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When We Were Miners
By Ian Isaac
Reviewed by Alec Thraves
When We Were Miners marks the 25th anniversary of the ending of the 1984/85 miners' strike, the greatest movement of workers in Britain since the 1926 general strike.
While primarily a personal account of his role in the South Wales coalfield and National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from 1974 to 1991, Ian Isaac's book is written from the standpoint of a young 'Militant' miner and socialist activist.
The miners were the vanguard of the trade union movement, and in order for Thatcher and the Tory government to pursue their anti-working class agenda they consciously aimed to obliterate the NUM. Unfortunately the right-wing leaders of the NUM in the period up to 1982 allowed pit after pit to close without lifting a finger of opposition.
As a Militant supporter (the forerunner of the Socialist Party), Ian took a principled socialist stand on many political and tactical issues, especially when he was elected onto the South Wales NUM executive.
He led by example: "Although I was elected full-time lodge secretary for life in 1978, by 1980 I had given up my right of lifetime tenure of office in favour of a more democratic five-yearly election." When he moved the miners' Broad Left demand for the regular election of full-time officials at the NUM's South Wales conference, Emlyn Jenkin, a full-time official in the area, went to the rostrum and said: "Over my dead body will this be passed"!
Ian writes that for Jenkin and his like: "Their better conditions, their 'socialism', had already arrived from within the bosom of the NUM, with higher pay, assisted car purchase and conditions that ordinary members could only dream about". But growing militancy among miners saw it passed two years later at national conference.
The year-long miners' strike is analysed in detail from a Marxist standpoint in Ken Smith's excellent book A Civil War Without Guns, but Ian also gives a real feel of the sacrifices, the hard work and the comradeship of not only the miners but of the millions of working-class people who supported them.
A Miners' Support Group was established in the Llynfi and Afan valleys and was quickly replicated around the country. A million pounds a week was raised for the striking miners by trade unionists and the public. But the miners were betrayed by the now millionaire ex-Labour leader Neil Kinnock and the right-wing trade union leaders. The defeat of the strike was a huge setback for the NUM and the trade union movement.
The following year, as pit closures proceeded at a rapid pace Ian stood as the rank-and-file candidate for president of the South Wales NUM under the slogan: 'A miners' president on a miner's wage'.
NUM officials vetoed his election address leaflet and removed that slogan but not before it had been delivered to a third of the coalfield. Up against two prominent officials Ian explained: "I had 26% of the first-preference votes cast, which I considered at the time to be a significant result and an affirmation of our ideas within the miners' Broad Left, which included active rank and file miners, Militant and the Labour Party Young Socialists in the coalfield."
Ian was later victimised and isolated in South Wales by the Coal Board and hostile NUM officials. But he played an outstanding role as a Militant miner over 15 years. However, like hundreds of miners who were involved with Militant in those tumultuous years, the defeat, the mass redundancies and the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and eastern Europe which followed had a disorientating political impact.
Ian points out that: "In October 1988 I was expelled from the Labour Party. This was a culmination of attacks upon me for the role I had played during the strike and afterwards and for my association with Militant before and during the strike".
However, many readers will be surprised and bemused when Ian explains that he actually rejoined the Labour Party in 1998 "without conceding any of my socialist principles". But he says "it has been saddening to see the drift to the right by Labour in recent decades", and may yet draw the conclusion of the need for a new workers' party.
When We Were Miners gives a valuable, personal insight of what it meant to be a militant miner at the height of Thatcherism and the importance of a clear Marxist programme and approach. Outlined in this book are lessons on preparing for battle, organising the workforce, mobilising public support and the willingness to struggle. For both the young and older generations of activists, alongside Ken Smith's book, it is well worth a read.
Miners' struggle anniversary offer
When We Were Miners By Ian Isaac
£6.50 - special offer to readers of The Socialist, including postage.
A Civil War Without Guns By Ken Smith
Order both for £10.00 including postage.
Also see: The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners by Seumas Milne £12.99
The Dirty Thirty: Heroes of the Miners' Strike (Leicestershire Miners) by David Bell £7.99
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In The Socialist 31 March 2010:
PCS strike action
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party review