Talking Politics: Demise of coal poses new challenges for Ed Miliband and his Doncaster North constituency

Ed Miliband by the winding gear at Hatfield Colliery.
Ed Miliband by the winding gear at Hatfield Colliery.

As Ed Miliband addressed reporters on a blazing hot afternoon, incongruous in his pristine suit and tie at Hatfield Colliery’s sweltering hot pit top, there was a sense of all concerned adjusting to new realities.

Mr Miliband, who has always struggled to shake off an image as a career politician parachuted into the safe Labour heartlands, was finally getting involved with a local cause in his constituency – the imminent closure of Doncaster’s last remaining coal mine, for the third and presumably final time in its 99-year history.

But the support of an opposition backbencher is worth little when compared with the Prime Ministerial backing the cause would have enjoyed had the last two months gone differently.

“We should always think about the debts we owe to our mining communities,” Mr Miliband told the Commons in a 2010 speech as Energy and Climate Change Secretary in 2010. “Work has been done on regeneration of our coalfield areas and on reopening some pits, including in my constituency, but there is always more to be done on this issue.”

Coal was a cause close to the heart of Mr Miliband’s predecessor as Doncaster North MP, the late Kevin Hughes – who, like so many Doncastrians of his generation, followed his father down the pit before going full-time with a political career forged as a union rep at the coal face.

But it increasingly appears a lost cause.

Hatfield colliery has been brought back from the dead twice before – first thanks to a management buyout after British Coal wielded the axe, and again in 2006 after being mothballed for five years.

The pit’s fortunes since then have been closely tied to a proposed “clean coal” power station to be built nearby. But in a grimly ironic twist, although the clean power plant now looks set to go ahead after delays, wrangling and changes in ownership, it will be buying in its coal from abroad to save costs.

So chances are Doncaster’s coal mining era will end, the last 430 jobs gone from an industry which was once the foundation upon which the whole of South Yorkshire society was built.

While there’s little appetite for a revival of coal on environmental grounds, the fact remains that removing this foundation has left communities fractured, deprived not just of jobs but of a sense of purpose.

If Mr Miliband is indeed to embrace the role of a constituency MP, there is a boundless seam of social problems left behind in coal’s wake that will keep him busy.