Mining: Labour's new intake confronted by a gritty old problem

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The Independent Online
With the threat of closure hanging over half the coal industry, new Labour is facing an old Labour problem. Barrie Clement, Labour Editor, visits Rossington Colliery, in South Yorkshire.

Caroline Flint, one of the new Blairite parliamentary intake, was felt to be a touch out of place when she visited a colliery in her Yorkshire constituency.

"We didn't expect her to know everything about mining technology, but she didn't have a clue. She expected us to be using picks and shovels. I believe she was not selected by people in this area. She was imposed on us," said Alan Horner, 61, a Labour supporter and a faceworker who has spent nearly 25 years at Rossington Colliery, near Doncaster.

Ms Flint, a telegenic former local government officer from London, is among a group of new Labour MPs confronted with an old Labour problem.

Rossington is one of the collieries owned by RJB Mining in imminent danger of closure as power-stations increasingly rely on gas. The pit's village was built largely on coal and there would be little else for men to do if the mine closed.

One 39-year-old underground worker reckoned that the only major enterprise now taking on labour was a chicken-gutting factory in Scunthorpe 20 miles away. "Or I could go shelf stacking like our lass."

Two women's wear factories and some light industry in Rossington would be unable to cope with 330 redundant pitmen from the local colliery.

Many of the miners instinctively feel that the Government is in the process of betraying them. "They all said a lot in opposition about a balanced energy policy, now they are hiding their voices in their beards - I'm talking about Robin Cook,"Mr Horner said

According to some industry observers - and despite significant reserves - Rossington could be a serious candidate for closure. British Coal closed the pit in 1993, but it returned to production in 1994 when RJB Mining leased it from the state and spent more than pounds 17m on new machinery.

Ken Ashton, a shift manager who has worked for 33 years at the pit, said Rossington miners had done everything possible to make the colliery profitable. "These men were hand-picked, you won't get better. We have cut ourselves to the bone and turned the industry upside down. We just want a fair crack of the whip. I can't believe the way a Labour government is treating us. They seem to think because it is a private company, we are out of their hair."

Caroline Flint concedes that she has no detailed knowledge of coalmining and refers technical questions to her colleague Kevin Barron, MP for Rother Valley, who has extensive experience in the industry.

She points out that her constituency has a wide range of industries of which the single colliery is a part. She argues that many of the problems stem from the Tory legacy, but says that an all-party group of MPs were doing their best to ensure there was a continuing demand for coal.

She said that the MPs were attempting to put pressure on the Government to develop a balanced energy policy with coal playing a strong part, as well as gas. Ministers were being prevailed upon to reinvigorate their campaign against subsidies to the industry in Germany and Spain. In the short-term - closures could begin before Christmas - she believed that there was scope for persuading power generators to use more coal.

If the initiative by Ms Flint and her colleagues is unsuccessful, Rossington, an area of high unemployment, will become an area of even higher unemployment.