introduce a Energy (Fair Competition) Bill in 1993 as an alternative to Heseltine's energy policy which was finally closing Derbyshire's pits. But I was up against the Conservative Government. When the local pits finally went, efforts had to be turned to seeking proper compensation for those who had suffered from their mining experiences, over matters such as chest diseases and vibration white finger. So I was part of that general struggle.  Alternative job openings were also pushed for, but these pressures even gained negative responses when Blair became Prime Minister. I followed the miners tradition in that era of normally being on the best side, but losing out to the worst. Paradoxically, the small pit I aided the most effectively was a small non-NUM drift mine in my constituency. First, I was part of the struggle which got them added to European Union funding. Secondly, I was involved in efforts which got them added to power stations purchasing some of their output. Finally, when they could not obtain insurance cover for the mine, I vigorously pressed their case. But that effort would have failed. It was the owner who saved the day. He transferred the ownership of the mine to the men. They were then able to obtain individual insurance cover and continue their operations. It was worker's control, thanks to the boss!
In retirement, my interest in my past mining connections have led to me researching what the local heritage was which I inherited. As the pit at Easington Colliery was first sunk in 1899, I wanted to know about its past in the years before I was born. The fruits of my labours can be found in three articles which were published in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 editions on North East History which is the Journal of the North East Labour History. For more related material on the above themes, see the links provided at the foot of this page.    

 Anger: Men hold a sign called 'Thatcher's prayer' as they travel to Easington Colliery Club
From Easington Colliery at the time of Thatcher's funeral.


Unknown said...

Great story Harry, but what a sad ending. You have been a good friend of UK miners throughout your working life, your time in Parliament and also since.

Pity a few more Labour Party MP's couldn't do likewise and bring themselves to support the miners in their hour (Year) of need.

And when the NUM lost this fight for jobs, it was really outrageous and sickening that many of these same Labour Leaders turned their backs on the unemployed and failed to support the mining communities leaving them to rot with little or no support, inward investment, skills training and new employment opportunities.

It make me so angry that a community of workers and their families who have given so much to the British people over the years should be let down and forgotten about in this way. And while there might be many good and decent MP’s within the Labour Party many more, like Blair, Mandelson, et al. were and are self-serving careerist, traitors and neoliberal apologists who cynically used the working class as voting fodder for their own nefarious needs.

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie : At the end of my blog item, I have added a photo from Easington Colliery at the time of Thatcher's funeral. It is very telling. By Labour came into office in 1997, the pits were shut in Derbyshire apart from the small drift mine which I mentioned. The depth of the failure of the Labour Government in NE Derbyshire came with the closure of Biwater's at Clay Cross and the unnecessary loss of 700 jobs, with 75% living within 5 miles of the plant. Stephen Byers as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry carries a terrible blame, as with Blair who just accepted his failures. This was on top of the end of local coal mining. I go on a bit, but the initial story is explained here, it is something not to be forgotten nor forgiven -

Unknown said...


Thanks for drawing my attention to Easington Colliery photo taken at the time of Margaret Thatcher's funeral. When I read your blog (first time round) I hadn't picked up on its significance as a metaphor for the divisive nature of her politics and legacy.

As a play on Thatcher’s Francis of Assisi prayer is sums up nicely the results of her neoliberal crusade and how political spin can be used by cynical and driven politicians as a smoke screen for a more sinister economic and political agenda.

The Hansard notes on your Biwater Industries (Clay Cross) Ltd) Parliamentary debate makes interesting and sad reading and is - oh so - typical of how working people can be used as mere commodities and discarded whenever capital and big money seek to maximise profits without regard to the interests or consequences of employees. It is an issue that I and most likely 99.99% of the British public knew nothing about) and is very revealing insofar as it suggests that, despite the warm words and wringing-of-hands by Labour Ministers, they had absolutely no intention of intervening (and taking on the forces of capital) on the side of working people and local communities in dire need of their support and a modicum of social justice.

What beggars belief is that apparently) people like Alan Johnson (a former trade union leader), Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, were not prepared to commit public money on a programme of skills training and regeneration to support workers and communities decimated by company closures, outsourcing and industrial reorganisation. The very people who elect these people to represent and support their interests.
But there again, he is Blairite and neoliberal apologist and also, like so many trade unionist before and after, he will be seduced by Parliamentary protocols, rituals, flattery, careerism, gongs and big money inducements. So expecting otherwise might be unrealistic and a big ask!

Or am I being unfair to Alan Johnson insofar as he really did do his level best to save the jobs at Clay Cross and/or fight for community regeneration and retraining money?

Harry Barnes said...

Ernie : Unfortuneately, you are not being unfair to Alan Johnson. Stephen Byers was the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I took two deputations to meet him and was in regular contact with him and his fellow ministers; but the necesary action wasn't taken to save the plant. In the end it came down to seeking a reference on the matter to the Competition Commission, but Byers never did this - although he held me on to the closing date for submissions, then rang me to say he had not done it. Saint-Gobain. a French based multinational company running Stanton plc, took over Biwaters in order to close it down as a competitor and take over its order book. We attempted to get the Competition Commission to act, but needed a reference from Byers. With Dennis Skinner I went to see Blair on the issues; but he later just accepted Byers'inept line. I held all sorts of material on Biwaters' order book and finances, which were passed on to Byers. But he was a disgrace and I called for his resignation and dismissal after his final failure. That was New Labour for you. In the subsequent 2001 General Election I was asked a telling and unanswerable question by former Biwater worker - "Tell me Harry, how can I vote for you, without voting for Tony Blair?". It seemed a bit lame to reply that I voted against him 10% of the time. So I just shrugged my shoulders. Yet the sacked Shop Stewards with their wives had taken Ann and me for a meal afterwards and gave me a "thank you" present out of their unemployment benefits. It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life.

Harry Barnes said...

The following is from Ernest Jacques, who for technical reasons could not place these points directly into my comment box. So he emailed them to me instead.

Just as I thought - but how depressingly routine and predictable that some Labour Party leaders who are able spin their way into Parliament and up the greasy pole and achieve the dizzy heights of Ministerial office, all too often, fail to achieve much and importantly let down those most vulnerable and in need of their help and support.

While being in government can be challenging and will often involve compromise – the record of New (blue) Labour in government seems to have been that the dirty deals and compromise always involves capitulation to big money and the forces of capital, the establishment, the media and the status quo and conversely attacks on working people, their trade unions and on our collective and community support programmes.

If you had said to me in the 70’s and 80’s that workers’ rights, social justice, public services, our welfare state and NHS would be rolled back and privatised and that inequality, deprivation, social exclusion and food-banks would be commonplace and a growing phenomenon under successive Tory, Labour and Con/Dem governments I would thought you mad and that such a scenario was impossible.

Sadly, it seems to be an iron law of politics that Labour leaders and people like Blair, Brown, Stephen Byers and Alan Johnson promise so much and achieve so little. But there again, it just reinforces my view that the current UK party, first past-the-post and Parliamentary system is outdated, bust and unfit for purpose. (personal view – not the ILP perspective)

Your Clay Cross & Biwaters story is a sad but moving and very human account of how victims of industrial reorganisation can be let down by our political elites who seem happy to manipulate Labour Party democracy and to use working people as voting fodder in order to facilitate their careers and personal ambitions.

What a contrast between the honesty, decency and generosity of your Biwaters shop steward, and the inaction of these two high flying and self-serving Labour politicians.
I know from my own experience in engineering and the AEU (as it then was) and during the miners’ strike how warm hearted and charitable working people can be, especially during times of strife, uncertainty and great hardship.

Leeds ILP worked tirelessly throughout that 1984/5 to support miners at Hatfield and Armthorpe collieries and I could recount many similar stories to your experience in the North East and in North East Derbyshire. Some really sad and depressingly common stories, but some that were hugely inspiring and a few that that were extremely funny in the face of much hardship and adversity.

By the way Harry, I've still got dozens of ILP “We Are Winning” badges. Courtesy of Alistair Graham.


Harry Barnes said...

Ernie. In my blog item, I mentioned that extracts from Yorkshire Miners' essays (written during the strike) were published. These along with their photos were published in "Labour Leader" in December 1984. At the Contact Club which you visited for the event to commemorate the 120th Anniversary of the ILP, during the strike one of these Yorkshire Miners brought a group he run for a succesful musical evening, to raise funds for the miners.

I still have some of the ILP badges you mention. Others were passed onto my son, who framed them and hung them on his wall.