There are many sensible people in South Yorkshire who were certain Rother Valley would never elect a Conservative MP, certainly not while the miners’ strike remained in the collective consciousness.
Rother Valley held on to its pits for longer than most, with its final colliery, in Maltby, closing down only in 2013.
Yet in December, after 101 years of unbroken Labour representation, and seven years after its final haul of coal was brought to the surface, the constituency not only voted in a Tory but a Tory who once claimed his political idol was Margaret Thatcher.
Alexander Stafford, a Londoner with a background in PR, said in 2011 that he admired Thatcher “because she was a strong leader who saved the country from where it was headed”. He won a 6,318 majority, taking over from Sir Kevin Barron, who spent 20 years down Maltby colliery before his election to parliament in 1983.
One of those who gave Stafford his vote was Marban Iqbal, who runs a tyre and exhaust garage in what was once the depot for the Maltby Miners Home Coal Transport Service.
The old sign still hangs above the entrance but the new owner has roots in Kashmir, not down the mine.
Iqbal said he’d had a busy pandemic, staying open throughout. He switched his vote to the Conservatives for the first time in December (“I didn’t like the way Labour were going”) and thought Rishi Sunak had done a decent job so far – “until he puts our taxes up, which we know he will”.
Of Sunak’s announcements on Wednesday, it was the cut to the foreign aid budget which Iqbal thought would go down best locally. “I’ve lived in this country for about 30 years and as somebody coloured, you are still classed as a foreigner,” he mused, suggesting he had never quite been accepted locally, despite also running a curry house around the corner for years. “It might be good for the average British folk if the government is giving more to people here than abroad.”
Amid the doom and gloom of Sunak’s economic predictions was one announcement expressly designed to gladden the hearts of residents in “red wall” areas like Maltby: a £4bn “levelling up” fund open to all areas who feel they’ve had a raw deal when it comes to government investment.
Boris Johnson started talking about levelling up back in the summer. But the phrase hasn’t filtered up to Maltby just yet and the voters of tomorrow do not appear to be growing up with a sense of north-south injustice. Does London get too much government money? Sixteen-year-old Jemma Frost, walking home from sixth form college, wasn’t sure: “The south has bigger cities than the north, doesn’t it, so they will need more.”
She too thought Johnson had done a good job: “He’s tried his best.” There is no stigma against the Conservatives among her generation, she suggested. The miners’ strike was 20 years before they were born: “It’s only older people who are still angry about it.”
Round the corner at Kell’s Kitchen it was another slow afternoon. The corner cafe is takeaway only during the second lockdown and many of their enormous sandwiches – the special contains three rashers of bacon, four sausages, three eggs, beans and mushrooms – are difficult to eat on the hoof.
The owner, Tracey Taylor – Kell is her daughter – is just about making ends meet, but times are tough. Normally she delivers to local salons, but they’re all shut. Half the workers on the nearby industrial estate are furloughed, so they don’t need feeding. “Business is rubbish,” she sighed, behind a Perspex screen and a mask.
Yet like many people in this former Labour stronghold, Taylor didn’t blame Johnson for her predicament. “I think he’s done quite well. I feel quite sorry for him, he’s had it tough,” she said. Would Labour have done a better job? “Probably not.”
Over 1,300 people were employed at the colliery during its peak, enough to warrant the building of an entire “model village” to house 500 families.
Arranged around two concentric circles with a bandstand at the centre, the inner circle contained semi-detached villas for senior officials, with the miners housed in modest terraces on the outside circle.
These days, Maltby Model Village is among the 6% most deprived areas in England. The bandstand has been demolished for retirement bungalows, the once plush villas sell for just £155,000 and those residents in work now largely drive to Sheffield or Rotherham for employment.
Some 29% of all jobs in the area disappeared between 2011 and 2017, according to the local council. A disproportionately large number of residents claim disability benefits. Joe Plant is one of them. Now 59, his mental health problems have left him unable to work for more than 30 years. He too was inclined to give the government the benefit of the doubt – “there’s no guidebook to deal with this situation” – but said it was a shame only doctors and nurses were getting a public sector pay rise. “I think teachers and bin men should get one too.” But he said Sunak was in a bind: “He’s got to make the cuts somewhere.”