From Coal to UKIP: the struggle over identity in postindustrial Doncaster

What can explain the success of UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) that with it´s hard Eurosceptic and anti-immigration message has emerged as the most significant political force in post-war Britain? To find out, Postdoc Cathrine Moe Thorleifsson has travelled to Doncaster town in South Yorkshire, a UKIP hotspot. 

A common view for people in Doncaster. Stores like "Bargain World" selling discount food and bankrupt stock. Photo: Cathrine Moe Thorleifsson

Post-Doctoral Fellow Cathrine Moe Thorleifsson. Photo: University of Oslo

During the national elections in May 2015, the UKIP branch of Doncaster Central, the ward of around 18,000 where I´m currently doing research, became the second largest political party after Labour getting 24% of the votes, an increase of 20% from the last General elections in 2010.

To understand the fertile ground for the radical right, one has to examine Doncaster´s industrial past. In the early 1980s, Doncaster was synonymous with the coal and mining industry. Coal was King and it was impossible to imaging a future when the bustling region of South Yorkshire would not depend or thrive because of it. In addition to jobs in the pits, thousands worked in the Coal Board´s office and in firms that made mining equipment or provided support services to the men who went underground. Other major employers included the tractor maker Case, or International Harvester, as most people called it, and mega-factories such as Bridon Wire and Peglers that provided jobs for tens of thousand of skilled and semi-skilled manual workers. 

From boom to bust

A few years later Doncaster went from boom to bust as a pit-closure programme went into full swing under the Thatcher Government. Finningly Collier shut and other major employers were “shedding jobs like confetti”. Unemployment shot way above the national average and in pockets hit more that 40 per cent. Resistance to the closing of the mines took form in the Miner’s Strike of 1984-85 that was a terrible struggle for communities across England. The majority of men were employed in the local factory or mine. When the colliery closed, they did not only loose their job, but their sense of place where people used to meet. The closing of the mines resulted in poverty and deprivation, themes that were frequently covered by the local newspapers The Doncaster Star and The Doncaster Gazatte during the 1990s and 2000s.

Ten years after the Miner’s Strike, the EU recognised South Yorkshire as one of the most deprived areas in Europe, sparking investment in the region´s regeneration. Doncaster, like other towns in England that previously had relied on traditional industry for jobs, saw little growth during the good times and was hard hit by the financial recession. In 2010, more jobs were lost when the railway firm Jarvis closed and the City Council underwent restructuring. The planned closure of Hatfield Colliery by summer 2016, one of the three remaining pits in Britain, will result in the loss of some five hundred jobs.

Over the years the region's economy has transformed in to an enterprise economy. Doncaster has seen the development of new infrastructure such as the Frenchgate Interchange (a 250 million pound structure and the 18th largest shopping center in England), Robin Hood Airport and a new stand at the Racecourse. New jobs have been created in sales and customer service, leisure and sales, but not enough to curb the relative deprivation of the borough. Doncaster is still one of the most socially deprived areas of the UK, with a significantly lower GDP rate than the regional average. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the borough has one of the highest youth unemployment and teenage pregnancies rates in the country, poor educational attainment, poor levels of health and pockets of high crime rates.

England´s Northern Jewel

"England's Nothern Jewel - Doncaster" From the Doncaster Star 1991. Photo: Cathrine Moe Thorleifsson

There have been various attempts at creating a new identity for Doncastrians and remove the stigma attached to the town as an  “antisocial hotspot”. In 1991, -the government-, recognising the town was in dire straits, appointed a task force to ensure that matters did not get worse. The local newspaper The Doncaster Star reports that the City Council has launched the slogan, “England´s Northern Jewel” “to promote Doncaster into the Nineties.” The slogan together with videos, brochure and leaflets was aimed at attracting more commerce, industries and tourist to the struggling borough. The theme relates the region's coal-mining heritage and the use of the phrase "black diamonds" from coal- a source of wealth, power and energy and factors that have shaped Doncaster and made it England's “Northern Jewel”. By invoking the lost mining past, invoking a golden era of black gold, the council tried to instill pride and confidence in the town facing an uncertain future.


The permanent exhibition on the local history in Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery at Cusworth Hall narrates a profound uncertain future. One poster commenting on where to go after industrial Doncaster reads the following text:

The Railway came to Doncaster in 1849 and with it rapid industrial development. In the 19th century a wide variety of firms were established in Doncaster producing, taps, planes, cars, glass, nylon, mustard, motors, plastic pipes, metal ropes, tractors, clothes and lots of sweets. This was all on top on the railway Plant works and the coal mining. Most have now gone and Doncaster faces a new future. But it is a future that is not so very different. The town's excellent road and rail links will still play a vital role in what comes next.


The entire exhibition ends with a poster titled “The Ever-Changing Face of Doncaster”:

Over the last hundred years or so, there has been a whirlwind of demolition and development in Doncaster. Development was sparked off by the coming of the coalmines. Although the speed has slowed down, development has continued. Today the town is experiencing a revival as it emerges from the trauma caused by the closure of so many coalmines. The 1960s developments are already making way for something new.


The exhibition glorifies Doncaster's industrial past without specifying what the present entails. The present is defined by the trauma of the closing of the coalmines, a loss that the local communities is shaped by. The only certain aspect of the future is that it will “bring something new”. The only prediction for the future is that it might not be so different due to the very transport networks that brought modernity to Doncaster. The glorification of a golden industrial era coupled with trauma in the present and lack of visions for the future is striking. Moreover, the exhibition reflects a town that is struggling to readjust in a world where the coal industry is no longer a major employer.

In the post-industrial era, various actors have tried to create a new identity for the town that once was so heavily dependent on coal and railways. I meet with Colin Joy, the local tourist manager, to find out more about the attempts made at making the town more attractive for locals and outsiders.

“While people in Liverpool would be pride and protective of their city when they meet outsiders like you, Doncastrians would not. If you say the town is bad they will moan in agreement. But there is a lot to be proud of in Doncaster! The town was the home to the confectionary firm that invented butterscotch! The most famous and fastest steam locomotives like the Flying Scotsman and Mallard were all built in Doncaster. We have the remains of an original Roman wall, but this is not even thought in schools. When Ian Blaylock established a Brewery last year, I encouraged him to call it Doncaster Brewery. We need to put Doncaster back on the map!”

Renaming Doncaster?

Another group, led by Britain’s longest serving head teacher, Tony Story, wants to rename Doncaster “Danuma”, the town´s Roman name. They hope that invoking the towns Roman roots and pioneering role in the development of the railways will “help draw a discreet veil over its more chequered recent history.” By publishing a book about Doncaster icons and releasing a DVD espousing its virtues, they hope to counter the town's negative reputation.

A group of three men I interview at the working men’s club in Frenchgate are upset with the name-changing proposal. “You can’t shake off Doncaster´s reputation simply by rebranding. It would put the town on a par with Sellafield”, Paul (56) says, drawing parallels to the nuclear power site which was renamed from its original Windscale after Britain´s worst nuclear accident.

“You have these people who want to give Donny a trendy 21st century makeover. But new names and fancy hotels won’t sort out the kind of problems we have in town. My old father who is 83 locks himself in his house because he is frightened of anti-social behavior and vandalism. It his town too but he has become like a prisoner in his own house.”

No voice for the working man

UKIP's political campaign in Carcroft, near Doncaster. Photo/screenshot:, Cathrine Moe Thorleifsson.

This is where Nigel Farage enters Doncaster St. Ledger Racehorse lane at UKIPs annual conference in 2014 saying "I will park at the lawn!" promising to challenge Ed Milliband, and his Doncaster North seat in the heart of the traditional Labour land. Appealing to a neglected electorate, UKIP states that, - the Labour candidate for Prime Minister is "no voice for the working man".  Moreover, UKIP taps into anxieties caused by economic hardship and the change deriving from immigration and minority natural increase. 

The borough is predominantly white working class and the ´non-white´ population make up around 4,4%, significantly lower than the number nationally at 12% (ONS 2007). It has the largest Roma and Traveller population in the country, estimated between 4,000 to 6,000 people. Doncaster town, where UKIP made the largest gain, is more ethnically diverse. Since the EU enlargement and opening of borders, labour migration from Eastern Europe has increased. After English, Polish is the most spoken language in Doncaster Central with Slovak, Latvian, Lithuanian and Czech placed 5th, 7th, 8th and 9th. Kurdish, Urdu and Panjabi are the 3rd, 4th and 6th most spoken languages in town.

It is in the context of old and emerging super-diversity that UKIP has risen to power, partly by scapegoating the EU and immigration as serious economic and social threats to “our (British) way of life”. With its emphasis on continuity and borders the political party appeals to a sense of national pride and identity. For a quarter of the struggling electorate in Doncaster central, UKIP might fill the very void the coal left behind.   

By Post-Doctoral Fellow Cathrine Moe Thorleifsson
Published June 9, 2015 10:28 AM - Last modified May 15, 2018 9:20 AM
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