Horden provides a case study of our flawed political system. A system of government that enables those within marginalised and diminished communities to be ignored, even when the decline in the community comes as a direct result of government failings.
Horden is a village situated in the county of Durham. Significantly, the village was built in the 1920s to home miners who were encouraged to move to exploit the wealth of coal in the area. The village was fit for purpose, purely functional, with thirteen streets built in straight rows and unimaginatively named from 1st to 13th street. By the 1950s, with the influx of miners and their families, the population of Horden reached a peak of 15,000 which encouraged the growth of facilities in the area, including cinemas, rugby and football pitches, and a bowling green. What was once just land, became a community.
However, in the 1980s, the Thatcher government initiated the closure of mines across the UK, and in 1987 Horden’s pits closed. As residents had migrated from different parts of the UK during the creation of Horden, similarly after the pit closures, the population fell, resting at around 8,500. With a decimated community and high unemployment, crime increased, and mental and physical health decreased.
Horden suffers with higher than average levels of unemployment, crime, and poor health. Four in ten people have no qualifications, compared with 22 per cent in the rest of England, and the number of those living in poverty is double that of the national average. With an aging population there is fear that these issues will only worsen. Crime rates are some of the highest in the area, with 339 street level crime incidents reported in just one month. The most prominent crimes include violence and anti-social behaviour. Crucially, since the closure of the mines the town has become more isolated, gradually losing its Police and Fire Station, secondary school, many local shops, cinemas, and importantly its railway station.
So, the question is, does the government have an increased responsibility to Horden and other former mining communities? The answer bluntly is yes, because they caused the problem. Horden was set up exclusively to extract the coal that once provided the bedrock of the British economy. Families were uprooted and communities established all in support of this core industry. When the economy changed, the mines closed. The government stripped away jobs and devastated communities. Replacement industries were not established. Investment was not provided. Jobs were not created. With a move away from public sector to private sector Horden was abandoned and left to be forgotten. According to a resident, “Children are being born into deprivation and high unemployment: people feel forgotten about”.
The reality is that our political system allows people to be forgotten. Our First Past the Post electoral system enables the election of a party into government, even if that party has not secured the majority of the popular vote and therefore does not represent the majority of the electorate. Moreover, to retain power, the system incentivises governments to implement policies that will benefit their own base, often to the detriment of those not aligned to them. During the 1980s Horden was voting Labour but the Conservatives were in power. There was little incentive for the Thatcherite government to provide support as the village was aligned to the opposition.
With a ‘winner takes all’ system it is easy for those on the margins to be ignored and forgotten. It is however relevant to note that since the pit closures in the late ‘80s, the Conservatives have been in power for 20 years and Labour for 13. Even in times of Labour governments no far reaching change was made. This again highlights the weakness of a political system that fails to represent minorities. The FPTP system, with two main parties, encourages complacency within government as disenfranchised communities have limited choice.
For example, there is little incentive for a Labour government to prioritise communities like Horden if they believe the community will never vote Conservative. Perhaps more significantly, through neglect, former mining communities are diminished in size and voice and therefore sadly those left behind now register less influence within their overall constituency, and thus will not shift voting patterns on their own.
Horden is not an exception within former mining communities. Britain’s former coal regions make up 5.5 million people in Britain. Former coalfields have statistically higher levels of deprivation, illness and unemployment – 7.9 per cent of those in mining communities claim benefits in comparison 5.6 across the country. The treatment of former mining communities highlights the weakness of representation within our political system.
The Thatcher government should have supported these communities, as should successive governments. While, an electoral system of representation is unlikely in the near future, it is essential that the current government does what those before them tragically failed to do. It is our responsibility to ensure that those who contributed so much to the growth of our country are not left behind.