They've learned to live with cannibals

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Yes, the brass band played as the graduates filed in. Barnsley College's graduation day was a symbol of hope in a place very nearly crushed by the sudden violent death of the coal industry. Bright young faces and a host of older ones, proud but shy in unfamiliar gowns and mortarboards, lined up to collect diplomas and degrees: fathers with camcorders, mothers with hankies and embarrassed young people hissing at them to 'Stop it, for God's sake.'

Only five years ago this college lived and breathed coal like everyone else: 1,500 National Coal Board apprentices a year enrolled here for their day releases, and the science and engineering was all coal. Barnsley used to have the lowest staying-on-at-school rate in the country, and although it has doubled it remains too low. Coal has gone; instead the red-ribboned scrolls are for catering, sport, leisure, media, business, pop music technology, tourism, and yes, a BA in Band Studies.

Jeff Ennis, Labour shoe-in at the Barnsley East by-election next week, was handing out the prizes: lumps in throats all round at the many who had overcome huge obstacles to get this far. There was even a trophy for Achievement Despite Adverse Circumstances. That is the story of Barnsley - the band playing on Despite Adverse Circumstances.

I went to see Brassed Off, the weepy movie about Grime-thorpe Colliery Band and the death of coal, to remind myself of South Yorkshire, as I hadn't been back since reporting the pit closures. Mawkish, I thought the film. I felt cross with its manipulative political naivety, even while mopping my eyes. I thought they'd hate it up here in the constituency where it was filmed - soft stuff for blunt Yorkshiremen. But they loved it. Jeff Ennis even has a poster reading "Brassed Off...with the Tories". In truth Barnsley is just like the movie - a sentimental place where everyone you stop and talk to has a story that tugs at the heart-strings of southern guilt. Generations have lived, died, coughed up and been crushed by coal so that we may live in green-belt, centrally-heated comfort. Coal is like war - both horrible and heroic.

But the macho heroism always seemed perverse to me, no better than the desperate comradeship of the trenches. I have visited South Yorkshire coal-faces where men worked on their knees in three foot high seams, sweating between hydraulic pit-props three feet apart (though the pay was good and they knew they were needed). Watching those young people filing past in their gowns, you could only be glad they had escaped their dreadful heritage either down the pits or married to them. But that is not what Barnsley feels, because outside the graduation hall are the others, demobbed and home to no hero's return, too many unskilled young people leaving school with nothing to do.

This is a strange political world to the outsider - a homogenous culture where the Labour party lives, breathes and embodies the community. In most of England political parties are a fringe activity conducted mainly by oddballs and door-knocking anoraks. Labour here is the people - decent people, decent values, would-be-hard-working, censorious, community organisers born and bred. Half the population seems to have been a councillor or school governor at some time or another with so many posts to fill in a one-party state. The world outside is a mysterious place to them. Tories are utterly incomprehensible. The likes of Thatcher, Major, Redwood, and Portillo are so alien that Barnsley people feel they have been governed by cannibals for the last 17 years.

You might expect the strike, the closures and the 17 years of cannibalism to have turned them into bitter revolutionaries. But no, they are New Labour to the core, always have been. (Scargill's party is imprudently standing against Labour but his name is cursed in the same breath as Thatcher's, an equal betrayer and abuser of the miners.) Mind you, they don't like the word "New". Jeff Ennis says he prefers to call himself "Common sense Labour" - not because he's trying to stake out some slightly more left position, but because nothing "New" trips easily off the Barnsley tongue: old values, old decency, old concern for community.

Jeff Ennis is the leader of Barnsley Council, 44 and a primary school teacher. All candidates had to be grilled by a London panel for New Labour correctness. He has no trouble on that score - practical, pro-Europe, pro-common sense all round. Once selected, he was sent down to London for training and indoctrination. The nervously rote-learned Walworth Road slogans are probably the only thing wrong with him. We plodded through The Five Pledges, but came unstuck after four, though later it came rushing back to him. He talked One Nation, and Blair's education, education, education but no spending pledges, absolutely none, except the ones he had learned by heart.

The real Jeff Ennis springs to life when he talks about Barnsley. Born and bred in Grimethorpe of a mining family, king of his patch, he knows every cracked paving stone on every estate. Boisterous, benign, straightforward - everyone knows him. Not trapped in the past, his eyes light up when he boasts of how Barnsley is the only town to win two City Challenges as well as other regeneration money. Three Korean factories have been enticed in and he'll do anything he can with public/private partnerships to bring jobs: 4,000 of these have been created so far. "Sounds good? Well, not so good when you know we need another 19,000". So why on earth does he want to give all this up and go to parliament? What is in it for him? Why abandon all this useful committed endeavour for life as a back- bench nobody, alone in an alien place where no one listens to you and you influence nothing? A newcomer is lucky to get a desk. No one will want anything from him but silent, mindless obedience.

What does he want to achieve there? "I want to be a good delegate. Barnsley people are the salt of the earth and they deserve the best. They have been alienated, excluded, abandoned. We've contributed to the national wealth all these years, paid for it with mining disasters and diseases. I want these people rewarded." Well, that will make a nice maiden speech, but what then?

Our corrupted political system eats up the lives of good people like Ennis, wastes their energies, drains blood out of the regions to squander it in the servitude of a mediaeval court, bowing low as humble subjects to the whips and the leader. One ex-councillor and school teacher, a good friend of Ennis's, said "Proportional representation, that's the only hope. Otherwise MPs are nothing. Labour will never win a second term unless they bring PR in, and MPs will never amount to a row of beans without it." I asked Ennis what he thought of PR. Stumped, because he hadn't learned that card, he said he was no expert and left it at that. He has learned the Westminster obedience lesson well.