Chapter 8 – Militant and the role of the Left


IN THE pages of the Militant every week during the strike you would have found article after article showing the tremendous solidarity organised for the miners. At the same time, in many of the articles we outlined how this could be used to deliver more than just cash and sympathy – as important as they were.

In the pages of the paper were many articles showing where workers had taken the initiative in support of the miners – often risking the sack or victimisation.

Militant supporters also did as much as we could in many other ways, given our forces at the time. One of the first conferences in defence of the miners was the Militant-led Broad Left Organising Committee (BLOC) conference on 24 March 1984 in Sheffield. This was attended by over 2,200 trade unionists including over 100 miners (60 of whom were official delegates), contained in a main hall and two overflow meetings to hear Tony Benn MP and leading trade unionists speak. Over 500 people had to be turned away from the conference because of lack of space.1

Even at that early stage of the strike, Militant supporters, as well as expressing total commitment to the miners’ struggle, were advocating a programme of action to take the strike forward and give the Left leaders a helping hand. This was in contrast to other groups on the Left, like the CP and the SWP who, despite raising serious criticisms after the strike, acted then as uncritical cheerleaders. In the case of the SWP this was only as an ineffectual group on the sidelines but in the case of the CP, as shown later in this chapter, their role was to be particularly malign.

During the first month of the strike Militant had carried articles on “a socialist strategy to save the pits”, which called for the scrapping of interest charges, removing the debt of the NCB and ending competition among nationalised industries; also taking up whether or not a ballot should be called.

Miners strike - Political Awakening - Alan Hardman cartoon
Miners strike – Political Awakening – Alan Hardman cartoon

Within a week of the strike starting we had shown that miners and union members could not have full confidence in some union leaders when we called for the building of a “real Triple Alliance at every level.” 2

We called on the NUM leadership to link in the issue of protecting jobs with action on the national pay claim; this would have drawn in miners even where they did not feel as threatened by the prospect of pit closures.

And throughout the strike we called for a socialist energy plan to save the pits, where coal would be developed as part of an integrated energy plan not dependent on profit or loss balance sheets but on the needs of the workers and society as a whole.3

The key tasks for the Left

ONE WEEK into the strike we argued that the key tasks for NUM leaders were to make the strike solid amongst the miners and then take the case against pit closures to the wider working class, calling for all movement of coal stocks and supplies to be brought under effective working-class control. We felt that more needed to be done in properly organising meetings to address non-striking miners.

We made it clear that we did not go along with press and right-wing hypocrisy about calling for a national ballot of the NUM at that stage. That was a matter for the miners and not unelected media barons or High Court judges to decide.

We also struck a warning note about how some picket line clashes between striking and working miners could at some stage hamper the effectiveness of the strike if a way was not found to win over miners in the working areas – whether or not this was to be by a ballot was left open.

Throughout the strike, as well as advocating regular mass meetings for striking miners to keep them informed of the major developments in the strike, Militant also organised regular internal meetings to discuss the complex issues and how the strike could be taken forward. At one meeting in Sheffield in June, over 150 miners from all coalfields attended and discussed strategy and tactics with Peter Taaffe (then editor of Militant and now Socialist Party general secretary) and Brian Ingham (then Militant’s industrial correspondent).

Militant supporters had agreed inside our ranks that a ballot about six or seven weeks into the strike would have been a huge unifying factor and would have cut across the propaganda of the right-wing union and Labour leaders.

On a number of occasions, Militant raised the idea of at least a 24-hour general strike being organised in support of the miners.4 When the South Wales and national NUM funds were threatened with seizure we called for an all-out general strike, such was the seriousness of the threat to the miners and the union movement generally.

At the same time we did not sow any illusions that this would or could be organised by the TUC leaders. Instead, we consistently argued that the NUM leaders should call on the ranks of the union movement to put pressure on their leaders to back the miners with more than words. Again this was not left in an abstract sense. For example, we called on the special NUM national conference on 11-12 July 1984 to name a day for national action in support of the miners.

We added to this a call to rebuild the Triple Alliance from below and demands that union members should put on the Left leaders. At that stage, July 1984, despite the difficulties and obstacles and the likely prospect of a long haul, we said a miners’ victory was still there for the taking, particularly as the dock workers had taken solidarity action against scab labour being used on Humberside, which was rapidly spreading. During this action the government threatened to use troops to move coal. We argued that the immediate response of the best trade union leaders, regardless of the inaction of the TUC, should be to call a 24-hour general strike.

Militant’s growing strength

WITHOUT DOUBT, if many or all of these demands had been implemented there would have been much more likelihood of the miners winning. But, did Militant, at that stage, have enough influence to ensure these demands were implemented, and what was the response of the Left to these demands?

Militant in 1984 was a very strong, even formidable force in some areas, in the labour movement in Britain. At that stage we were successfully leading the struggle of Liverpool city council.5 In the unions like civil service union CPSA (forerunner of the PCS) we were leading the Left. At the 1984 CPSA conference over 300 resolutions were tabled criticising the right-wing general secretary of that union Alistair Graham, who was later removed by the Left from the TUC general council.

At the start of the strike there were less than a dozen miners who supported Militant. By the end of the strike this figure had risen to over 500. Our supporters gave the lead in the Broad Left Organising Committee and were the overwhelming majority in the leadership of the Labour Party Young Socialists, which could mobilise 5,000-10,000 of its members for demonstrations in the 1980s.

One of our supporters was a member of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) from the LPYS and was the person who successfully moved at the NEC, seconded by Tony Benn, for a 50p a week levy of Labour Party members to support the miners. Over 30 Constituency Labour Parties regularly elected Militant supporters as delegates to Labour Party conference and two Labour MPs – Dave Nellist in Coventry and Terry Fields in Liverpool – were openly supporters of Militant.

We also had a number of members of trade union national executives but not as many and as much influence as the Socialist Party currently has on union national executives.6 Although a substantial force and significantly influential we could have only had a decisive impact on the strike if we had had a much stronger position at the base of the unions or members of the NUM national executive and leading supporters as general secretaries or executive members of larger trade unions, which was not the case. But, at all times Militant supporters played an extremely significant role in the strike locally and nationally, practically and politically.

The examples of the practical work done by Militant supporters would fill another book but these examples may help to illustrate the breadth of the work that was involved. There are hundreds of examples in the pages of the Militant.

Militant supporters were among the first to be involved in the setting up and running of miners support groups and committees in the mining areas. Most left-wing groups did not arrive in the coalfields until a few months into the strike. In North Derbyshire, as in other areas, weekly Militant Miner newsletters were produced by striking Militant supporters and handed out on picket lines.

But our intervention was not just in the coalfields. In Newham, east London, for example, our supporters organised a meeting of 650 a few weeks after the strike began, with Tony Benn and Liverpool city councillor Derek Hatton speaking.

The LPYS organised hundreds of meetings around the country and participated in the setting up of the Young Miner strike bulletin which was produced throughout the strike. Liverpool council organised hundreds of thousands of pounds of fundraising for the miners. It was Militant that organised the first international visits of miners to win solidarity and raise funds. Miners were helped by Militant to go to South Africa, Australia, the USA, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and many other countries raising thousands of pounds. In workplaces up and down the country Militant supporters organised levies which raised thousands of pounds each month.

The malevolent role of the Communist Party

Militant’s forces were not sufficient to have altered the course of the strike. Although we had a lot of respect on the Left, not least for the successful struggle in Liverpool and the role of Dave Nellist MP and Terry Fields MP7, we did not have the ear or influence on the NUM’s main leadership nor any of the major trade union leaders. That did not stop us, however, from trying to advance a programme for victory for the miners in every possible way in the unions, Labour Party and society generally.

Particularly in the unions and through BLOC, much was done to try and give the Left leaders a push with helpful pressure from below. One group, though, that did have the ear of the Left union leaders and huge influence inside the NUM was the Communist Party, which at the time claimed 15,000 members – though probably only a few thousand of these were active to any extent.

At that stage the CP was undergoing political turmoil, which eventually caused huge splits. The CP had been moving rightwards for a number of decades and was losing members and influence. One of its allegedly most influential members was Eric Hobsbawm. He was part of a right-wing Eurocommunist faction which argued after Labour’s 1983 election defeat that the traditional notions of class struggle and solidarity were a declining force, or indeed at an end, and drew appropriately passive conclusions. These arguments had a marked impact on the politics of what was then called Labour’s ‘soft left’, including Neil Kinnock.

In a number of struggles before the miners’ strike, the CP had advocated cross-class or ‘popular front’ campaigns against the threat of job losses and closures, such as at Ravenscraig steelworks in Scotland.

They had attempted to say that the struggle to keep Ravenscraig open was above class interests but in the national interest. McGahey logically extended this during the strike when he gave in to British Steel management’s demand for more coal at Ravenscraig by saying it was “in the interests of Scotland’s industrial future.” 8

This collaborationist approach resulted in more coal going into the steel plants than was necessary for ‘care and maintenance’ during the strike.

During the strike some leading CP members, like Bea Campbell, openly lined up with the right wing in advocating a ballot and also argued that mass picketing and solidarity strike action were inappropriate vehicles to win the strike. A leading section of the CP continued to argue for diluting the class nature of the strike by linking up with the churches and pro-capitalist politicians.

According to the Communist Party’s industrial organiser of the time: “What has failed to happen is the bringing together in a mass popular movement of those forces within our society that have already demonstrated sympathy for the miners. This development has been restricted because of a view held that the strike can be won by picketing alone, by the miners alone” 9

Nevertheless, the CP, although no longer having as much support on the shopfloor as it had in earlier decades, was still able to count a number of trade union general secretaries amongst its number. Additionally, it exerted an ideological influence at the top of the trade union movement out of all proportion to its real strength on the ground.

Andrew Murray, the chair of the Stop the War Coalition and prominent CP member quotes Ken Gill, a former union general secretary and CP member, on the problems that were then besetting the CP in his recent book on the ‘awkward squad’: “The decline of the Communist Party affected the Left, no doubt about it … Rodney Bickerstaffe [former leader of public-sector workers union NUPE – a forerunner of today’s UNISON] used to say ‘when is the party going to make itself clear’. It was very difficult because the party was practically disowning me then.” 10

Moreover, the CP had claimed Arthur Scargill as one of its members in the 1950s, as a member of the YCL, and the union’s vice-president Mick McGahey was a lifelong CPer. A number of the full-time area officials in Scotland, South Wales and Kent were prominent CP members.

The CP also included Scottish NUM vice-president George Bolton and George Rees, South Wales area secretary. Also, former CPers and Labour Lefts heavily influenced by the CP played a big part in the strike. But none of this alleged influence was used to chart a clear way forward at any stage in the strike.

Desperation of guerrilla tactics

AS MENTIONED, Arthur Scargill’s approach was different from the CP in showing an unyielding militancy in defence of the miners. However, even then there were times when his early training in the YCL resurfaced in a rigid and sometimes autocratic approach on issues. This reflected the way the CP had trained up many trade union militants.

Other former CPers like Kim Howells, the South Wales NUM area research officer, played a negative role in the strike from an early stage in terms of statements and practical actions, lacking confidence in the power of the organised working class, which led him to adopt a completely disastrous approach.

After Orgreave, Howells was among the first to denounce mass picketing. Instead, he encouraged small bands of activists to carry out clandestine guerrilla-style activities, which left those miners involved open to danger and prosecution and lowered the consciousness of the miners about the importance of collective mass struggle. This was again opposed by Militant supporters in the South Wales NUM like Philip White and Ian Isaac from St John’s.

Howells admitted on a TV documentary in early 2004 of a ‘revelation’ that had actually been outlined in Seumas Milne’s book The Enemy Within, ten years earlier.

Howells made great play of the fact that he had never revealed before that after the killing of South Wales taxi driver David Wilkie, who died after miners dropped a slab into the taxi in which he was driving scabs to Merthyr Vale colliery, he went immediately to the South Wales NUM office and destroyed records.

In the documentary he recalls on hearing the death of the taxi driver: “I thought hang on, we’ve got all these records we’ve kept at the NUM offices… we are going to get implicated in this. I remember thinking I’ve got to get to that office, I’ve got to destroy everything – and I did. I’ve never told anybody that before.

“Howells remembers running to the NUM area office in Pontypridd as soon as he heard the news and ‘just getting every bit of picketing information that we had and shredding it’ in the expectation of a visit from the police. ‘It changed me that moment’ he says.” 11 Seumas Milne’s book goes further about Howells’ role, which was quickly followed by a conversion to calling for a return to work.

To this day Howells has never given a full explanation of what it was that caused him so much anxiety at that time, nor has he fully explained how his anticipated inquiries from the police resulted in him becoming the first NUM official to publicly advocate a return to work; a move which was backed by Kinnock and the CP’s Eurocommunist faction

The SWP’s ‘downturn’ theory

OTHER GROUPS on the Left, without the same influence as the CP, also proved incapable of either offering a way forward for the strike. Indeed in the case of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) they couldn’t comprehend how the strike fitted in with their schematic theory that workers’ struggles were in a cycle of downturn after the militancy of the 1970s.

The only prescription that the SWP were able to come up with during the strike was for an escalation of mass picketing, without ever defining what actual numbers of pickets they were talking about and where they would be deployed.

It seems to have escaped their notice that over 10,000 pickets assembled at Orgreave were, unfortunately, unsuccessful. Whilst not abandoning the weapon of the mass picket as a result of that defeat, it was clear that there needed to be a better suggestion than repeating the mantra of first world war generals of just dragooning more troops out of the trenches.

In their book reviewing the strike they conclude: “Throughout the coalfields the mass picketing strategy which brought victory in 1972 hadn’t failed – it had not been seriously tried.” They recognised that solidarity action was also needed but argued that “the precondition of that action was consistent and vigorous picketing by the miners themselves. The miners could not expect to win the support of other workers unless they were seen themselves to picket massively.” 12

Equally, the SWP’s peculiar theoretical construct of the downturn (flying in the face of the increased militancy of other struggles at the same time as the miners and the mass mobilisations in support of Militant-led Liverpool city council) did not really countenance the possibility of that happening.

From this theory they were capable of drawing all the wrong negative conclusions in the space of one paragraph such as this: “One might say the strike itself clearly revealed the scale of the downturn in the class struggle – in, for example, the willingess of miners and other workers to cross NUM picket lines. The trade union leaders could hardly substitute themselves for a passive and divided rank-and-file. The weakness of workplace organisation was undoubtedly one of the decisive features of the strike.” 13

Although they waxed lyrical about how the “activists who supported the miners could have been crystallised into a powerful movement for class-struggle methods” 14 they did not concretely ever say how their aims of mass picketing or this class-struggle method could be delivered in the context of the alleged “weakness of workplace organisation.” This meant in reality they practised a limited participation in the support groups in the big cities – and played an insignificant part in any of the support groups in the mining areas. They had no participation or impact on any of the major debates amongst the miners in the NUM itself.

Indeed, as has been evidenced on other occasions, such a huge movement of the working class saw them floundering and incapable of playing any effective role.

Preparing for future battles

MILITANT, ALONE among the groups on the Left, was the only trend to make significant gains out of the miners’ strike. Unfortunately because of the huge blow of the defeat and the political effect it had, many miners and their families who joined us in 1984-85 dropped out of political activity later on, although a number have since come back into the ranks of the Socialist Party.

Overall, Militant took a huge surge forward during the events of 1984-85 leaving us well placed numerically and organisationally for the battles ahead in Liverpool and over the poll tax, despite the objective difficulties that we would face because of the miners’ defeat after the betrayal of the right-wing union and Labour leaders.


1 From Militant issue 693, 30 March 1984

2 Militant issue 690

3 See Militant issue 693

4 For example even as early as Militant issue 696, 20 April 1984.

5 For a full account of this struggle see Liverpool A City That Dared to Fight by Peter Taaffe and Tony Mulhearn, Fortress Books 1987

6 For a fuller account of the strength and role of Militant during the 1980s see The Rise of Militant by Peter Taaffe, Socialist Books, 1994

7 Arthur Scargill, for instance, spoke at an election rally for Terry Fields in 1983

8 Quoted in The Great Strike, Callinicos and Simons, Socialist Worker publication, 1985

9 Marxism Today, March 1985

10 A New Labour Nightmare – the rise of the awkward squad, Andrew Murray, Verso Books 2003

11 The Enemy Within, Seumas Milne, Verso 1994, p203

12 ibid page 234

13 The Great Strike, Callinicos and Simons, Socialist Workers’ Party, London 1985, p235

14 ibid