Miners’ Strike Still Echoes in Britain

Against the Current, No. 1, January/February 1986

Robin Blackburn

NEARLY A YEAR after their return to work, it is clear that the British miners’ strike of 1984/5 has been a watershed for the standing of the Thatcher government, for the trade unions, for the Labor Party, for the Communist Party and for the whole of the Left.

It has re-shaped the agenda of politics almost as drastically as the Falklands war did in the last Parliament, though in a quite different way. In 1982 an armada was sent to the Falklands/Malvinas Islands with the loss of a thousand lives and the expenditure of over two billion pounds, supposedly in defense of a community of a thousand islanders. In 1984-5 the government mobilized tens of thousands of police for 12 months and spent over four billion pounds to crush communities in which over half a million people live.

The contrast could scarcely have been more telling, and was noted far outside the ranks of the striking miners themselves. The ruthless use of the power of the state against mining communities that were simply defending their right to exist cast the Thatcher government in an ugly and revealing light.

While the Falklands expedition was endorsed by popular nationalism, the mobilization against British miners has grated on the sense of national community. Government support in opinion polls and in by-elections began to slip in the last months of the strike and, paradoxically, was dealt a further blow by the miners’ eventual defeat.

Mrs. Thatcher informed the editor of the Daily Telegraph last summer that the book she had most enjoyed reading on her holiday was Norman Gash’s study of the early 19th century statesman, Lord Liverpool — a prime minister, she declared, whose achievements had been greatly underestimated.

Among these achievements were the Six ‘Gag Acts,’ the Peterloo massacre, and the first’ consistent monetarist policy to be adopted by a British government. The consequent social devastation and misery set the scene for the Captain Swing revolt of rural laborers, the rise of the first working-class socialist movement in history, and the eruption of the nearest to a pre-revolutionary situation Britain has known since the seventeenth century, the crisis of 1831-2.

To suggest that similar events now lie in store would, of course, be far-fetched. Nevertheless, the actions of this government have engendered more bitterness and frustration than those of any other postwar government.

The challenge offered to the miners must be seen in a context in which consensus was already torn apart by joblessness and social decay, and in which government disregard for the social fabric had been painfully obvious.

The deliberate provocation of mine closures was of a piece with other attacks before and since: on the teachers; on the Greater London Council and other municipalities; on the peace women at the Greenham Common Cruise missile base; on trade-union rights at Britain’s major military base; over the disclosures relating to the sinking of the Argentine ship Belgrano, where the government failed to secure conviction of a civil servant who had exposed its lies; and over its decision to award top officials a huge salary increase at a time of social security cuts.

The eruption of riots in deprived inner­city areas like Handsworth and Brixton has been only the most dramatic manifestation of the explosive despair generated by capitalist decline in Britain.

Did Thatcher Win?

The miners’ strike was a pyrrhic victory for Thatcher. It dealt a blow to the government’s economic strategy simply because of its reckless cost. Ministers underestimated the miners’ resistance and the sympathy it would generate from all those afflicted by the blight on productive and cultural resources.

As people became aware that miners’ families had been denied even their due pittance on social security, the incredible fortitude and indeed grandeur of the miners’ refusal caught the public imagination. The miners found the weak spot of the consumer society in which we live: they found something more important to fight for than the toys of the electronic culture.

Furthermore, the scale of policing, the new powers wielded by apparently unaccountable police chiefs, the willingness to go to any length and any expense to crush the ‘enemy within’ presented the spectacle of a state power that saw itself apart from and above the citizens in whose name it rules.

Most of the thousands of miners arrested in the course of the dispute have subsequently been acquitted by juries or released without charge.

In the case of the pickets charged over their role at the ‘battle of Orgreave’ the trial revealed the cynical police provocation and mayhem, and led to not a single conviction.

Ironically enough, the parliamentary leaders of the Labor Party, who so signally failed to lend a powerful and unequivocal political dimension to the strike, were the first beneficiaries of the new climate it created. The discrediting of Thatcherism, in which the miners’ strike had been I crucial episode, put Labor in a better position to hope for a recovery in its electoral fortunes.

Yet proper advantage of this new situation could only have resulted if Labor had strongly identified with the cause of the mining communities.

The local Labor party branches did so, but Labor’s leaders remained unwilling to take up the issues presented by the strike and its aftermath; indeed they have persisted in regarding them simply as an embarrassment.

The Labor leaders’ contempt for the miners’ sacrifice and example could not have been made clearer when Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock informed the Durham Miners Gala this year that “we don’t need historic defeats.”

There is, of course, no reason to make a cult of defeats. But where some defeats can nourish the spirit of future victories, some victories — such as the electoral victory to which Kinnock is prepared to subordinate everything — can be utterly demoralizing and disastrous, as the experience of the Mitterrand government in France since 1981 reminds us.

Lasting Impact

In a context dominated by the menace of mass unemployment, the extent of solidarity action with the miners was, of course, very disappointing. But it would be wrong to discount for this reason the impact on organized labor of this extraordinary strike.

It is significant that, to the surprise of most observers, union ballots on the need for a political fund have subsequently received large affirmative majorities.

These ballots, conducted at the behest of the government itself, were designed to make the giving of trade-union funds to the Labor Party unconstitutional. So far not a single union has voted to withdraw support from Labor and in most cases the majorities to maintain the political fund have been large – two-thirds or three­ quarters on a high turnout.

This reflected a sentiment among millions of trade-union members, including many who are not even Labor voters that now was not the time for unions to abandon political action or trust the government.

The Labor leadership response to the miners’ demand for a review of all firings and convictions arising from the dispute, and the return of all union funds confiscated by the courts, has once again exposed the political and moral distance between Labor’s spokesmen and the movement they claim to lead.

The miners’ very moderate demands were denounced as utterly irresponsible by the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the leader of the Labor Party, and as ‘moral blackmail’ of the Labor movement by Peter Carter, the Communist Party’s industrial organizer. Apparently the demands were unsupportable because they required ‘retrospective legislation.’

The miners won majority endorsement of their resolution at the TUC conference in September and repeated it at Labor’s conference in Bournemouth the following month, for a simple reason. They had earned the moral right to make these demands.

The Labor Party is far more the party of the miners than it is the party of Neil Kinnock; it would have been denying the best part of itself if it failed to recognize this. Indeed this is so much the case that there is little that Kinnock can do to divorce the miners from Labor in the public mind.

No doubt there would be electoral risks in taking up the miners’ cause, but the higher risk strategy, as the more radical leadership of the Greater London Council has shown, can win popular support too. The stance of Labor’s leaders, no doubt quite deliberately, deprives the Party of the extra-parliamentary energy that began to flow through it as Local Constituency Labor Parties mobilized behind the strike. It pushes Labor back into its traditional role of being primarily an electoralist machine, incapable of following through its periodic successes at the polls.

Ruling-Class Was Ready

But the lessons of the strike itself are well worth pondering. The whole course of events leading up to and including the massive confrontation showed the need for a party that would anticipate and prepare for the coming struggle as conscientiously as the Conservative leaders did on behalf of the ruling class.

The huge miners’ strike victories in 1972 and 1974, which ultimately brought down the Conservative Heath government, were bound to elicit Tory militance.

The British ruling class, put on its mettle, was prepared for virtually any sacrifice in its determination to settle accounts with a ‘de-subordinated’ working class. The fate of Callaghan’s Labor government at the hands of trade-union insurgency could only strengthen the Tories’ resolve. The economic justification for massive mine closures was very weak, but the political New Right found overwhelming political justification.

Thatcher’s strategy in the strike was already elaborated by Conservative leaders, notably Nicolas Ridley, in confidential memoranda prior to the 1979 general election. The Ridley plan envisaged the creation of a national police force, laws to ban effective picketing, privatization of road haulage, a massive boost for ‘ nuclear power, conversion of power stations to oil, denial of social security to strikers and a battery of other measures.

The Labor Party failed to mount a unified pre-emptive attack on the Ridley measures as they unfolded; some were even anticipated during the Wilson­Callaghan years. There was no counter­Ridley plan, though details of the latter had been leaked to the Economist in 1978. Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Miners (NUM), warned of what was in store, but outside the ranks of the NUM he was scarcely heeded. Of course the leaders of a political party needed to go far beyond the purely trade union issues at stake, but this was barely attempted.

The perils of reliance on nuclear power were not hammered home by Labor leaders; they even let a Tory minister get away with the cheap stunt of bathing on the beach near Sellafield, a re-processing plant for nuclear fuel.

At a time when tens of thousands of the old and the poor are threatened by hypothermia each winter, Labor failed to raise the issue of fuel poverty or challenge the obscene idea that, in this situation, too much coal was being produced.

The previous Labor government’s own complicity with the security services in the conspiracy against civil liberties and political militancy disabled it from lending effective support to the remarkable succession of moles and whistle blowers who have sought to alert public opinion to government intimidation and misinformation.

…Labor Wasn’t

During the mine dispute itself the miners’ support groups helped to raise many millions of pounds for the striking communities and showed the reservoir of popular solidarity waiting to be tapped. Constituency Labor parties rallied strongly to the miners, as did Plaid Cyrrnu in Wales.

Isolated attempts were made by militants in the docks and on the railways to bring about trade-union action, rather than resolutions, in support of the NUM. But with nearly four million unemployed, to build class solidarity with the miners would have required a major and concerted educational campaign from the leaders of the Labor movement.

This was not forthcoming. Instead the leaders of the Parliamentary Labor Party and the TUC busied themselves as ‘honest brokers’ seeking to mediate between the two sides.

The profound social and moral force released by the strike alarmed these Labor leaders, precisely because it expressed the beginning of a popular awakening that could actually make a reality of the programs which Labor hollowly offers at election time.

Kinnock, as an MP from a mining constituency, a miner’s son, and a skilled television performer, was in an ideal position to articulate the miners’ cause. But instead he used his position to question the credentials of the NUM leadership.

The savagery of the government and the half-hearted and compromised reaction of the Labor leadership gave considerable opportunities to the Alliance parties — the Liberals and Social Democrats.

With Labor failing to articulate the issues expressed in the strike, David Steel, the Liberal leader, was perfectly placed to present the Alliance as the repository of common sense and decency, granting the need for a square deal for the miners while denouncing Arthur Scargill and picket line violence.

The failure of the NUM to hold a national ballot of its members during the dispute was widely attacked. Some who urged a ballot from the beginning evidently hoped that it would be a way of heading off the strike. Class consciousness and collective solidarity grow by example and in struggle, as fatalism and resignation are replaced by conviction and a sense of common identity and possibility

Jimmy Reid, &a demagogic &ex­Communist and trade-union leader, argued for a ballot in a way that could only undercut support for those who had actually gone on strike without a national ballot. Yet in the far-off days, almost two decades ago, when Reid led a workers’ struggle at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders he did not call for a ballot among the confederation of shipbuilding workers prior to taking action.

The mining areas that went on strike not only had a manifest moral and political right to take action on their own to defend their very jobs, whatever the views of miners in more fortunately­placed areas, but by taking such action they created the conditions necessary for national struggle.

By early summer, as Huw Beynon observes in Digging Deeper, the Verso collection on the miners’ struggle, the basis existed for appealing for nationwide action by every section of the NUM; according to the union’s rule book this required a ballot. In fact, a ballot at this stage could have played a vital role in extending support for the strike, bringing round more miners in Nottingham, where large numbers of miners refused to come out on strike, and creating a better basis for appeals to workers in transport, the power stations and so forth.

But this case could only have been put by those who had demonstrated that they were utterly committed to a miners’ victory.

Polls suggested that the NUM leadership could have won a national majority for the strike in May or June. Why then was a poll not organized?

Of course there would have been some risk that the result might have gone the other way. Many in the NUM felt that if there is one thing worse than a defeat it is to be beaten without a struggle. If the Coal Board’s closure program had been allowed through this would also undermine the opportunities for later resistance. In Yorkshire, the largest and most militant area, there were bad memories of previous ballots which had condemned a Yorkshire majority to inaction. The Yorkshire militants declared that they had a right to act for themselves and then to appeal for support from other areas. One of Scargill’s first acts as NUM president had been to transfer the union headquarters to Yorkshire where it would be more responsive to grass-roots opinion.

Scargill had good democratic credentials as leader of the union since he had recently been elected as president by a record majority of NUM members after a campaign which alerted miners to the inevitability of the coming confrontation. It is also, perhaps, significant that Mick McGahey, the Eurocommunist vice­president of the NUM, did not call for a ballot.

In a private memorandum to the NUM executive in May, the left Labor leader Tony Benn urged the union to hold a ballot, arguing that this was needed to heal the breach with the Nottingham miners and to put the NUM in the best position to win wider support from other unions. The rejection of this advice undoubtedly reflected rank-and-file intransigence in the militant areas; but it also expressed a weak grasp of the profound strategic problem the strike faced.

Class and Community

Most sections of the Marxist left insisted that mass pickets were the key to victory for the miners, a position that Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party still argues in his otherwise cogent and impressive book, The Great Strike. In common with other revolutionary socialists, the SWP usually argues for strikes to be run by directly elected strike committees, and the position the strike committees adopted reflected the strength of feeling generated in the militant areas. The strike revealed an extraordinary depth of commitment, generated as much by community as by class; but this was a weakness as well as a strength, since Nottinghamshire miners, and Nottinghamshire people generally, are prone to resent what they see as Yorkshire arrogance.

The best way of overcoming communal fragmentation would have been through that workers’ democracy which best expresses class solidarity. It is this essential point that Tony Benn had grasped and the majority of Britain’s Marxists had not. A ballot would not, of course, have guaranteed victory, but it would have improved the odds and somewhat reduced the costs in case of defeat.

The democratic procedures whereby the NUM voted to end the strike without a settlement won the grudging admiration even of normally hostile commentators in the bourgeois press. But the divisions bequeathed by the strike have subsequently allowed a breakaway ‘democratic’ union, based on Nottinghamshire but drawing some support from elsewhere as well, to establish itself with some 30,000 members.

This union enjoys the favors of management and the backing of a new rightwing union grouping, including the electricians’ and engineering unions, which is prepared to negotiate no-strike agreements with employers.

This is certainly an ominous development. Together with the enhanced power of managers in the pits, it reminds us that there was a heavy price to be paid for defeat.

While the strike was in progress, even the most faint-hearted in the Labor movement were abashed by the fortitude of the striking miners and their families; Neil Kinnock himself appeared on a picket line eleven months into the strike! But in the aftermath of defeat there have been no shortage of those willing to insist that this proves the necessity of a craven and constitutional moderatism.

A section of the former Labor Left has been converted to the so-called ‘new realism’ in the supposed interests of ensuring a Labor victory against Margaret Thatcher in the next election. The Communist Party has split, with its new leadership urging a rejection of ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘left adventurism.’

This new ‘soft left’ has the advantage of being in tune with Labor’s electoralist traditions, but fails to take account of the new context of British politics in which a strong center grouping, the Alliance, offers a more streamlined social democratic package.

Implications for the Left

If the government cannot afford any more victories like that over the miners, it is equally true that the Left as a whole was weighed in the balance and found wanting. It has not yet taken the measure of what is a crisis of the entire British social order. Instead, the Left has tended to identify the crisis with what is merely one manifestation of British capitalist decline (‘Thatcherism”). As a result, it has become obsessed with winning a Labor electoral victory at all costs, and has failed to develop the programs and strategies which could alone challenge Thatcherism and British capitalism as a whole.

The eighties have witnessed a welcome flourishing of socialist debate on strategy, much of it influenced by Marxism, in the pages of such journals as Marxism Today and New Socialist. But too often there is studious avoidance of the great programmatic issues that will have to tackled, and an obsessive concern with presentation and rhetoric.

Too often, the Left has been offering vague democratic cant in place of specific indictment of the very undemocratic structures of the British state. And too often the ‘new social movements’ are  gestured at as a way not so much of advancing the urgent cause of peace, or real equality for women or Blacks, but to distract attention from the awkward problems of mobilizing what is still an overwhelmingly working-class population against Britain’s bourgeois social order.

While much socialist discourse is given over to heart-searching and handwringing, precious little attention is given to the measures which might offer hope of restoring a devastated manufacturing economy or a crumbling welfare system. Similarly, the Palace of Westminster and the constitutional structure of the Labor Party are accepted as heirlooms which must at all costs be passed on to future generations.

A great deal of discussion seems to be couched in an elaborate code in which such quite concrete issues as the power of finance to veto any Labor program is evaded. We are invited to join an “alliance” whose objectives are never spelled out.

The miners fought, above all, the apathy and resignation about mass unemployment. It is significant that the most important new thinking to have emerged on the Left over the last year should have been partly prompted by the struggle over pit closures — namely Andrew Glyn’s pamphlet for the Campaign Group of Left Labour MPs, One Million ]obs a Year (Verso, with an introduction by Tony Benn) and the Socialist Society’s new statement of aims, “Empowering the Powerless.”

During the strike Andrew Glyn produced a pamphlet which demonstrated that, if social costs were taken properly into account, there was no economic case for closing mines. In his new pamphlet, Glyn outlines the positive measures that a Labor government would have to take if full employment was to be achieved within the lifetime of a Labor government. In a measured and realistic way he shows that there is no hope of achieving such a goal without breaking the power of finance (the City) and creating the framework for a system of democratic planning to control investment.

The details of his proposals will certainly need to be discussed and elaborated. But the Left has never before had such a coherent and relevant program for challenging British decline and the logic of capital, nor has it previously displayed such technical mastery of the complexities of economic policy.

The Left MPs who have backed this document also distinguished themselves by giving all-out support to the strike, speaking at hundreds of meetings all-round the country.

The miners’ struggle has had a powerful educational effect, cutting through the false dichotomies — between the working class and “the movements,” between industrial and non-industrial workers, and between workers and members of oppressed groups — that have too often confused debate on the Left.

A far-reaching class struggle, as Doreen Masseyk and Hilary Wainwright point out in Digging Deeper, showed great capacity for mobilizing support outside the traditional sectors of the working class. It is also clear that a happier outcome to the struggle would have required more effective support from workers from the factories and offices, that very sphere of material production which has been downplayed by the theoreticians of “post­industrial society” who tend to focus solely on “the movements.” The strike received impressive support from the Black communities and furnished the occasion for one of the largest women’s rallies of recent years.

Within the mining areas women came to the forefront as organizers and spokespersons for the strike. Under the pressure of the struggle the miners proved willing to transform themselves and to back the attempts made by women and Blacks to gain proper representation within the structure of the Labor Party.

And at the Miners’ Conference this June, Arthur Scargill abandoned his long-standing opposition to the demand for workers’ control in the mining industry and committed himself to a program whereby the NUM would no longer accept management’s “right to manage.”

The Socialist Society statement, “Empowering the Powerless,” drawing strength from the experience of the solidarity movement with the miners, argues for a socialism which could unite the new “collective laborer” and its potential allies against not only “Thatcherism” but the declining social order of which the present government is a product. It is written by a group which organized a broad campaign of support for the striking miners and has subsequently helped produced Pitwatch, a journal which helps to continue the work of the miners’ support groups.

Of course the Socialist Society is a very small, though growing, group on Britain’s quite large but very disunited Left. The question now is whether the Labor movement and Left is willing to transform itself in the ways that are necessary if demoralizing “victories” of the Laborist and Euro-Socialist variety are to be avoided and programs fought for that acknowledge the lessons the miners have offered us.

January-February 1986, ATC 1

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