Old King Coal vies with New Labour to win miners' legacy

The Barnsley East by-election may bury a troubled past, writes Jonathan Foster
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The Independent Online
The landscape has an eerie emptiness now the colliery buildings have disappeared and the slag heaps are grassed over, airbrushed out of the picture like victims of a purge.

On the surface, at least, the Labour Party by-election campaign in Barnsley East is the first not to be coal-fired. Virtually every local issue has its roots in digging coal, but not its solution: all the local pits have been closed.

In the absence of special interests, only the turnout and share of the vote could embarrass Labour. The contest caused by the death of Terry Patchett will formally end John Major's Commons majority on Thursday, whatever whim may take dissident Tory backbenchers.

For Labour, there could be an added fillip. Twice in nine months, an overwhelmingly Labour electorate will have dispelled nagging doubts among activists about the S-word - socialism. The party can also see an encouraging profusion of its posters across the constituency and there is little oral evidence that former mining townships feel neglected in the party's pursuit of more-affluent Southern voters.

People have moved on since the 1984-85 miners' strike and come to terms with the pit closures of the early 1990s, according to Jeff Ennis, a 44- year-old miner's son, Barnsley council leader, Sheffield teacher, and Labour candidate.

"We're looking forward now. There are many positive things about the strength of mining communities that we can put to use to repair the alienation and exclusion people feel because of the way the Tories treated the coal industry," Mr Ennis said.

He can cite partnerships forged throughout the Dearne Valley between private and public sectors, road and factory building, measures with at least the potential to reduce unemployment. In mining towns like Grimesthorpe, Goldthorpe and Cudworth, it can reach 80 per cent. Across the constituency, it remains double the national average.

"In many respects New Labour was invented in Barnsley," Mr Ennis said. "We are one community."

Ken Capstick could cheer for the "one community" slogan, but go further. A former miner and Yorkshire Miners' Union official, his has for years been the emollient voice interpreting Arthur Scargill's socialism for the delicate. Mr Capstick resigned from the Labour Party in April, disgusted by the prospect of the Tory defector Alan Howarth being "shoe-horned" into a safe Labour seat.

Now he is fighting a safe Labour seat for Socialist Labour, the creation of Mr Scargill and the most plausible hard-left party to have sought electoral support since the war. It flourishes on grievance, and Mr Capstick has personal as well as political scores to settle with New Labour.

In 1991, he was the choice as candidate of a large majority of Labour members in neighbouring Hemsworth. But Mr Capstick's candidature was vetoed by party bosses in London. There are many South Yorkshire Labour MPs vigorously supporting Mr Ennis who still feel Mr Capstick was badly treated and could have made a decent MP.

A similar purge of the Hemsworth candidates' shortlist was repeated this year, prompting Socialist Labour's election debut. The candidate won 1,193 votes, enough to save her deposit, but not enough to frighten Labour badly.

Mr Capstick was still loyal to Labour then, but felt imprisoned in a party moving to the right. He said: "I feel liberated now, able to speak freely about the socialism I believe in."

He and Mr Scargill have promised to open six new mines in the area, renationalise privatised industries, and double pensions. Unemployment will be ended by a four-day week, a ban on all non-essential overtime, and voluntary retirement on full pay at 55.

There are now "thousands" of individual members and affiliated organisations signed up to Socialist Labour, Mr Capstick says.

He would be delighted with 10 per cent of the vote, and says he has been encouraged by his reception. But the party does not appear to have struck a completely sympathetic chord in Barnsley East. "Arthur", as Mr Scargill is known, may have roused a powerful sense of loyalty to the union and to the community but it is not a political dynamic transferred easily to a new party or captured in a manifesto, even less when that manifesto appears realistic only in Mr Scargill's dreams.