MEANWHILE, A conflict loomed in the mining industry.
Coal Board boss Ian MacGregor had announced plans to close 20 pits and do away with about 25,000 jobs. The closing of Cortonwood provoked a movement of Yorkshire miners which began to spread to all areas of the British coalfield.
It became quite clear almost as soon as the strike had begun that the ruling class, and the Thatcher government in particular, had meticulously planned for this battle. They had been given a bloody nose and had been compelled to retreat in the face of the miners’ movement of 1981. From the outset Militant declared:
The huge military-style police operation ordered by Home Secretary Leon Brittan against the striking miners, is the biggest such operation since the 1926 general strike. It dispels any lingering illusions there might be that the police are a ‘community’ based force not directly involved in the implementation of political policy. (1)
At a cost of £500,000 a day 20,000 police were deployed throughout the country to deal with the strike.
The Ridley plan, leaked in 1978, proposed the building up of coal stocks, the beefing up of the police and other state forces, the altering of the law to hamper and restrict strike action and the use of all possible force to smash the miners. The miners were traditionally the British workers ‘Brigade of Guards’. A defeat, as humiliating as possible, was the conscious aim of Thatcher. The government provoked strike action in 1984. Thatcher set out to create an ‘industrial Falklands’.
The miners, Scargill, the Left, and Militant were perceived as the ‘enemy within’, bracketed together with the ‘enemy without’, Galtieri, who had been humbled in 1982. Yet any serious and honest analysis of the miners’ strike, which can only be touched on here, conclusively demonstrates that in this epic struggle Thatcher’s strength lay not so much in herself nor in the forces ranged on her side but in the cowardly ‘generals’ of the TUC on the other side.
The press revealed that three army barracks had been made available to accommodate the roving vans of police strikebreakers. All the paraphernalia of riot control, special helmets, shields, flameproof suits and police dogs, not to mention spotter aircraft and helicopters, were carefully assembled. From the very first week of the strike Militant commented that we had
always argued that the police, the judiciary and the law in general are not ‘neutral’, but instruments of the employing class, and nothing better illustrates that than the use of the police in the last week. (2)
The police had assumed legal powers far above anything they had used in the past, stopping cars and buses and turning them back hundreds of miles from their destinations, intimidating bus companies into refusing contracts with miners and even threatening to arrest Kent workers if they strayed outside their home county. One solicitor in Kent, commented to Militant:
There is no such offence as secondary picketing except in the civil law and yet the police are using the criminal law to prevent people from picketing peacefully. (3)
The police were backed up by the Attorney General, Tory MP Sir Michael Havers, who pointed out that the
police have powers to turn back anyone… if they thought they were attending a picket where there might be a breach of the peace. Failure to comply would make workers liable to arrest for obstruction. (4)
Hammering home the class character of the conflict, we pointed out that “the Tories’ explanation and the police action, therefore, merely confirm that law is applied in a class manner”. We warned that “it is still not ruled out that steps could be taken to try to sequestrate parts of the NUM assets, as in the case of the NGA.” This prediction was to be confirmed before the year was out. We emphasised that:
there is no road out for the workers on the basis of the present system. Capitalism is itself creating all the conditions of class conflict and social upheaval. (5)
Once the strike began all the conservatism which weighs down workers in ‘normal’ periods evaporated. One of the most striking features of the dispute was the magnificent movement of the women from the mining communities, whose organisation of a support network was crucial to enabling the strike to continue as long as it did.
They inspired tens of thousands of women everywhere to fight. Militant Women played a big role helping to set up support groups, feeding the miners and helping the women’s pickets as the dispute went on. Many of these women joined the Labour Party and established Women’s Sections. During this period Margaret Creear, a well known Militant, was first elected to the Labour Womens’ National Committee.
There was massive enthusiasm for the strike which developed rapidly from below. We declared that:
there must be a national lead to assure miners in all areas that the action is serious and will have an effect. And there should be a clear demand for no pit closures except for proven exhaustion of resources or genuine safety reasons, and even then only with the guarantee of alternative jobs for miners affected.
The rail and steel unions must be approached to build a real fighting Triple Alliance at national level – and in every area in support of the basic industries. (6)
In March 1984, Militant warned that “the NCB would aim in South Wales, Kent and areas of North East England to reduce coal mining to a mere memory.” (7)
Our pages reflected the growing militancy not just in the traditional heartlands of Yorkshire and South Wales but in Nottingham also. Pickets from other areas arriving at Bevercotes declared:
If we’d listened to the media yesterday, we’d have been terrified at the resistance they portrayed. We’ve come here and found it’s totally different. The response has been marvellous. We just told everyone it was an NUM picket and asked them not to cross. 90 per cent haven’t crossed. (8)
Notts and the ballot
However, the failure of the strike to develop fully in the Nottingham coalfield undoubtedly complicated the battle. Both at the time and since not a little ink has been spilled over the issue of whether it would have been more effective if the miners had called a ballot, even while they were out on strike, to confirm an overwhelmingly majority in favour of strike action.
Right wingers like Hammond, the leader of the electricians’ union at the time, declared subsequently that he would have been in favour of bringing out electricians in the power industry if the miners had held a ballot which found in favour of strike action.
This was a fig leaf behind which the right-wing attempted to hide their nakedness during the most important industrial struggle since the 1926 general strike. Nevertheless, it would have been better tactically for the NUM leaders to sanction a ballot a few weeks into the strike. This would have resulted in a probable 80 per cent to 90 per cent majority in favour of strike action.
Would a successful ballot have guaranteed victory to the miners? If the Nottinghamshire coalfield had voted against then it does not take a great imagination to picture how the leaders of the scab Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) would have reacted. They could have advanced the argument that Nottingham voted against strike action and therefore was ‘opting out’. But a majority in favour of action on a national level could have convinced the majority of Nottinghamshire miners to strike.
The Nottinghamshire UDM leaders were secretly, from very early on in the strike, in touch with Thatcher’s representative David Hart, who financed and supported their strike-breaking measures. A ballot during the strike action, when a vast majority of British miners were out on strike in any case, could have added to the power of the miners’ case.
Militant pointed out that this was the most important class conflict for decades. Pointing to the example of 1926 the paper showed that:
The TUC leaders [during 1926] became a brake on the movement. From the very first hours of the general strike, the TUC leaders were looking for an excuse to call it off. (9)
Therefore while urging action by the general council in support of the miners’ Militant also called on the miners to pursue a parallel course of appealing to the ranks:
Most miners today have already realised that the majority of the present TUC general council are no better than the leaders of 1926. Their policy of ‘new realism’ has meant little more than abject surrender. (10)
Therefore, at each stage Militant urged the miners to adopt the strategy of appealing to the ranks of the movement to put pressure on the tops for solidarity action. At the same time, the paper suggested that the miners take the lead in calling for the left leaders on the general council to pursue an independent strategy to that of the saboteurs on the right.
The Guardian commented on a meeting in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, which indicated the mood of miners at the time:
This was a rally of mainly young men who had been on the picket line most of the week, who feel a sense of bitter injustice, who want a social revolution. (11)
1984 was a year when Militant made a decisive intervention and contribution to the struggle in Liverpool. But the paper and its supporters were no less ardent in supporting the miners. Consequently our support significantly increased amongst miners and workers generally. At one stage during the strike 500 miners were recruited as committed supporters of Militant. This growing support made it necessary for the Editorial Board to step up the struggle for greater resources. In April we commented:
This week Militant has had to add four extra pages to its normal 16. One reason is the sheer number of events to cover: May Day, local elections, LPYS Conference, Liverpool council’s special meeting, the miners’ strike, Labour’s national executive on the Blackburn expulsions, the Libyan Bureau Siege, the union conference season and May Day greetings.
But another vital reason is to allow space to produce our special appeal and to explain what a crucial stage our paper has reached. Most weeks now, we have enough material for double the number of pages we can print. (12)
One pointer of the paper’s success was our Fighting Fund. In 1978, £66,000 had been collected: in 1979 £80,000; in 1980 £93,000; in 1981 £105,000; in 1982 £148,000 – a total of nearly £500,000 in five years. But now we needed new premises. Therefore an urgent appeal for £35,000 was launched to add to the sum of £140,000 already raised (£30,000 was raised in two weeks). Due to the heroic efforts of our supporters and readers it became possible to buy large premises in Hackney Wick and gather together all the operations involved in the production of Militant in one building. Previously they had been scattered over three buildings.
Revenge for the Tories’ humiliation at the hands of the miners at Saltley Gate in 1972 and more recently in 1981 was taken by the police on the Orgreave picket line (outside Sheffield).
The most brutal methods yet seen in this or any previous dispute were played out in the full view of the world’s media. The conflict gave the impression of a virtual civil war in the mining areas of Britain. We prominently featured two photographs which summed up the role of the police: one where a picketing man was beaten by a riot policeman in full protective clothing while a miner was pinned over a car. (13)
Another more famous incident (captured in two photographs) showed a woman from the Sheffield Miners’ Support Group calling for an ambulance for an injured miner as a mounted policeman tries to chop her down. We reported:
The beating continues and she backs away. Afterwards the mounted police were cheered by their infantry ranks, with riot shields banged in appreciation. (14)
Eyewitnesses at an earlier battle reported:
The baton charge has returned. This brutal police method of attacking pickets, synonymous with the industrial battles of the 1920s, has become a standard tactic of today’s police… The idea is to hurt people, intimidate people, frighten people. (15)
Even Arthur Scargill was arrested on a trumped-up charge of obstruction. We commented:
There will be a widespread belief that this arrest was a deliberate, pre-planned move by the police, not just to impose a fine, but, as with other miners, to try and impose stringent bail conditions that would keep him [Scargill] well away from picket line, and therefore stop him carrying out his duties as the president of the National Union of Mineworkers. In the event, the magistrates rejected the police request and granted unconditional bail. (16)
Eyewitness accounts in Militant show that by 9.30 am on the day of the first Orgreave battle there were about 7,000 pickets assembled. It was then that
the real battle began. It was the most terrifying thing I have been through in my life… What made it worse for me was that this was happening in the village where I’d lived most of my life…
I saw an elderly miner of about 60 have his head split open by a baton… The riot police would march straight up to you shouting ‘one two, one two’ and provoking the miners: “Come on then, have a go”…
And one snatch squad policeman went too far and got snatched himself! They had to send police horses in to get him back – he was in a far from healthy state when he emerged from the picket. (17)
Ordinary police were too unreliable for this dirty work as shown by Militant’s report of the comments of the Yorkshire police as the battle unfolded:
Some were very bitter at what was happening. One policeman told us his father was a miner and was in the picket somewhere. He said they didn’t want anything to do with it – they had to live in the communities; what had happened today would never heal. He’d come into the police force to fight crime, not his family.
He said he hadn’t thought much about a trade union for the police before but this had shown the importance of proper trade union rights for policeman. Another policeman said, pointing to the riot squads: “Those bastards have been brought up from London. They’re up here to harm you. They’re nothing to do with us.” (18)
A group of miners from the North East writing later in Militant about their experiences at the battle at Orgeave commented:
No matter how hard it gets to stay out something like this makes us feel even more determined to win. We won’t give in.
When we arrived at 6 am, the police were already lined up – front line riot shields, and behind, the police on horses. Down the hill in the field there, were police with dogs…
Their truncheons were drawn from the start, no messing about. When we started shoving, the police started cracking out at the front line, really hard, straight away… The police are definitely not ‘a peace keeping force’.
They were treating us like animals, chasing us with dogs and horses. Some pickets outside the plant had been shoved into this field – it was completely flattened, concrete lamp posts and walls crushed. Lads were coming away crying, heads bleeding, bruises all over their backs, some having to be carried…
A man, his wife and bairn just standing at the bus stop were beaten up by the police. There were some rocks thrown and stakes in the ground to stop the horses coming but what else can you do? You can’t outrun a horse, and the police came with truncheons, padding, shields etc, against pickets in jeans and T-shirts. (19)
These brutal scenes at Orgreave, together with similar scenes that were enacted in numerous pit villages throughout the coalfields, laid bare before the miners and working class as a whole the nature of the capitalist state. An army of occupation descended on the coal fields, particularly in the heartland of the strike, the Yorkshire coalfield.
I witnessed one of many brutal scenes in Allerton Bywater. On an early autumn morning, a thousand policemen confronted miners and their families in a bitter conflict in this village. Such actions changed forever the consciousness of workers, particularly the miners. Because of this Militant’s ideas found a powerful echo.
It shared with and assisted in all the struggles of the miners but at the same time put forward a strategy which it considered was capable of ensuring victory. Following the first battle of Orgreave Militant advised that
at local level, direct approaches should be made, backed up by arguments and mass leafleting, to steelworkers, lorry drivers and power station workers. The leaders of the TGWU and the ISTC should back up this campaign with a national internal drive in support of the miners.
Wherever possible mass meetings should be organised and a call for solidarity, addressed by striking miners… Conferences of shop stewards should be organised, specifically to prepare for solidarity action. These conferences should be called either directly by the NUM, by local trades councils or by the Broad Left Organising Committee.
This strike also now demands national action and a national co-ordinated drive for solidarity by the Trades Union Congress. It would be naive however to put too much faith in the TUC, given its role recently in the ASLEF dispute, in the battle over the Stockport 6, over GCHQ and, more recently, Murray’s (general secretary of the TUC) attempt to sabotage the one-day strike organised by the Yorkshire and Humberside TUC. The left unions should therefore come together independently to organise solidarity. (20)
At the same time Militant believed that
the NUM could lay before such a conference in detail all that was needed in solidarity action, to stop the movement of coal and win this strike. High on the agenda of such a conference would be the calling of a one-day general strike, which, if it was organised, would involve the members not only of the left wing unions, it would inspire the rank and file of every union in Britain. It would result in a magnificent show of strength of the entire labour movement around the miners and prepare the way for an historic victory. (21)
Because Militant was capable at each stage of putting forward demands which could take the movement forward it caught the ear of the best and most combatative section of the miners. We were able to organise in June 1984, in Sheffield a successful meeting of miners and supporters of Militant to discuss what stage the strike had reached and the way forward. Over 150 miners attended to hear Brian Ingham, Militant’s national industrial organiser, and myself. Miners from every part of the British coalfield were present.
The miners began to get greater and greater support from the organised working class. We declared in July:
A miners’ victory is there for the taking. The magnificent show of solidarity by the Dockers would now give a huge impetus to the fight to save our jobs and industry. The victory of Liverpool council, forcing the Tories to retreat, is a beacon for the miners and the whole of the labour movement.
Even before the Dockers struck against the use of scab labour on Humberside, support for the miners among trade unionists has been growing. There is overwhelming support for our fight amongst railway workers… after 18 weeks of a bitter strike, miners will not settle for anything other than absolute guarantees about their future jobs, livelihoods and communities. (22)
It must not be forgotten that during the course of the miners’ strike many workers who struck in solidarity with the miners lost their jobs, some of them permanently. The Dockers’ action had been provoked by the use of scab labour at Immingham. But one dicker at the Immingham picket line told our reporter: “This is solidarity with the miners – we should have been out from the first week of the dispute”. (23)
In the light of the solidarity action from the Dockers, and indications that others, such as the seafarers, would give support, We once more demanded that the miners step up the action. It pointed out that
a 24-hour general strike must now be organised to stop the Tories’ attacks on workers. If the government uses troops (rumoured at the time) to scab on striking miners or Dockers, an all-out strike must be organised… All the struggles of the miners, Dockers and seamen have come together. Thatcher has claimed that it is a fight of ‘only 200,000’ workers against all the rest, but the trade unions must now demonstrate that the miners, Dockers and seamen do not stand alone. (24)
Militant did not leave it at empty calls but got down to specifics. It pointed out that
the TUC right wing have shown that they are incapable of putting up a serious fight. If they were a leadership worthy of the name, they would have organised a 24-hour general strike before now. Instead, the National Union of Mineworkers should use its authority to take up the call for a national campaign. The NUM executive should name the day, in a week or two, for a national day of action in which they would invite the other left unions to take part in a 24-hour general strike. (25)
The left unions were pressed, once more, to take the initiative in preparing for a 24-hour general strike. The miners had changed “the entire landscape of British society.”
In a balance sheet of the strike at the end of July Militant pointed to the preparatory steps which Thatcher and the Tory Cabinet had taken before the strike.
Yet such had been the resistance from the miners and the working class generally that, despite all the plans formulated by Thatcher’s hatchet man MacGregor, the strike could easily have been won. One indication of the change in outlook was the statement of a young miner at one of our public meetings during the strike that: “Socialism had literally been knocked into his skull.” (26)
The powerful effect of the strike on the rest of the trade union movement was detailed. The right-wing trade union leaders faced mounting criticism. 300 motions of censure had appeared on the agenda of the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA) conference against Alistair Graham, general secretary of the CPSA, and the old right-wing executive. One month before in June he had been removed from the TUC general council. At the USDAW conference the executive was beaten no less than eleven times and the new general secretary of NALGO had to face severe criticism for not supporting the NGA during their dispute.
Almost insurrectionary moods had appeared in areas of Yorkshire. Militant had given a detailed account of the ‘riots’ in Maltby where police had rampaged through the village, and in Fitzwilliam where we had an important base amongst the miners. Not the least of the effects of the miners’ strike was the lasting impression made on women, particularly on the miners’ wives and girlfriends. The Times, organ of big business, had described the emergence of the miners’ wives support groups as “the turning point in the strike”. One women commented to Militant:
We never used to take any notice of politics and government, but we have to now. We’ve stopped buying newspapers. The Star won’t be delivered after they said something like ‘Britain doesn’t owe the miners a living’. They’re so bad we don’t even believe the ordinary everyday stories anymore. We can’t go back to the old routine after the strike. (27)
In August there was an attempt to sequestrate the resources of the South Wales NUM. About 400 LPYS members, at their camp in Gloucestershire, were bussed down to the blockade at Pontypridd. Brian Ingham, on behalf of Militant, addressed the demo from the NUM platform. Ian Isaac, a member of the South Wales NUM executive and Militant supporter, also addressed the demo. He played a pivotal role in the strike in South Wales and nationally.
Kinnock condemns NUM
However, right at the crux of the battle came Neil Kinnock’s speech at the Trade Union Congress in September when he condemned ‘picket violence’. His tirade implicitly denounced miners’ pickets. Mealy-mouthed phrases were used as a cover:
We must put that case without violence… violence distracts attention from the central issues of the dispute… violence has given the government its only bone of excuse to gnaw on… violence… disgusts opinion and divides union attitudes… it provides opportunities to our enemies. (28)
It was Kinnock himself who had provided the main “opportunity to the enemy” by this speech. There were no ringing denunciations of police violence or the curtailment of civil liberties, no pounding on the table over the harassment and intimidation of striking miners. Not surprisingly the capitalist press had a field day. We commented:
By this kind of speech, Neil Kinnock not only fails to support miners fighting for their jobs and communities, he gives full credence to the vicious press smears against the mineworkers. He unwittingly gives succour to all those newspapers and Tories calling for judicial vengeance in the form of hefty prison sentences and fines on the many miners unjustly arrested in the last six months. (29)
Even before the strike Kinnock’s position was underlined by his statement in 1983 to the effect that Arthur Scargill was destroying the coal industry single-handed. A biography, The Making of Neil Kinnock by Robert Harris, was published at this time. He gave a detailed account of his evolution from a left firebrand into a staunch defender of the right wing within the Labour Party and the unions.
The press speculated that Kinnock was about to chastise the miners and push through ‘one person, one vote’ for parliamentary reselection. But they had seriously miscalculated, underestimating the enormous strength of feeling at all levels of the party and the unions for the miners. Colossal support for the miners put its stamp on the proceedings at the Labour Party conference. Commenting on the miners’ debate, We reported that it had
created an electric atmosphere that also put its mark on the police debate which followed in which the platform was defeated twice. The same was true on reselection, which showed the iron determination of the party rank and file not to go back on the gains achieved in the past. (30)
Kinnock received the obligatory standing ovation for his traditional leader’s speech but this session of the conference was “a much more polite affair without the spontaneous cheering and football crowd enthusiasm that had greeted Arthur Scargill 24 hours earlier.” (31)
Kinnock did not repeat his blunder of the TUC conference, being careful this time to blame the government for the violence of the miners’ strike and even making a passing criticism of the police. This did not satisfy many of the delegates who were looking for much bolder support for the miners.
At that conference more than 500 attended the Militant Readers’ Meeting to listen to Ted Grant, Tony Mulhearn, myself and Terry Fields MP. An impressive collection of £1,500 was taken, serving to underline that despite all attempts to cripple Militant by expulsions we continued to go from strength to strength.
No sooner had the Labour Party Conference finished than a massive £200,000 fine was imposed on the NUM and Arthur Scargill by the Tory courts. Rubbing salt in the wound the Tory Law Lords demanded that the NUM should pay the court costs of the two Yorkshire scabs who had brought the original action. We commented:
There is the likelihood that the court will impose an even greater fine – of perhaps £500,000 – if the NUM refuse to “purge their contempt.” The Tory Law Lords had been encouraged “by the equivocation of labour and trade union leaders in recent weeks; the failure of the union leaders to properly raise the issue at Labour Party conference, and by the failure of the GMBATU leadership to respond sufficiently to the jailing of the 37 Cammel Laird’s workers. (32)
A call was made for a special NUM delegate conference to reaffirm the strike as official. At the same time it was suggested that a special appeal be directed to NACODS, the pit deputies’ union, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the NUM given that their jobs were now on the line. As the year closed it was clear, as we pointed out, that
the working class now faces its most serious challenge since 1926. If, as has been reported, the TUC leaders refuse the support requested by the NUM, then the left trade union leaders – and especially the leaders of the mineworkers themselves – must make an independent call for industrial action. (33)
The issue was now not just the fate of the miners and their jobs but the right of the unions to take effective industrial action. We declared:
Hesitation could have disastrous consequences. The ruling class are waging naked class war. Organised workers must meet fire with fire… The Tories’ strength is illusory, based only on the passivity of the trade union leaders. (34)
Summing up the effects of the miners’ strike Militant declared:
This struggle has become a beacon to the working class even on an international plane… Striking miners… have taken part in many international speaking tours, collecting tens of thousands of pounds. Workers internationally have been and still are looking towards Britain and holding their breath – hoping for a miners’ victory over the detested Thatcher government.
The Tories proclaimed that the miners have no support in Britain, yet the collections of over £1 million a week flatly contradicts this… The political involvement of miners and their families has led even the bishops of the North East to comment on the interest now shown in ‘revolutionary ideas’…
The ruling class has created a chasm between the classes. British society will never be the same again. The editorials of the capitalist press have talked of ‘civil war without bullets’, of ‘the enemy within’ – all of which indicate how seriously they view this class war… 1984 was a year in which the sceptics were confounded and the view of Marxists confirmed – that when they think they are right, working-class people will move heaven and earth to fight for their future. That fight will go on in 1985, and later, and until socialism becomes a reality. (35)
Militant miners on tour
The miners’ fight did go on in 1985 but without the victory that was there for the taking, because of the pernicious role of the right-wing trade union leaders.
In the first months of 1985 Militant chronicled the continuing campaign of the miners both on a national and international level. Many miners, some of them supporters of Militant, had travelled to the four corners of the world where there was a clamour from the labour movement to hear first hand accounts of their struggle.
Roy Jones, a striking miner and Militant supporter from North Staffordshire, spent a month in South Africa at the invitation of the South African National Union of Mineworkers and was accepted as its first white member. His trip “was very successful in raising finance, £220 immediately with a promise of more from a very poor union.”
Roy was as affected by the combativity of the South African miners as they were inspired by the struggles of the British workers. He explained that he was
convinced at the need for direct links with the South African NUM. It is a fast growing union, expanding from nothing five years ago to 100,000 in the autumn with the aim of 200,000 by the January congress. (36)
Other visits, involving Militant supporters, were made to Greece, Spain, the USA, Germany, and many many other countries. But in February as the strike began to approach its eleventh month the resolve of some miners began to crack. A new wave of clashes between pickets and police broke out as the police attempted to protect a few miners who were drifting back to work. Militant recorded a typical clash in Easington, County Durham:
“I’ve never been so frightened in my life. I used to respect the police, but never again” said retired miner, Joss Smith. (37)
He had been arrested in the clashes that resulted from the attempt of the police to escort a handful of scabs who had returned to work. However, in March after more than a year on strike for some miners, the heartbreaking decision was taken to return to work.
The miners did so with banners flying and bands playing generating a mixture of emotions amongst working people. Tears were brought to the eyes at the memory of the sacrifice which the miners had made not just for themselves but for the whole of the British working class. This was mixed with anger directed at those who had deserted the miners, stabbed them in the back, and assisted the Tory capitalist enemy to defeat the strike. We commented:
History has been made by those who returned to work this week. The miners’ strike of 1984-85 will never be forgotten, certainly not by those who took part, nor by future generations… Society will never be the same again.
The miners have brought class politics back on the agenda. Theirs will be the standard by which all struggles are measured… They have not been humiliated.
But vital lessons will have been learned. Above all, this strike has demonstrated the necessity to unite workers together in action if any one section, however strong, is to overcome the combined power of the management, government, press and police, which was unleashed on the miners. (38)
In an extensive review of the miners’ strike Militant dealt with the arguments of those who believed that Thatcher’s ‘strategy’ had succeeded.
Nothing could be further from the truth. She wanted an industrial Falklands, a short, sharp victory. She got a strike that lasted a year, cost £7,000million and will have a lasting affect on class relationships. (39)
The role of the trade union leaders was analysed:
Ned Smith, the now ex-director of labour relations of the NCB commented that the failure of the Trades Union Congress to deliver ‘total support’ for the miners was the turning point in the attitude of the government. What of the left-wing leaders of the trade unions?
Without the pressure of the rank and file, the right-wing leaders of the TUC would have attempted to organise a surrender to the Tories months ago. The left genuinely wished to help the cause of the miners they simply lacked the most elementary strategy, tactics and methods to do so, and the necessary confidence and faith in their own rank and file.
This strike demonstrates sharply the importance of theory and of an understanding of perspectives for those who have leading positions in the labour movement. The infection of ‘new realism’ had even spread through most of the left leaders. Despite the example of the miners and their families and all the magnificent support, they still simply did not believe their own members would respond if called upon to fight. (40)
Dealing with the mood of the working class towards the strike we wrote:
Seamen blacked coal throughout. Railway workers in the NUR and ASLEF stood firm despite victimisations of their own members. Even in these two industries, however, little was done by the leaders to link up in action with the miners.
Seamen face a range of acute problems. In the course of this strike, privatisation of Sealink went through. A campaign by the leadership for all-out strike action alongside the miners could have saved not only Sealink but would have massively enhanced the struggle of the miners. (41)
The lengths to which Thatcher was prepared to go to isolate the miners was described:
Thatcher personally intervened in negotiations over railway pay to ensure that the offer from the railways board was sufficient to attract the railway union leaders and avoid a strike of railway workers together with the miners…
The Transport and General Workers’ Union, the largest left union of all, has the capacity in a whole number of industries to cripple the economic life of British capitalism. Shamefully, the powerful machine of the Transport and General Workers’ Union was never decisively turned towards the miners’ strike. Dockers refused to handle coal.
As a result two disputes flared up. The Tories stumbled into the first. The second was cynically and carefully provoked. When the Dockers came out, the worst fears of the capitalist class had been realised; another strong group of workers was fighting side by side with the miners. Frenzied talk of a ‘State of Emergency’ flared. The Tories were reeling.
But instead of openly and boldly fighting to link the Dockers and the miners’ strike together, the leaders of the TGWU presented the Dockers’ dispute as an entirely separate affair. They denied that the strikes were political when clearly, as with the miners’ strike, they were cynically provoked by the Tory government. (42)
Pointing to decisive stages in the strike, Militant commented:
One moment stands out from all the rest. In November, following the strike at BL (British Leyland), the TGWU was fined £200,000 under the Tories’ anti-trade union legislation.
The TGWU executive’s reaction was opposition, but with folded arms… The leadership refused to pay the money, refused to go to court, then they simply sat back passively while the sequestrator plundered TGWU funds. The lesson is: left-wing leaders are generally closer and far more subject to the pressure of the rank and file.
But in fighting to elect left-wing leaders in all the unions, activists should ensure that these leaders are selected on their proven record and on a clear socialist programme which meets the needs of the rank and file. The left must demonstrate a clear willingness to campaign and mobilise the ranks of the union to fight on such decisive issues. (43)
Despite the heroism and tenacity of the NUM leadership, it lacked a clear strategy at decisive moments.
In the run up to the TUC, Militant argued for the NUM to name a date two or three weeks after the TUC. Such a call for general strike action would have set in train an unstoppable process.
Activists throughout industry would have begun immediately to organise support. Pressure from below would have forced the left trade union leaders to line up with the NUM. The TUC itself would have been forced to add its authority to this action.
Instead, the NUM complied with the idea of more general calls for support. A resolution from the furniture trades union for a day of solidarity action was withdrawn from the agenda. Militant continued week after week to argue the case for the NUM to boldly seize the initiative by naming the date for a one-day general strike. (44)
In early 1985 the South Wales NUM did call for a one-day general strike. Militant produced 50,000 leaflets for the NUM to publicise the case, but the tide was already beginning to turn.
A key issue in the strike was the question of the Nottinghamshire coalfield and the role of NACODS, the pit deputies’ union:
The rank and file should not be blamed. With different leadership they would have joined this battle. Eighty-one per cent of NACODS members voted for strike action. (45)
The NACODS leaders, with the Tories in dread of a total mining stoppage, negotiated their own separate deal. NACODS members along with NUM members paid for the cowardly actions of their own leadership by the subsequent loss of many of their jobs in the period that followed the strike.
Commenting on the political implication of the strike and the role of the Labour leaders, we said:
Miners will never forget how this deep, abiding loyalty [to Labour] was repaid during this dispute by Neil Kinnock and the other Labour leaders.
Only once did Neil Kinnock find the time to visit a picket line… After negotiations had been broken off by the Coal Board, Neil Kinnock was too busy to attend. When the full weight of the law was being thrown against individual miners, he advised meek compliance with the capitalist courts and the decisions of Tory judges…
Kinnock and other leaders lined up with the Tories against a general amnesty, giving credence to the idea that miners were violent criminals who deserved to be sacked and face a lifetime on the dole. (46)
However, the strike, we predicted, would have a lasting effect on British society and above all on the working class:
This strike has seen the radicalisation of whole communities. Within the NUM, the young lions – as they were dubbed – burst into the strike with incredible courage and energy.
They and the youth around them in the pit villages were the vanguard of a social explosion of which the Tories are terrified. They have rekindled the very finest traditions of struggle and solidarity.
As long ago as June, The Times was to comment that ironically, “the dispute that some politicians hoped would break the power of the NUM has actually created new cadres for the future”. (47)
The 1984-85 miners’ strike was, and remains, the most important industrial dispute of the last two decades, possibly since 1945. Contained in this drama, with elements of civil war between the classes, were all the ingredients for a future larger battle on a national scale. Cynics and faint-hearts will point to the defeat of the strike and the subsequent slaughtering of the coal industry with the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, as proof of the ‘futility’ of the strike.
Far worse than a defeat after an honourable battle is ignominious retreat without a shot being fired. Nothing is more calculated to demoralise the working class than the sight of a leadership which turns and runs from a battle when it is clear that there is no other way out. Scargill and the NUM leadership were quite aware of the huge build-up of coal stocks in the run-up to the strike.
They also understood that the threatened closure of Cortonwood, the trigger for the strike, was a provocation. But to have accepted the closure of one pit, while it still had plentiful supplies of coal, would have been the thin end of the wedge. The course chosen by the NUM leadership and by the miners themselves has laid down a fighting tradition which will be taken up by future generations of workers.