Why the west Cumbria coal mine matters in defining who Labour & the Conservatives are now

With hundreds of jobs promised, but concerns around climate change, the stakes are certainly high when it comes to plans for a new deep coal mine in west Cumbria.The controversy around whether or not it should go ahead has gained national and even international attention in recent weeks.

The difficulty of charting a course between competing and, many would argue, mutually-exclusive priorities has made it a political hot potato. Last month, the government decided not to call it in, saying decisions should be taken locally. This month, the county council (run by a Labour and Liberal Democrat alliance) decided to reconsider their previous approval, saying it's because of new information on the UK's emissions targets. It's thought that means it will come back round at some point to again invite the government to intervene.

While council leaders and government ministers are playing a pretty straight bat in public as the process rumbles on, other local and national politicians have been vocal - in a way that's so revealing in terms of where their parties are at right now.

The South Lakes Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron has put forward a motion in parliament, forcefully opposing the mine on climate grounds. It's been signed by most of his party colleagues, as well as a number of Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru MPs. The fact that some Lib Dem councillors in Cumbria have supported the mine's progress, focusing on benefits to the local economy, just goes to show it's not straightforward.

For the two main parties, the difficult choices involved mean both find it easier to attack the other side than push their own positions. That said, there has been a clear switch in traditional roles.

Labour - formed as the party of the workers and so closely linked with heavy industry for so long - are opposing the mine. Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband welcomed the council decision to reconsider the plans, saying: "the UK cannot claim to be a climate leader whilst opening a new coal mine", and continuing to put the focus on the government for not stepping in.

In return, the Tories have suggested that local Labour councillors have turned against the mine under the influence of senior figures in the party, and accused Labour of "turning their backs on northern communities." That second point cuts towards the heart of what is a pretty existential issue for the party. They lost Copeland in 2017 and Workington in 2019, as part of the wider crumbling of the so-called 'Red Wall'. They argue now that renewable, low-carbon jobs should be created as an alternative to the mine. But the message coming through is of putting environmental concerns first - in a way that could be seen as further evidence of criticisms that the party became too metropolitan, middle class and removed from the economic realities of their traditional voters under the leadership of Mr Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn.

Sir Keir Starmer is trying to reposition Labour as patriotic and pro-business. The question is whether the party will compromise on their green credentials, as they try to win back those Cumbrian constituencies.

The Conservatives - who oversaw the demise of the collieries 35 years ago - are now the champions of the mine. Last week, Workington MP Mark Jenkinson led dozens of his northern Conservative colleagues in a letter supporting it. They clearly see themselves as responsible for standing up for working-class northern voters, in line with government promises to 'level up' prosperity around the country.

They argue that coking coal from the mine is needed for the steel industry to create the next generation of net-zero infrastructure, and it's much better than importing it. But a number of leading climate scientists, and the government's own advisory Climate Change Committee, do not agree.

Boris Johnson's administration is looking to find a new post-Brexit role and common ground with US president Joe Biden, ahead of hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November. They've been warned that the mine presents a risk of international embarrassment.

It's been reported that COP26 president Alok Sharma was "apoplectic" with Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick for not blocking it. The Prime Minister's father Stanley Johnson, an ambassador for the Conservative Environment Network, has spoken out against the plans. Meanwhile, the Copeland MP Trudy Harrison - the PM's parliamentary private secretary - is a supporter of the mine. You'd imagine the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was being rather diplomatic when he said there had been "a debate" in government about this.

Of course political parties are evolving things and involve plenty of internal power struggles. We wait for more twists in the tale of what would be the UK's first deep coal mine in 30 years. Labour and Conservative positions and decisions will help determine whether it goes ahead - and help continue to shape who the parties are.