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British Miners Built Their Own Power and Culture. Deindustrialization Wiped It Away.

Huw Beynon
Ray Hudson

Miners’ labor militancy transformed British politics and culture in the twentieth century. Then neoliberalism destroyed coal miners’ institutions and communities, upending British politics at the entire working class’s expense.

Abandoned miners’ cottages in a state of ruin after the closure of a local colliery, Easington, Durham, UK, in the late 1990s. (Corbis / Getty Images)

Interview by
Piper Winkler

In the twentieth century, British coal miners built mighty cultural and political institutions that challenged and were challenged by conservative and neoliberal rule alike. But since the 1980s, the coal industry and its workers have been pushed to the periphery — with disastrous results for the economic and cultural survival of British mining communities.

In their book The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain, Ray Hudson and Huw Beynon explore the political, cultural, and economic history of mining communities from the early days of industrialization. They also explore the devastating aftershocks of deindustrialization, not only for coal miners but for the entire British working class.

Jacobin’s Piper Winkler spoke to Hudson and Beynon about how miners organized their isolated coalfields into a formidable political force, how this force contended with the austerity of Thatcherism and Blairism, and how it left a lasting impact on modern working-class culture and labor organizing.


PW

What factors made it important for miners to get organized in the first place? How did they begin to organize?

HB

We talk about two coalfields: the Durham coalfield and the South Wales coalfield. The Durham coalfield has a much longer history than the one in South Wales. The Durham coalfield, because of its early start, was controlled by capitalist aristocrats who owned the land. They used aristocratic power to control the workers, and these workers were employed on a bond.

In Durham, attempted unionization took place much earlier, in the 1730s. These were all attempts to break free from the bond of the master. They failed many times, until 1869. The breakthrough was partly achieved by building solidarity across the community. The miners had to use power beyond the workplace to push for a change.

South Wales didn’t have a similar system, but the workers experienced similarly hardheaded and ruthless private capitalism. Britain was a single-fuel economy, so coal was central to manufacturing everywhere. There was always pressure on the owners to make more profit by pushing down wages.

Because the South Wales coalfield started later, it went more quickly into a period of intense conflict over wages. The miners organized through their communities, and there were much bloodier strikes. There was a combination of workplace and community organizing against the employer. In these places, the employer was very visible, because although there were different kinds of miners, with different skills and so forth, the class margins were very clear.

RH

Mining was a very rural industry. The mining labor force was assembled from people who’d moved from different places. Often, especially in the early days, workers moved from pit to pit when one pit closed.

Because the coal owners controlled housing and access to rudimentary retailing, the miners needed to organize for daily life to be possible. As a result, particularly during periods of strikes, coal owners evicted miners from their houses and brought in miners from other areas — often from other estates that they owned in other parts of Britain. The process of constructing community was central to the proceedings of daily life in these mining villages.

HB

The history we’ve just mentioned is very similar to the history of miners’ struggle in Appalachia. Miners’ struggles tend to be similar across the world, despite different contexts.

PW

What factors make it possible to connect miners’ struggles across the world, from Durham to Appalachia?

HB

It was underground, fiercely injurious work, where miners relied upon each other to stay safe. They tended to be separated from big urban centers, putting them in close proximity to the employer. Class relations became very clear, and they seemed to be clear for coal miners across the world in this early period.

Underground work made the job more dangerous, but it also made it much more difficult for the workers to be supervised. Miners built their own kind of camaraderie. In Durham, miners called their coworkers “marras,” a term for a friend, someone you can rely on. In South Wales, the term is “butty.” It all comes from working together with someone you trust.

RH

Miners had to trust the people they worked with. It could be a matter not just of injury, but of life and death. The close bonding that took place underground found expression in the way that the mining communities and the mining union became central to life in the mining villages.

PW

Given that early mining workplaces took on a distinct, regional geographic character, how and why did miners’ organizing start to build into a national-scale political project?

HB

The miners came together locally, in districts, because the coalfields they worked in were quite distinctive. They had different kinds of coal and therefore different working conditions. Across Britain, miners established various local district unions.

In that context, miners who went on strike in one area might find that coal from another area would be used to undermine the strike. Equally, miners in areas with poor working conditions would find that their wages were being pushed down in comparison to other areas. When the miners began to organize, the first thing they always asked for was a change in the Mines Act, the statute of regulation. They saw the need for a national structure, particularly during the move toward the nationalization of the industry.

This became the policy of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, which became the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in 1944.

Welsh coal miners, up from the pit, at Merthyr Vale Colliery in November 1966, in the mining town of Aberfan, South Wales. (I.C. Rapoport / Getty Images)
RH

But the NUM never became a national union. It was always a federated structure. That became important in some of the subsequent strikes, not least in 1984–85.

In Durham, people like Sam Watson, the powerful leader of the Durham union, became influential. They became more aligned with the national industry and the National Coal Board (NCB). They built relationships between senior officials on the coal board and senior officials in the union, because they saw it as a national project that they both had an interest in. That created tensions with some of the rank-and-file miners who didn’t see things in those terms.

PW

In the early twentieth century, some of the miners’ strikes took place alongside key world-historical events. You cite the Bolshevik Revolution, an inspiration for international working-class struggle, and World War I as two events with significant impacts on the miners. How did these events inform the politics of the miners’ unions?

HB

In the case of both world wars, the state intervened in class relations and administered the industry — while the industry was still owned by capitalists. In those contexts, but particularly during World War I, the unions were able to make significant gains. But these gains were reversed once the administration was removed, which led to the bloody strikes of the ’20s.

The impact of the Bolshevik Revolution was huge. Politically, it created the sense of an alternative world and led to the formation of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Many of the miners joined it. Many of the miners joined both the Communist Party and the Labour Party. There was a kind of coexistence within the labor movement.

In South Wales, there was particularly strong representation of the Communist Party. After the defeats of the ’20s, the syndicalist movement was weakened by the realization that you needed political organization as well as industrial organization. But the Communist Party was turned on its head by the pact between Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, as well as some of the events of World War II.

After the Cold War, there was an attempt to talk about unity between Communist and Labour Party members within the labor movement, which had become an issue. South Wales became known as a communist area. Durham became known as a right-wing, anti-communist area. There were political tensions in the NUM during this period.

RH

As the events of World War II and the postwar period evolved, Sam Watson became very anti-communist. Consequently, there was tension between the unions of Durham and South Wales.

They started to come together again in the ’60s, with the realization that nationalization wasn’t delivering what they thought it was going to deliver. There was a sense that the unions of the different areas needed to get together because they shared common demands, not least fair wages.

PW

What were the tensions in the NUM between communists and right-wingers? You write that the members understood the importance of backing the Labour Party. How did those tensions develop over the next few decades? Why were they important?

HB

In 1944, the NUM was formed. In 1947, the coal industry was nationalized. Almost everyone on the Left in Britain supported nationalization. The Communists probably wanted it to work more than any other group. They had a strong commitment to the idea of nationalization as a progressive move, establishing an arrangement to create the conditions under which resources could be more generally established within Britain.

There was an agreement within the national executive committee of the NUM that nationalization had to be supported. The antagonism between Watson and the South Wales area was nuanced by the fact that they needed to keep it together to support the NCB. They were held together by the belief in nationalization. The agreement lasted until 1960.

RH

When Labour lost the election in the early ’50s and the Conservative administration came into power, the loss, if anything, seemed to heighten the need to demonstrate that nationalization was a viable model, based on an understanding that nationalization was like socializing the economy.

The irony is that it wasn’t. That became clear from the late ’50s, when a lot of cheap oil started to come onto the world market. Suddenly, the sole reliance on coal as the primary energy source was no longer there. Now, there was a certain unity of interest across the Conservative government, and the NCB and the NUM started to come apart quite rapidly.

As the collieries closed, 400,000 jobs disappeared in the ’60s, not least in Durham and South Wales. People started to ask questions about what nationalization meant. That, in turn, affected union organization and the things that workers organized for. They wouldn’t strike against colliery closures or job losses, but in the end, strikes were triggered by the issue of wages.

The workers realized that as a group of industrial workers, their value was severely underrepresented by the wages they got. By the late 1960s and 1970s, what had held together twenty years earlier was starting to come apart in a more militant form of mining unionism. This opened the door for Arthur Scargill, who became NUM president in 1982, and his supporters. The pressures that came from those more militant young miners were important in opening up new political possibilities.

PW

You describe the coal industry as “peripheral” during and after the influx of cheap oil: It became geographically more peripheral, but also more culturally and politically peripheral. What was the impact of these shifts?

RH

South Wales and Durham are peripheral in relation to London, a center of political and economic power. But the coal industry had been central to the economy for decades and literally central to the industrial development of the UK.

The culture that developed around and in the mining industries and communities was very different from the cultural, political, and economic structures of London and the South East of England. Social life in mining communities revolved around the clubs, around the pubs, and around the Methodist chapels. They developed their own institutions that were distinct from those of Middle England, London, and the South East. The culture was related to the material conditions — you could separate them, but it wouldn’t be sensible to do so if you wanted to understand how these places operated.

HB

These places were established as isolated places in the countryside. South Wales was called “the mountains” until the coal industry came; then it was called “the valleys.” There was very little in these areas, so everything was constructed by the miners. They built their chapels; they built their welfare halls; they built their libraries. It might have been the biggest working-class cultural revolution of the twentieth century.

A miners’ brass band and supporters march past the RAF Club on Piccadilly, London, October 25, 1992, protesting against the government of Tory PM John Major for its colliery closure program. (It’s No Game / Flickr)

The development of manufacturing in the late nineteenth century meant that brass instruments became cheaper. At this time the British working class, particularly in the mining areas, produced brass band music. Each of the coal mines had brass bands. Players were conducted by miners who could read music. Working men’s clubs were also set up. They brought their own beer, rather than buying from the brewers. There was a strong sense of local collectivism.

The peripheralization of the mining industry came about with the material collapse of the mines, which often meant the closure of the miners’ institutes and the welfare halls. This was particularly acute in Durham, where the industry closed down in the west, leaving villages almost bereft. While the decade of the ’60s is remembered for rock and roll, drugs, sex, and freedom, everything was closing down in the coalfields. The nation was doubly changing.

But by the end of the ’60s, these trends went into reverse. It was decided that the coal industry needed to be retained. In that period, Durham and South Wales, the two central coalfields of the industry, became marginal to Yorkshire and the Midlands.

PW

How did internal tensions in the NUM and the NUM’s federated structure set the stage for the big miners’ strike in 1984?

HB

The loss of industry was intensified by the end of the James Callaghan government and the election of Margaret Thatcher. Pits were closed, and South Wales and Durham were the front line for pit closures.

I was in Durham with Ray at the time, going back and forth to South Wales. In 1981, South Wales miners decided that they would strike. It was an amazing time. As they went on strike and went around the countryside, other pits came out on strike. All of a sudden, the Tory government intervened, and the head of the National Coal Board decided that they would accede to the miners’ requests and stop the closures.

Strike graffiti during the miners’ strike in Abercarn, South Wales, 1984–85. (National Museum Wales / Flickr)

In our book, we write about 1925 and Red Friday, when the miners won. Arthur Cook reported that the prime minister had said to him after that, “You won then; we’ll get you next time.” After the 1981 victory, there was closure after closure — and attempt after attempt to get a strike to stop them. By 1984, almost all the officials of the union believed that the only way it could be stopped was through a strike.

In March 1984, before the national executive committee met with the National Coal Board, they announced the closure of the pit in Cortonwood, Yorkshire. The workers went on strike. In the past, that has led to a call for a national ballot. But on this occasion, there was a series of solidarity strikes in support of Yorkshire. And so, the strike began — not as a national strike, but as a series of strikes across the areas.

In our book, we try to explain why there wasn’t a national ballot. The union was at an impasse. They knew that the mines were slated to be closed in Durham and South Wales, and they wanted to try to stop it. Why shouldn’t the miners in Durham and South Wales have a right to strike?

RH

The union hadn’t appreciated that, with Thatcher elected as leader, there was a clear imperative to ensure that a future Conservative government would never be defeated and embarrassed by a trade union in the way that her predecessor, Edward Heath, had been. The Conservatives developed a strategy to defeat the NUM and the miners. The man who was central to the development of that strategy was Nicholas Ridley, one of the sons of Viscount Ridley, who came from an old Northeastern family that made a fortune from coal and shipbuilding.

In 1978, the Economist leaked this strategy. They laid out, step by step, what they would do to make sure that if there was a strike, they would win it. They wouldn’t provoke a strike until they knew that they could win it, because they’d built up coal stocks at the power stations. They were confident that they had nonunion drivers who would drive through picket lines, and the police were strengthened. When the government initially declined to take on the miners in the early 1980s, everyone knew that they were biding their time.

Then the moment came. Cortonwood was meant to be a long-life colliery, another reason why its closing was particularly provocative.

When they provoked the union into striking, they were confident; they would do anything necessary, in terms of deploying the power of the state, to make sure that the NUM was defeated. If you could defeat the NUM, you would break trade unionism, and you would set in motion the preconditions for a much wider transformation of political and economic conditions — the political project of Thatcherism.

Thatcherism was very different from the politics and policies pursued in the previous twenty or thirty years, across governments of both political parties. 1984–85 was a turning point, for the miners and the coal industry, but also as a more general portent of what was to come for British society and economy.

PW

What was the Labour Party doing at this time? How did it interact with the miners’ strikes?

HB

The national leadership of the union and the national leader of the Labour Party didn’t like each other. In the Labour Party headquarters, the strike was known as the strike that had no name. But Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party, wouldn’t do anything that would allow Arthur Scargill to claim that the Labour Party had injured the strike. So, there was no organized national support for the strike, although in some areas, like Durham, the Labour Party was totally opposed to it. Strikes never go down very well with the Labour Party.

RH

The government assiduously encouraged the alternative Union of Democratic Mine Workers in Nottingham to keep working during the strike. By the early ’90s, the pits of Nottingham had suffered the same fate as the pits in the areas that had been on strike.

The events of the ’70s made it clear that it was naive for the pits in Nottingham to think that they were going to survive by working through 1984 and 1985. They had failed to understand the Thatcherite strategy.

PW

Many Jacobin readers will be familiar with Pride (2014), a movie that covers the organizing efforts of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) during the strike of 1984. How was external solidarity important to the miners during the strikes?

RH

It was absolutely crucial to the longevity of the strike. Support groups sprang up in seemingly unlikely parts of the country, establishing links with mining communities and providing resources. This opened up the possibility of a different sort of politics, as people in different situations across the country, with certain beliefs shared in common, could build an alternative network structure, linking up local initiatives. One of the superficially less plausible links was between LGBT groups and South Wales miners, brilliantly portrayed in Pride.

There was a sense that something would come out of this, providing an alternative. But over the last thirty or forty years, this outcome has been at the margins of mainstream political debate. Under prime minister and Labour Party leader Tony Blair, the Labour Party became Thatcherite-neoliberal, moving the center to the right. There was lots of potential for left alternatives, but few resources or broader movements for those alternatives. In that sense, the aftermath was pretty depressing.

HB

The strike went through a number of different phases. In South Wales, the strategy of the coal board and the government was to avoid creating a situation where the miners’ union could be perceived as part of a general class issue.

Heath had set up an industrial relations court and brought in the workers; they moved toward the possibility of a general strike but determined that this wasn’t going to happen. At the 1984 Trades Union Conference, John Lyons, the head of the electricity generation union, said that he wasn’t going to support the strike. One of the miners got up and said, “That’s because they bought you off.” For the miners, there was a sense that other groups of workers had their disputes settled through government intervention.

The government and the NCB also encouraged the idea of individual firms and miners taking legal action against the union. Consequently, in South Wales, because the union refused to pay a fine, the high court intervened, and all the union’s funds were sequestered. Then, all the national union’s funds were sequestered, and the miners’ picketing was punished by bail conditions. From the summertime, the union didn’t have any money at all, and it wasn’t able to operate.

At the same time, the police began dominating the miners’ areas. A young black man from north Leeds said, “At the end of the strike, only the blacks and the miners will know what this country is like.” Pride also shows the terrible way that gay people were treated by the police. Those who were up against the state became ideologically aligned with the miners.

But the critical solidarity that didn’t come was industrial action to support the miners’ cause. This was partly because of the reluctance of other unions to do it. Solidarity had been weakened. There was an attempt to get a national dock strike, but ultimately the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TWGU) was shouted down, and the dock strike was broken. As a result, imported coke and coal were coming in.

No one anticipated that the industry would be wiped out. They imagined 100 pits closing, not 250.

PW

What was the sense of political possibility for miners at the moment of Blair’s election, and how was that proven or disproven over his tenure?

HB

After Thatcher, Labour leaders lost two elections: one against Thatcher and one against her successor, John Major. On both occasions, they felt that Labour could have won it. There was a change of party leadership. After the death of Labour Party leader John Smith, a social democrat, Blair was elected as leader; it was a landslide. There was a feeling that things had gotten so bad, something had to happen, and things could get better.

Blair represented a constituency in the Durham coalfield, and he had a huge majority. People thought that the Labour government might redress what had occurred under Thatcher in the coal districts. And although there was some attempt to intervene, the task force set up to look into the coal districts went for Blair’s policy, which was a kind of neoliberalism with community.

RH

When Labour was elected with a big majority, there was a great sense of expectation of a sea change, and that the historical debt of the Labour Party to the miners would be redressed. There would be a serious program of social and economic regeneration for the former coalfield areas, hinging on the provision of decent, well-paid manufacturing jobs, not only for the current miners but also for the future generations.

Then, it became clear that Blair’s view of regeneration was to sell these areas to mobile international capital. Some of it originated from the United States, some from Southeast Asia. Blair’s policy didn’t produce enough jobs, and the jobs that it did produce bore no comparison, in terms of wages, to those that had been available in the mines.

Many of these jobs were not in manufacturing, but instead in call centers — they were poorly paid, part-time, and often precarious. The new economy that Blair’s government built up was not at all what people had expected, and it did not fit with what they were led to believe was Labour’s commitment to the coalfield areas.

Having hit a high point in electoral support for Blair in 1997, the Labour Party had its support progressively eroded after that, as people became more and more disillusioned with the Thatcherite policies the Labour Party had pursued and the party’s inability to effectively combat the austerity politics of the Tory coalition in 2010.

The opportunity to express disillusionment came with the Brexit vote. Those who had suffered as a consequence of industrial decline and the subsequent austerity policies of the previous two or three governments could voice their opposition to the political establishment.

The Conservatives were largely in favor of Brexit. Senior figures in the Labour Party wanted to stay in Europe. In a sense, staying in Europe was seen as a sort of a class project — a certain fraction of the educated, middle-class political establishment had an interest in remaining in Europe.

Brexit provided an opportunity for those in the areas that had suffered as a result of the previous thirty or forty years of economic policy to say, “If you’re in favor, we’re not. We’re not necessarily against our brothers in Europe, but we’ve had enough of being treated this way, and both major political parties have ignored our legitimate demands for decades.”

This trend manifested in the subsequent election results. In 2019, Boris Johnson returned with a massive majority. In the North East, sometimes for the first time ever, conservative MPs were returned in districts like Blair’s, which had been solidly Labour for as long as anybody could remember.

Something similar happened in South Wales: The Labour vote declined, but the opposition vote was split between the Tories and Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party. Labour held onto the seats, but Brexit was a turning point in Labour support in these areas. People wanted something different.

I find it worrying that Johnson’s Conservatives are seen as the viable alternative for people’s needs in areas like this. Contrary to what a lot of the national press said, these were votes born of people’s recognition of their cultural and material interests, understanding that they had been ignored by Labour for three or four decades.

PW

The final chapters of your book discuss miners’ material needs — especially housing and health care, considering the serious health issues that many incurred through their line of work. How did the Labour Party’s response to those specific demands draw political energy in mining communities away from that party?

The first visitor to Downing Street under the Blair government was Thatcher. The first major international visitor was Bill Clinton. They were very similar in lots of ways, as you might say there are similarities between Donald Trump and Johnson. Blair became very taken with the United States, and this became a major axis of British politics, which has now gone to its extreme with the break from Europe.

The link with the United States is part of an elite project. Blair said he was going to resolve issues relating to health on the coalfields, and introduced, with great fanfare, an elaborate policy that claimed to integrate all departments of government in ensuring that health became the central issue for the deprived areas.

Labour Party MP Dennis Skinner (second from right) and local authority representatives unveil a giant Christmas card for Tony Blair, depicting the potentially terminal crisis facing the coal industry, in Westminster on December 17, 1997. (Photo by Sean Dempsey / PA Images via Getty Images)

The result of that policy was little more than a series of mantras from the chief medical officer regarding how you should look after yourself: safe sex, no smoking, eat vegetables, and keep off the booze. There was a sense that, if all you got out of this was an extra ten years of life, when life had become unbearable, it seemed like a pretty poor deal.

We caught one general practitioner from South Shields in Durham saying that all his patients suffered from the same thing: SLS, shit life syndrome. Through the process of peripheralization, these places had come to be seen as backwaters by others, but they saw themselves as deliberately neglected — a neglect they experienced through ill-health and lack of resources.

The idea of “never getting out” is quite common now. The fabric of social interconnection has been deeply eroded. In the last general election, one of the union officials in Durham was being canvassed by the Labour Party, and he kept asking the canvasser: “But what are you going to do for us?” It became a refrain.

I knew a few people in Blair’s government. After the first two years, they said they didn’t realize how bad things were. I don’t think they ever came to grips with how economically, politically, morally, emotionally bad things had become in some of these places. After the 2008 financial crisis, things got even worse. One ex-miner said that while the councilors were happy that new jobs were coming in, he wouldn’t let his dog work those jobs. They’re Amazon-style jobs, replacing jobs that, for all their problems, were highly waged and seen as worthwhile.

Lots of surveys from the closure period showed that miners who got reemployed were paid an average of a hundred pounds a week less than they were getting in the mine. There was a new, acute need for two incomes in a family. In the surveys, many miners said, “My wife works now, and we still don’t earn as much as we earned when I was in the mine.”

RH

There is a long history of illness and serious injury in the mines. People believed that once the pits closed, health would get better. But, of course, many of these health problems, particularly lung diseases like pneumoconiosis, just got worse with time. Significantly, mental health problems also started to emerge and had never before emerged in this way.

These problems affected ex-miners who couldn’t cope with being ex-miners. But because there aren’t decent jobs, or any jobs at all, there has also been an explosion of mental health problems among the younger generations in the former coal fields. The legacy of the industry has led to all other sorts of social problems, from unemployment to poverty.

Ironically, this is happening precisely at a time when the National Health Service (NHS) is increasingly incapable of actually responding to the health needs of the nation. And it’s ironic because, in the 1920s and 1930s, miners paid their own deductions from their wages, creating their own health service, which addressed some of their health needs more effectively than an allegedly national health service has done in the first two decades of this century.

HB

The miners’ union was committed to dealing with occupational injuries. Then, after the mines closed, the ex-miners continued to be affected by injuries from the mine. These included chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, pneumoconiosis, and bronchitis. In the past, people with injuries like these would be recognized as ex-miners in need of support from their villages, but those villages are now bereft of support.

PW

You give the example of Nigel Farage as a political figure who makes a warped cultural appeal to the working class, even though his politics are on the side of the ruling class. How does this false working-class posturing from right-wing populists fit into the working-class identity cultivated among miners?

HB

Twenty years ago, a strong part of Blairism was the disappearance of the working class in the move toward a classless society. Some of the Blair folk used to say, “No children will be doing manual work in the future.” They believed that we were working towards a utopia brought about by neoliberalism and new technologies, and everyone would be part of it.

RH

The Third Way!

HB

What’s actually happened is that inequalities are increasing, and more and more people see themselves as working-class. An enlargement of the working class has taken place, albeit with a variety of different occupations and interests within it. The miners are part of that.

You can’t rule out the possibility that the people that we’ve talked to and talked about would find the idea of a right-wing populist attractive, if there were a promise of doing things for them. At the moment, we’ve got a politician in Johnson who’s capable of doing something like that — one of the boys who deliberately untidies his hair before he goes to the meeting. He could emerge as a populist, but it’s doubtful that he could actually generate the economic arrangements that would demonstrate any real commitment.

The real peril is the possibility that there will not be a social democratic solution alongside this right-wing populism that could counter it. Right now, the Labour Party is deeply intent on bringing back Blairism. The new leader has all of Blair’s staff around him, and he’s following the main strategies to get rid of the Left and make sure that nothing like Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing leadership of the Labour Party ever happens again.