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:
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
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:
The police were backed up by the Attorney General, Tory MP Sir Michael Havers, who pointed out that the
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
Eyewitnesses at an earlier battle reported:
Even Arthur Scargill was arrested on a trumped-up charge of obstruction. We commented:
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
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:
A group of miners from the North East writing later in Militant about their experiences at the battle at Orgeave commented:
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 the same time Militant believed that
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:
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
Militant did not leave it at empty calls but got down to specifics. It pointed out that
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
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 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:
Summing up the effects of the miners’ strike Militant declared:
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
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:
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:
In an extensive review of the miners’ strike Militant dealt with the arguments of those who believed that Thatcher’s ‘strategy’ had succeeded.
The role of the trade union leaders was analysed:
Dealing with the mood of the working class towards the strike we wrote:
The lengths to which Thatcher was prepared to go to isolate the miners was described:
Pointing to decisive stages in the strike, Militant commented:
Despite the heroism and tenacity of the NUM leadership, it lacked a clear strategy at decisive moments.
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 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:
However, the strike, we predicted, would have a lasting effect on British society and above all on the working class:
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.