And should the men bent double, scrabbling for coal, care about Labour, old or new?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT IS a common sight on Westfield Lane - the shapes of men bent almost double with the dead weight of three bags of small coal, a shovel and a steel riddle, all crammed into an old wheelbarrow.

They were busy about their tip-raiding work in the coldest days of last week, heads clad in thick Balaclavas, hands in fingerless mittens turning purple from the biting east wind. The titanic struggle between Old Labour and New Labour could have been taking place on a different planet.

As indeed it was, a couple of hundred yards away. The Hemsworth by-election on Thursday will determine whether Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party has any chance of supplanting Tony Blair in the hearts and minds of traditional working class voters. Shadow ministers arrive from London, as if the General Election depended on retaining this, one of their safest seats. And if "Scaggsie" cannot make it here - the cradle of his power in the mineworkers' union - he cannot make it anywhere.

The tip on which his former members scrabble for pieces of coal as big as your upper thumb once belonged to Frickley colliery, the industrial and commercial pulse of South Elmsall, the biggest town in the constituency. Before the "Great Strike for Jobs" of 1984-85, it employed 2,500 men. The site has now been levelled. All that remains is a slag heap and a low mountain of 300,000 tonnes of power station coal, worth perhaps pounds 12m.

The authorities say they will take it away by direct loading via a rusty siding. They had better hurry. Men like Dave, 40, and his fellow opencast miner, Keith, aged 35, work this seam ceaselessly, if illegally. Why not, says their body language. We dug it in the first place.

Because the coal is dust mixed with nuggets, it has to be riddled before they can shovel it into cattle feed sacks. It takes Dave, a jobless ex- miner and father of two children of school age, all morning to fill three bags of "near on a hundredweight" each.

He insists the coal is to heat his home, although it can also be sold for pounds 2.50 a bag on the black market, if commerce on this scale can be so dignified. "I know it's degrading," he says. "But what else can I do? There's no work. After the pit shut, I did have a job for a time in a warehouse. The pay was lousy, and anyway, they laid me off." Male unemployment is officially 10 per cent, a figure that greatly underestimates the real number of ex-miners who cannot find work.

Some, seeing the pass to which these men have been reduced, may be tempted to think that they are ill-served by the politicians squabbling over their votes. Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, paid a brief visit to the Westfield Resource and Enterprise Centre - an excellent example of self- help retraining so dear to the Opposition's heart - and saw nothing of the lane's real "enterprise".

Scargill's manifesto promises to come to the aid of the Daves and the Keiths. But it is a mixture of the naive and the grandiose, offering to end unemployment by compulsory retirement at 55 on full pay. He, or his candidate Mrs Brenda Nixon (this must be the first by-election in which the agent has a higher profile than the candidate) promise "at least four new mines in this constituency to replace the collieries closed for political reasons by the Tories". He thinks this could be done "within 18 months".

Pressed on this pledge, Mrs Nixon, a media studies student at Sheffield Hallam University and leading figure in the Women Against Pit Closures Movement, is not sure of her ground. She names two possible pits, and then appeals: "Arthur, what's the name of the pits?" Asked who would buy their coal in today's attenuated market, she retorts simply: "Phase out nuclear power." And where would these new power stations be? "I don't know." Pushed to state whether nationalisation is more important than jobs, she agrees that "a private pit is better than no pit". First heresy?

Mrs Nixon cheerfully admits: "I am not a seasoned politician" and offers not to "spout high politics". She would be the first to be furious at being accused of having a certain elfin charm, but what else can be made of a woman who concedes that she did not have a political thought in her head until 1992? "Before then Dave (her husband, then a miner, now a politics student) was more political. At one stage I wouldn't have politics discussed in the house or have Question Time on because we would end up having an argument. He had very strong and set views."

Well, she can now, and her candidature has New Labour alternately sneering and irritated. This is their patch, and the party's candidate Jon Trickett, Labour leader of Leeds City Council and a Blair production-line model, will unquestionably be the MP for Hemsworth on 2 February. The question is: how well will "Arthur's Party", as it is almost invariably known, perform? Kevin Barron, once an NUM-sponsored MP and now a bitter enemy of Scargill, is Trickett's "minder" during the campaign. He argues: "It's doubtful she will hold her deposit. All our canvass returns show they are a fringe party and likely to remain so."

Turnout is likely to mirror the abysmal 43 per cent in 1991, when Neil Kinnock imposed the late Derek Enright on the constituency party in the face of a determined challenge from the NUM. It could go lower if the Siberian winds continue to blow, and, if so, the number of votes required by Mrs Nixon to hang on to her deposit could be as low as 1,500. Labour insiders calculate that she will pick up "800, maybe a thousand". There being a dearth of grant-maintained grammar schools hereabouts, nobody mentions Harriet Harman, but there is still a protest vote. Nursing his half of Guinness, and a grievance, ex-collier John says: "I shall vote for Arthur. It's sacrilege what's gone on here. It's a protest vote." Against New Labour? "Don't you mean New Conservatives?" Retaining Mrs Nixon's deposit would be a small triumph for Socialist Labour's first outing, and might just secure the Scargillistas a permanent foothold in British politics.

Equally, falling at that first critical hurdle could consign them to oblivion. "If we get a credible vote then it is going to prove that there are a lot of people still out there with a belief in socialism." And if not? "If that is the case, it will show us how much work we have to do." Clearly she is picking up hard Left jargon.

New Labour's secret hope is that Mrs Nixon will poll fewer votes than Screaming Lord Sutch and his Official Monster Raving Loony Party, allowing them to portray the SLP as the provisional wing of Loonyism. They were dismayed to hear voters in South Elsmall market place demanding querulously: "You're not that New Labour are you? Because I can't stand that bloody Arthur Scargill!" It would be easier to laugh, if you did not know that when the poll hullabaloo is over, Dave and Keith will still be out in all weathers with their riddles and wheelbarrows.