On the political horizon: by-election mayhem

The races for new city mayoralties and directly elected police commissioners could mean choice Westm

Westminster loves a by-election. Opinion polls can tell us only what people say they might do, which isn't even a reliable guide to what they truly think, let alone what will happen when they are ultimately confronted with a ballot paper. A good by-election reveals the mood of the electorate - albeit in just one constituency. It also helps parties test campaigning strategies. Labour tacticians still wince at the memory of the ill-judged deployment of top-hatted stalkers to pursue the (not at all aristocratic) Conservative candidate in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008.

And, of course, the by-election is often, in the worn idiom of political journalism, "a crucial test" for party leaders. Are they showing momentum? Are they fending off attacks? Is their message getting through?

So it is hardly surprising that the prospect of a rash of constituency skirmishes over the next year or so is generating a lot of chatter in parliament. In May of this year there will be referendums in 11 British cities on the creation of an elected mayoral job. If the answer is "yes", mayors will be chosen in November. Also due in November are votes to install the first 40 directly elected local police commissioners. Some of these jobs might be fancied by sitting MPs, especially on the Labour side where life in impotent opposition is proving dispiriting.

Two names often cited as possible candidates for the Birmingham mayoralty are Liam Byrne, shadow work and pensions secretary and MP for the city's Hodge Hill constituency, and Gisela Stuart, MP for Edgbaston. Of the two, fans of politics as spectator sport would much prefer the latter for the simple and faintly dishonorable reason that the battle to fill Stuart's seat would be by far the more exciting. Edgbaston is a bellwether constituency. It was the result - a massive swing to Labour - whose declaration on election night in May 1997 revealed the scale of the landslide to come. If Edgbaston had gone Labour, anything was possible.

Likewise, Labour holding the seat in 2010 was a telling sign that Cameron had failed to fully decontaminate the Tory party. If his campaign had gone anything like according to plan he really ought to have won that seat. The fact that he didn't is sometimes attributed to the personal standing of the local MP, sometimes also to a well-fought grass roots campaign. In any case, it's a marginal now and one that the Tories would very much like to snatch away from Ed Miliband.

Rivalling Edgbaston for interest is the Hampshire seat of Eastleigh, currently occupied by Chris Huhne. The former Lib Dem Energy Secretary faces criminal charges on a driving offence. He is, of course, entitled to be presumed innocent. If, however, he is convicted he would have to quit as an MP. The seat has, in the past, been a straight Lib Dem/Tory contest. A by-election along those lines could be gruesome for coalition relations. Quite a few Lib Dem seats match that profile, including constituencies held by cabinet ministers. Vince Cable, Business Secretary (Twickenham) and Ed Davey, Huhne's replacement as Energy Secretary (Kingston and Surbiton) would both be watching with keen interest how the Tories would campaign in an Eastleigh contest.

All of this is, of course, still very much in the realm of idle speculation and hypothesis. But that doesn't mean it isn't exercising a lot of minds in Westminster.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.