The revolution starts at 12 Clifford Road

Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party is campaigning for the Hemsworth by-election with all guns blazing. But is anyone listening? Peter Popham reports
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The Independent Online
Hallelujah! The support is really rolling in to number 12 Clifford Road, South Kirkby, West Yorkshire, where Arthur Scargill, resplendent in blood-red tie and navy blazer, answers the phone in his lilting alto.

Who's this on the line? One of Kenny Ball's Jazzmen, ringing from Scotland to pledge support to the fledgling Socialist Labour Party in its attempt to win the Hemsworth by-election on Thursday. Arthur beams warmly, his unnervingly pale blue eyes twinkling. He falls to reminiscing: one of the Dubliners was an ardent supporter for years, he says. And many years ago, in Moscow - though unable himself to play so much as a mouth organ - he had the honour of introducing trumpeter Humphrey Lyttleton to a Russian concert audience.

For the Socialist Labour Party, still three months away from its official launch, the calls from people of "all walks of life" promising support are all grist to the mill.

If Scargill, his candidate, Brenda Nixon, and their helpers - the "small bunch of nutters" in Ken Livingstone's charming phrase - would gladly trade in every trad jazz man in the land for one heavyweight defector from "New Labour", they are far too canny to say so. Anyway, it is not happening: all the signs are that Labour supporters in Hemsworth remain solidly loyal. Two defections are recorded: the wife of a local party branch official, who has put an SLP poster in her window; and Dave, husband of candidate Brenda, a wry, neat figure who used to be an NUM official and promises that he is handing in his Labour Party membership card today.

As Scargill proudly trumpets every small success, it is fair to suppose that this is about the extent of bleeding that Labour's local establishment has suffered. It is not fatal, nor even serious.

But the threat of more bleeding bothers Labour, and they are determined to staunch it. In the past, elections in Hemsworth - where the Labour majority in the 1992 general election was more than 20,000 - merited very little attention from Walworth Road. This time one Labour front bencher after another has trooped up to this mining constituency between Doncaster and Leeds, culminating with Tony Blair on Monday and John Prescott yesterday. "Every Labour front bencher's been up here except Harriet Harman," Arthur jokes.

It is possible that Blair might welcome Scargill's party as a handy refuse bin for surplus-to-requirements socialists, a neat way to reassure the middle class that the most alarming of the Reds are no longer under his bed. But following the nasty setback over Harriet Harman's choice of school for her son, trouble from the other end of the political spectrum is the last thing he needs.

Yet trouble is what he clearly deserves. For the second time running in Hemsworth, the candiate selected by the local party has been barred from the shortlist and a New Labour-approved moderniser - this time, Jon Trickett - imposed from London. The papers called Steve Kemp, the local party's choice, an "NUM stooge", but an NUM stooge makes more sense in Hemsworth than a Walworth Road one.

Hemsworth tends to be described as a "traditional mining community", which means there used to be nothing but mines here, but now they are all shut. As in other such communities around the country, nothing of a similar scale has taken their place: "Netto" warehouses and shops, Linpac Plastics, small engineering firms stand stark against an unchanging background of monstrous unemployment and a sort of numb vacuity where the heart of the community used to beat. "Vote Labour" signs are far outnumbered by "For Sale" ones.

There is nothing so futile-feeling as a town built up around coal mines that have been worked out and closed down; but when the closures have, as here, been premature and bitterly contested - they followed Michael Heseltine's announcement of mass closures in 1992 - the futility has an extra edge of venom. But Labour under Blair has nothing very new or encouraging to say to Hemsworth. All it offers is more of what the town is stuck with already.

On the face of it, Arthur Scargill's message ought to have some appeal for people disenchanted with the turn Labour has taken under Blair. "I can't understand how any Socialist can remain within a political party when it has changed its constitution and policy from a socialist one to one that embraces capitalism," he tells me.

"It is like a Christian confronted by a teacher who tells him: from now on the Lord will be ditched, and instead we will worship the devil. I can't understand anyone staying in a party whose rules prevent you from embracing socialism".

The biblical imagery is appropriate. "We have a policy, a principle, a faith," Scargill trills through the loudspeakers across the snowy fields and sludge-blackened streets. He harks back compulsively to the event 103 years ago when in the teeth of the derision of all, including Liberal- voting mineworkers, Keir Hardie launched the Labour Party.

Scargill, too, is a prophet, and in his mind's eye gleams the green and pleasant land to which he aspires to lead his people. Oddly, or rather inevitably, this paradise has much in common with that imagined by all the socialist leaders in between. The policies on which it will be founded are renationalisation, full employment and full restoration of the NHS.

It is not, however - or not exclusively - the shop-worn, time-warped quality of Scargill's Utopia that is going to deter the voters of Hemsworth from trooping after him and his candidate in great numbers. Never has it been truer that a prophet is without honour in his own land than it is of Scargill in this forsaken mining country. Rarely can local people have been so venomous in their rejection of perhaps the only one of their kind and community to have attained great national fame.

"I hope a bloody bomb drops on him," declares my cabbie. "What's he done wrong? He's still breathing, that's what!"

Peter Goodfellow, an ex-miner from the village of Featherstone who stayed out throughout the year of the strike, recites a litany of Scargill's alleged crimes. From mistiming the strike to being fooled by Mrs Thatcher and failing to crush corruption among union organisers - but the fundamental sin is to have lost, and thereby to have presided over the collapse of the local industry.

The only praise Goodfellow will allow Scargill is for accurately predicting the coal industry's downfall. But the way that calamity happened - ultimately as the result of the strike - left a legacy of bitterness and betrayal that still pervades this community.

And he, of course, people point out, is still sitting pretty. There's still money around to launch his party. One man, a heating engineer from a local mining family, says with a sigh, "They always look after themselves, these union people. So much for socialism."

Not everybody, of course, harbours such grim memories. Eric Franks, 70, attributes his two cataracts and a crippling ailment of his hands known as "vibration white finger" to his years underground. Nevertheless he recalls enjoying the job. Eric is arguably a fair representative of the "nutters" Ken Livingstone mentioned. By nutters, Livingstone, with typical metropolitan snobbery, clearly meant people outside mainsttream political groups: in which sense the term will describe almost everybody packed into the SLP's tiny smoke-filled office. Eric, for one, was never a Labour Party member, his only prior affiliation was to the Green Party, which he must now regretfully leave.

Brenda Nixon herself, the Socialist Labour candidate, is precisely the sort of outsider Livingstone describes. Though generally mute beside the unstoppable Scargill, this is not from terror or ignorance of what she is doing, it's just that Arthur likes to talk. "I don't know how she bears me," he jests, "but she does."

Brenda was briefly in the Labour Party, but left in disgust six months ago. More important for her political development was her work with the Women Against Pit Closures campaign in 1992. This opened her eyes to other battles demanding to be fought; visits to the Kurdish region of Turkey and to Cuba gave her a widening view of the world's injustices.

A tall, handsome, contained woman who carries her sudden elevation with dignity, she is perhaps the party's perfect candidate. For if she flops hopelessly, neither the party, nor Scargill, nor his wife, Ann - formerly touted as a possible candidate - need suffer mortal consequences.

The "nutters" have had an unfortunate mellowing effect on Scargill, who sits in their midst as sweet as pie, giving regular outings to his scintillating wit. Tony Blair was seen in the constituency with his shoe coming apart, someone tells him. "That proves my point," he chuckles. "Blair has no soul." He repeats this joke several times.

Scargill thrives when he has some bitter enemy to get his teeth into. Here, surrounded by the sweet and harmless, he begins to look harmless himself. "I feel like I've been let out of jail," he says of leaving the Labour Party, but it's more like he's been put out to graze.

The trouble is that a prophet should come poor, bleeding, wild-eyed, in rags - not like some prosperous uncle with a flash car and a big house. "They always look after themselves," the locals say, raising their eyebrows as if to add "What else do you expect? What do you expect of anybody?"

In the Old Crown pub down the road from Arthur's headquarters, I met one of the workers with Labour's campaign, a party member for years, a retired HGV driver. His wife is a dinner lady in the local school. They have a daughter aged 12: they have their heart set on getting her into a private school, he told me artlessly. It's a 16-mile journey every day, but it'll be worth it, because the local comprehensive is "a terrible place".

Arthur Scargill may, spectre-like, be haunting the sad towns again. But the truly powerful ghost walking these hills is that of Margaret Thatcher.

From King Coal to Party Leader: Arthur Scargill's life of protest

1938: Born in Worsborough, near Barnsley, the son of a Communist miner and a bobbin mill worker.

1955: Having started work at Woolley Colliery, near Barnsley, he tried to join a youth section of the right-dominated local Labour Party but failed to get a reply. He was a member of the Young Communist League until 1962, but never the Communist Party itself. He studied social history and industrial relations on a day course at Leeds University.

1960: Joined the Yorkshire NUM branch committee.

1966: Joined the Labour Party, and went for the first time to the NUM's national conference.

1972: Was brought to public attention during the year's miners' dispute by the Battle of Saltley Gate, where mass picketing shut down a Birmingham coke works. The miners gained a 27 per cent pay rise.

1973: Elected president of the Yorkshire branch of the NUM. A further miners' dispute indirectly toppled the Heath government the following year, though NUM president Joe Gormley claimed that "it was not the miners, but Ted Heath who brought himself down".

1981: Elected NUM president with 70 per cent of the vote.

1984-85: The miners' strike - Scargill's popularity waned as police and miners clashed. He refused to denounce the violence, and was himself arrested at the Orgreave coking plant near Sheffield in May 1984. After the strike, Nottinghamshire area officials broke away from the NUM and formed the Union of Democratic Mineworkers.

1988: Stood for re-election against John Walsh, his fiercest critic in the Yorkshire heartland. Walsh took 46 per cent of the vote. Had most of Nottinghamshire not quit the NUM, Scargill would probably have been ousted.

1990: The Daily Mirror launched a campaign to expose alleged corruption in the NUM, claiming that some of the hundreds of thousands of pounds in strike support from Libya and the Soviet Union was used by Scargill to pay off personal debts. The allegations, investigated in the Lightman inquiry, were not substantiated.

1992: Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, announced the closure of 31 pits, with 30,000 redundancies. Scargill urged miners and their families to demonstrate, and lamented the "senseless slaughter of a valuable, indigenous asset". At the end of the year the High Court declared the Government's plan unlawful, and Heseltine was forced to review the decision. However, pits have continued to close.

1995: Embarrassed the Labour leadership by forcing a fresh debate on Clause IV, having mounted a legal challenge to it in the High Court. Failed to resurrect the clause at the Brighton conference, and afterwards indicated that he was considering leaving the Labour Party. "I didn't join this party to run capitalism better and more efficiently than the Tories," he said.