I first met George Bell on the 20th anniversary of the 1984-85 miners’ strike when he and many fellow miners had swapped the camaraderie of the coalface for jobs in the public sector and charities helping communities devastated by the closure of the local pits.
He had become a homelessness officer for Bassetlaw district council in Nottinghamshire, and was an active Unison branch secretary, using skills gained from his days in the National Union of Mineworkers to fight for employees’ terms and conditions, when the council transferred its housing staff to a new organisation.
Almost two decades on, I decided to track down Bell and the others – now in their 60s and 70s – to find out how the seismic shifts in this part of the east Midlands, where the history of the mines and the strike still casts a long shadow, had affected them and their families.
“If anyone had said back then that we’d go Tory, I’d have thought they were mad,” says Bell, now 72. “Mind you, I could see the result coming. A lot of it was down to the anti-Corbyn rhetoric.”
A former fitter at Shireoaks colliery, near Worksop, Bell is retired and volunteers on the Chesterfield Canal – a 46-mile stretch of water created in the 18th century to transport coal and which until last year ran through traditional Labour heartlands.
Phil Whitehead, 61, had been an electrician at Shireoaks. He went out canvassing for Labour at the last election and says he heard the same two things on the doorstep: “‘I’m voting for Boris ’cos he’ll get Brexit done’ and ‘I don’t trust that Corbyn’. They didn’t trust Labour to follow Brexit through and enough believed the Corbyn caricatures in the tabloids.”
Whitehead gained a sociology degree and an MA in housing when the pits, which he first entered aged 16, closed. He has worked in senior roles for a number of housing associations across the region ever since.
Born and bred in Worksop, once the area’s industrial powerhouse, Whitehead believes demographic changes also have a lot to do with Labour losing a quarter of its votes in Bassetlaw at the last general election and a 7% swing to the Tories in neighbouring Bolsover, where Dennis Skinner lost his seat after 49 years.
“Worksop was where the miners lived and had always voted Labour, but a lot of them are dead now,” says Whitehead. “They’ve been replaced by young families buying four-bed houses in new upmarket housing estates, who have little attachment to the area or its history. They’re here because of reasonable housing prices with good links to the M1 and rail services to Nottingham and Sheffield where there are decent jobs.”
The big employers locally are out-of-town warehouses and distribution centres. “A lot of it is low-paid, non-unionised work,” says Bell. “The electricians, brick works, timber yards and other industries that used to service the mines are all long gone.” And there are now at least eight food banks.
Sitting in the living room of the council house he bought under right-to-buy with the payoff when he left Shireoaks, the irony’s not lost on Bell that he benefited from one of Margaret Thatcher’s flagship policies, but he says he didn’t know if he’d ever work again so he needed to keep the roof over his family’s heads.
He adds that although he and his wife, Christine, a former care assistant, are “comfortably off”, he voted leave in the EU referendum, hoping it would be a catalyst for change for the area. “I just thought things couldn’t get any worse for a lot of people round here and maybe it would lead to more internal investment if we left.”
Whitehead was another Brexiter. He says: “I was never a lover of the EU. I always thought it primarily represented the interests of bosses, big business and the banks, it rarely did anything for ordinary people. I accepted that it could initially put the British economy in a tough position, but I thought we could get a deal like Norway has. I never voted leave for a no deal.”
Now, Whitehead says, “I’d probably vote differently,” if given the opportunity again. “We also underestimated how it has in some ways ‘legitimised’ xenophobia and racist opinions.”
Bell agrees. “We’ve opened Pandora’s box. In the pub, they say things like ‘If they [foreign workers] are in our factories we haven’t got control. We want them out. Brexit is our way of getting those people back to where they came from.’ I challenge them but it gets really nasty. People feel emboldened to say things they wouldn’t have done before.”
But Adrian Gilfoyle, 69, and Dave Potts, 67, who worked at Bassetlaw’s Manton colliery – the last local pit to close in 1994 – don’t regret their decision to vote leave. “Why should we do what other countries tell us? All these foreign countries want to do business with us – they can’t afford not to. Most people don’t like change, but they’ll get use to it,” says Gilfoyle, who is semi-retired from the council caretaker job he still loves after 17 years.
For Potts, who was sacked from Manton after being jailed during the strike in 1984, the betrayals during the miners’ strike still loom large. “Arguments about how we’re stronger together staying in the EU don’t hold true,” he says. “I’ve come from a miners’ strike that fell apart. We don’t stand together.”
Although he voted Labour 12 months ago, Potts has since left the party after 40 years, including a stint as a local councillor. He is disillusioned with politics. “I look back and realise they’ve done nothing for us. For too many politicians it’s the career that’s important to them, not the people they represent. We seem to be forgotten.”
Potts was out of work for eight years, before North Notts FE College employed him to coordinate support for students. And his family waited for a council house for 27 years. “That uncertainty takes its toll on your mind,” says Potts. A stroke seven years ago forced him to retire from Bassetlaw Learning Centre where he was working with pupils excluded from school.
John Scott, 73, another ex-Manton miner, worked for a local charity providing second-hand furniture for homeless people and people on low incomes. When funding for his post as deputy manager, and then volunteer coordinator, ran out, he stayed on as a driver until he retired eight years ago. Since then he has volunteered for another furniture project and was a local ward councillor for a term. He says he was one of the few people he knew who voted both remain and Labour. Yet once the country voted to leave, however, he believes Labour should have accepted the decision and fought for a proper deal. He is in no doubt that the party’s position cost it the 2019 election. “No one understood what Labour stood for. Lots of my friends voted Tory for the first time to get out of the EU,” he says.
A poll for Channel 4 earlier this month of 45 “red wall” seats won by the Tories in the North and Midlands in 2019, found that 16% of 2019 Conservative voters say they do not know how they would vote now, while 7% say they would switch directly to Labour. Many cited confusing messaging over Covid, and Dominic Cummings’s trip to Barnard Castle as the reason for their change of heart.
Scott says while some of his friends may be less enamoured with Boris Johnson after his mishandling of Covid, Keir Starmer has still to prove himself.
Each July (until Covid struck), the men I spoke to usually make the journey up to the Durham Miners’ Gala, where some 200,000 people gather on the second Saturday of the month to commemorate the country’s rich mining heritage, show solidarity and reminisce with old friends.
“I usually end up singing in a bar somewhere with George,” says Dave Anderson, 67, a gala committee member. I had spoken to Anderson in 2004 when he had gone from being a fitter at the Eppleton colliery in Durham to a care services officer for Newcastle city council.
He then worked nationally for Unison and in 2005 became Labour MP for Blaydon, in Gateshead. He stood down in 2017.
The north-east has also seen profound changes in the politics of its residents. During the EU referendum campaign he recalls having a remain stall in town, which was quickly dismantled when it became apparent his supporters were going to vote Brexit. “I didn’t want to antagonise them and weaken Labour’s chances at the next election,” he explains. (They hung on with a 5,000 majority in 2019).
“Our part of the country benefited from huge amounts of EU money for infrastructure but people didn’t realise that. They stopped listening to the arguments [to stay in]. It [voting leave] was an emotional response to a feeling that they’d been betrayed for 30 years.”
“If there had been more working-class MPs listened to in the Blair years, it would have been different, but he ignored them, and took it for granted that people in this part of the world would always vote Labour because they had no alternative.”
“People say to me, it must have been awful working down the pit,” says Anderson. “Don’t get me wrong, most people’s standard of living and health are miles better off now than they were in the 70s, but people felt secure then and for them everything looks rosy going back.”
That’s certainly true for Potts, who says nostalgically, “I stand in the square in Durham on the Saturday morning [of the miners’ gala] when all the banners go past and I just think, how the hell did we ever lose [the strike]? I just can’t imagine it.”
As for Whitehead, he believes Thatcher has finally achieved what she set out to do when she took on the miners almost four decades ago in Labour’s heartlands. Today they feel they owe their allegiance to no one, he says: “Ultimately, her legacy is a fragmented, individualised society.”