Coal - Does what’s beneath your feet still determine how you vote?


In a year of so many political commemorations: the Waterloo bicentenary, the half century since Churchill’s death, the 40th anniversary of Thatcher becoming Tory leader, one anniversary may have slipped your notice. This year is the 200th anniversary of the publication of the first geological map.

Usually at this point, my partner would interject and explain that these rocks have been boring people for millions of years.  However, here in the UK the rocks below our feet have cast an extraordinary spell over how we cast our vote.  As the dust settles over one of the more interesting general elections, let me explain… but first a dash of ‘recent’ geological history.

William ‘Strata’ Smith

Whilst armies clashed across the Channel, and the fate of Europe hung in the balance, William ‘Strata’ Smith produced a map not of what lay on the surface - towns, hills, roads, rivers - but rather what lay beneath, the bedrock.  It was the first time common rock types were recognised and united in map form.  Smith, a canal engineer to trade, had begun to notice similarities in the rocks and fossils he encountered as he dug his ditches across England. He plotted the occurrences on a grand map and coloured them in. The map he created, of England and southern Scotland, is remarkable and remains the basis of the modern geological map of the region, right down to the choice of colours.

The influence of coal

Smith’s remarkable achievement was brought to mind the other day, when a friend posted on Twitter a map of England’s coal fields alongside a map of the election results in England. (I reproduce the maps below).  England today has only three working deep pits, Kellingley and Hatfield in Yorkshire and Thoresby in Nottinghamshire. Yet the Labour Party’s success in the 2015 election traces almost exactly the extent of the coal-bearing strata of Smith’s original geological map.

The relationship between geology and politics in the UK has endured for generations.  The first seats won by the Labour Party in the 1900 election, Derby and Methyr Tydfil, were slap bang in the middle of the coal-bearing strata. Indeed coal miners and the union they formed were at the forefront of the development of the Labour Party and its policies. Of course there were other factors, as the heavy industries began to grow and the need for the recognition of workers’ rights grew too , but nonetheless the changes rested upon the coalfields below.

The General Strike of 1926, which brought the UK to a standstill and defined labour relations for a generation stemmed from a standoff between the National Union of Mineworkers and the coal mine owners:  ‘Not a minute on the day, not a penny off the pay’.  The landslide Labour Government of 1945 would put an end to such conflicts; they nationalised the coal industry in 1947.

The power of coal miners to determine government policy was again demonstrated in 1974 when, following another standoff with the National Union of Mineworkers, Prime Minister Edward Heath launched the Conservative Party’s election campaign with the slogan ‘Who Governs Britain?’ The answer sadly wasn’t Ted.

To placate the victorious miners, the incoming Labour Government of Harold Wilson raised the wages of miners twice in short order: a 35% pay increase was awarded just 1 week after the first election of 1974; a further 35% increase would follow less than a year later.

By the 1980s, the problems of the coal industry were becoming all too apparent, rising costs, falling revenue, deeper and more difficult coal. Thatcher tasked Energy Minister Peter Walker with finding a solution. He recommended a series of pit closures to be accompanied by a relief package valued at £800 million.  The proposal was turned down flat by miner’s leader Arthur Scargill, long before it reached the miners at the pit head.

A year-long strike followed, one of the most devastating in British history, and by its end the influence of the mining union had all but ended too.

The beginning of the end

Whilst the popular narrative ascribes to Thatcher the destruction of the coal industry, the graph of coal mine closures from just after the war shows a different picture.  The closures, greatest during the immediate post war period, were driven not by political expediency, but by a simple geological fact, coal is finite.  The life cycle of any coal mine is straightforward: the shallow coal is extracted cheaply in the early phase. Thereafter the cost of extraction increases as the pit sinks deeper, often into more complicated geology.  The end game depends upon the cost of extraction versus the global coal price.

The emergence of cheaper coal from elsewhere in the world did much to render uncompetitive British coal. Falling domestic demand too played a significant part. The Clean Air Act of 1956 - introduced following some 12,000 deaths in 1952 - put paid to the London ‘pea-souper’ beloved of Holywood film-makers, as the coal hearth gave way to the gas and electric fire.  By the mid-sixties steam trains were museum-pieces, it was diesel all the way.

These changes took place against a revolution in energy generation.  The Scottish Highlands were electrified hydro power. UK Technology Minister Tony Benn championed atomic energy, commissioning half of our existing AGR nuclear reactors. Carbon energy generation had to compete with hydrocarbons for the first time.

Today the challenge of global warming would have to be added to the list.

The legacy

Although coal has been in decline since the War, its political legacy lingers. Take for example St Helens North, in the North West of England (see map).  St Helens returned its first Labour MP in 1906: Thomas Glover, the miners agent who had unionised the 6000-strong workforce of Sherdley Colliery. With the exception of two ‘blue’ elections, (1910 and 1915), St Helens has returned a Labour MP for over a century. In 2015 Conor McGinn held the seat with a 37% majority (on a 57% turnout).  Sherdley Colliery closed in 1943.

‘til the rocks melt wi’ the sun

Now consider Scotland. Traditionally the link between rock and vote north of the border has been just as clear.

In times of electoral trouble the Labour Party has retreated to its coal heartlands. Have a look at the electoral maps below centred around a schematic of Scotland's coal fields[1]: 1910 (when the Labour Party first secured parliamentary representation), 1918 (the post-War march of the Labour Party), 1924 (the election which saw Labour’s first PM, Ramsay MacDonald, fall from power) and the 2007 Scottish election (when the Labour/LibDem Government fell).  In times of trouble, the retrenchment of the Labour Party to its heartlands is clear.

However, in Scotland in 2015, the Labour redoubts have been overwhelmed. Take for example former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, in which the Kelty mine still operates. It has been Labour since 1950, having spent the previous 15 years in the hands of the Communist Party. Until today that is. Whatever pull the rocks had upon the voting instincts and practices of Scots it was well and truly severed this time around (see electoral map of 2015 below)

What does it all mean?

In England the link between the rocks and the vote remains intact. In areas such as St Helens North the Labour vote is not just holding its increasing.  The question for the non-coal regions of England will be whether the Labour party licks its wounds and emerges re-energised from its coal bunkers, or whether the nationalists (in this case UKIP) will storm the pit heads.

In Scotland with the umbilical cord between the coal lands and Labour broken, the test for the Labour Party will be whether the wipeout is replicated in the Scottish election in 2016. Have a wee look at the Scottish Parliament electoral map from 2011, where hints of the coal legacy can still be detected.

Of course the Holyrood PR system should mean that a total jockalypse at the hands of the SNP is all but impossible.  Or is it?  If the vote share from the 2015 result was replicated in the Holyrood elections, the Labour Party would secure only 19 MSPs, almost all from the ‘top up’ list.

Is the answer blowing in the wind, or does it lie beneath our feet? Time will tell.


[1] I have excluded Orkney and Shetland.  The geology of the Northern Isles is fascinating; the Middle Old Red Sandstone of Orkney and the ancient rocks of Shetland are worth a visit. However, there is no coal (or indeed Labour Party) influence.