The sight of Labour MPs from former mining constituencies expressing a readiness to accept cash for their localities in return for a vote in favour of Brexit is a haunting reminder of how easily the Conservatives bought off miners in the past.
Offers of ever-higher redundancy payments enticed many miners back to work during the 1984-85 pit strike, and finally it was these cash incentives that helped secure Margaret Thatcher the victory she craved.
Almost a decade later, when Michael Heseltine pushed through the massive 1992 pit closure programme, he was convinced the £1 billion he had secured for redundancy pay-offs would again prove irresistible – and he was proved correct.
Once again, we see how the offer of Conservative cash – this time for investment within their constituencies – is again proving all-too tempting.
John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, in Nottinghamshire – a constituency that he says was “devastated pit closures” – is the most vocal supporter of Theresa May’s ploy of offering cash investment opportunities to former mining areas in recognition of Labour MPs voting in favour of her EU withdrawal agreement.
Mann, who voted to Leave and backs May’s Brexit deal, told the Daily Mail (2.2.2018) that he is fighting to get more investment money for voters in all areas neglected by politicians.
“So yes, we are using the Prime Minister’s need for our support on Brexit to try to get a better deal for our constituencies – and I will not apologise for that.”
But whereas Mann is arguing for a “multi-billion-pound, game changing project” to rebuild industrial towns in the North and the Midlands, there is no sign that the government has any such far-sweeping plan in mind and is in fact suggesting that help should be targeted on specific parliamentary seats where a Labour MP might back Brexit.
That same sleight of hand was at work during the 1984-85 dispute when miners on strike were told that if they were to benefit from the enhanced redundancy payments on offer, they first had to break the strike and return to work.
Week after week the government increased the cash on offer and widened the scheme, helping to hasten the point when half the men were back at work.
The much-repeated pledge by the National Coal Board chairman, endorsed by Mrs Thatcher, that only 20 loss-making pits were at risk of closure proved worthless once the National Union of Mineworkers voted to end the strike and return without an agreement.
Heseltine’s 1992 shock announcement that 31 were to shut – a plan prepared in contravention of the procedures for colliery closures – was the result of the government’s withdrawal of support for a new generation of clean-burn coal-fired power stations.
Instead the government had given the go-ahead for the newly privatised power generators to switch to burning North Sea gas to generate electricity.
By backing the dash-for-gas at the expense of the coal industry, Heseltine sounded the death knell for deep mining.
But the 1992 cabinet papers revealed that behind the scenes Heseltine was supremely confident that the miners would find the £1 billion pot of redundancy all-too tempting.
There were protests organised by the NUM, mass marches in London and weeks of occupations and sit-ins by Women Against Pit Closures, but Heseltine knew the men were demoralised and would in the end accept the equivalent of two years’ money in return for losing their jobs.
As years of British de-industrialisation have shown, redundancy pay-outs were nothing more than a short-term fix with most of the money going on day-to-day living and luxuries, rather than being invested in retraining or future employment.
Theresa May’s offer of cash payments to selected former mining areas – which Mann insists fellow Labour MPs are “wrong to call a bribe” – should be seen for what it is, a short-term fix for political expediency, a lesson that redundant miners learned to their cost when the new jobs promised by Heseltine rarely if ever materialised.
Illustration: I newspaper, 1.2.2019