- Created: Wednesday, 20 May 2009 14:35
- Written by David Yaffe
It is 20 years since the miners’ strike, which pitted working class communities against riot police in running battles on the picket lines and saw striking miners facing the full force of the state in Thatcher’s Britain. Yet, as we set out to show in People versus State*, without the treachery of the official Labour and trade union movement itself, the ruling class alone could not have defeated the miners. We reprint here an edited version of the introduction to that book, which pays tribute to the courage and determination of the striking miners, traces the growing political consciousness of their struggle – and exposes the shameful and reactionary role played by those who claim to represent the working class. The lessons drawn from that strike in this article remain relevant to the struggle against opportunism today.
The most heroic strike the British working class has seen for decades ended on 5 March 1985. The year-long miners’ strike, the longest major industrial battle in British history, has changed the political consciousness of hundreds of thousands of people. The courage and determination of the striking miners, their families and communities will have a lasting impact on the working class struggle in Britain in the years ahead.
The strike may have ended but the dispute goes on. At a press conference on 3 March, soon after the union’s national delegate conference had voted narrowly, 98-91, to return to work without an agreement, NUM leader Arthur Scargill said:
‘Don’t underestimate this union’s ability to fight pit closures and job losses. This union will continue to fight, and if that means we have to consider taking action again then we shall do so…’
Scargill made it clear that the major reason for the return to work was the fact
‘that the trade union movement in Britain, with a few notable exceptions, have left this union isolated. They have not carried out TUC congress decisions, to their eternal shame.
‘We faced not an employer but a government aided and abetted by the judiciary, the police and you people in the media. Our people have suffered tremendous hardship…’
Scargill himself vehemently opposed calling off the strike. The NUM National Executive however was split 11-11 and did not recommend a course of action to the delegate conference. But, faced with many more miners being forced back to work by hunger, deprivation and debt, the delegates narrowly voted for an organised return to work without an agreement. The pressures which had built up against areas that wanted to continue had proved too great. But the dispute goes on.
Clashes continue with a National Coal Board (NCB) management determined to drive home its present advantage. Union officials are finding their union work restricted and that previous ‘custom and practice’ agreements have been dropped. Clashes between miners and scabs are widespread and many more miners are being sacked or sent home in a number of areas. While some have been reinstated, others are being sacked as more cases go through the courts. By 11 March, of the 766 miners sacked nationally, only 111 had been reinstated. The fight by the NUM to regain the initiative will be a long one – taking into account the continuing disputes and growing splits within the NUM itself. On 14 March three areas, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and South Derbyshire, agreed to challenge the authority of the NUM Executive on the continuing overtime ban and on the proposed ballot for a 50p levy on all members to help striking miners victimised as a result of the strike. There is growing pressure also to accept the 5.2% NCB pay offer – outstanding for the past two years – which is conditional on lifting the overtime ban and resuming ‘normal working’. The dispute looks like being bitter and long drawn out.
The miners’ strike began as a struggle of the miners and their communities to defend their jobs – to halt pit closures. It inevitably became something much more fundamental because of the political and economic context in which it was taking place. In the RCG Manifesto, The revolutionary road to communism in Britain, written some six months before the miners’ strike began, we said:
‘The growing economic crisis of British imperialism threatens the alliance that has tied the organised working class to the capitalist system in Britain. The attack on living standards, the growing unemployment and poverty is eroding the material conditions that have consolidated the political hold the labour aristocracy has over the whole working class. This process, while still in its early stages, has nevertheless led to a developing crisis within the Labour Party and trade union movement. This in turn has had its impact on the more radical elements of the new middle class and therefore on the British socialist organisations which draw their membership from such groups. Finally the more oppressed sections of the working class are increasingly demonstrating their independence from the traditional organisations of the working class. The split in the British working class in inevitably growing’. (page 117)
For the miners’ strike to take place at all, a split was necessary in the NUM, primarily between two distinct sections of miners. The one higher paid, with relatively secure employment, working in high-investment, high-productivity pits, especially in the Notts area. The other lower paid and/or under constant threat of redundancies, working in less productive pits. Creating such divisions in the NUM has been a conscious strategy of the NCB since 1974. It was a Labour government which introduced productivity deals and which allowed miners in high-productivity, high-investment pits to earn considerably more than those in less productive pits.
The second factor behind the strike is that the government picked the time and place of the dispute and was always determined to destroy the NUM under Arthur Scargill’s leadership. It was relying on the deep divisions in the NUM to prevent any serious resistance to pit closures. And it was confident, having recently crushed the National Graphical Association, that the TUC would have no stomach for any real fight.
But from the beginning the striking miners and their leaders refused to allow their struggle to be limited by the narrow self-interest of better-off layers of the working class, either in their own ranks or their organisations and political parties.
So the less privileged miners – those with most to lose – dictated the terms of the strike. The better-paid and more secure miners (eg Notts) and the ‘moderate’ trade union leaders were prevented from imposing their will in spite of support from the Thatcher government, NCB and Labour Party. This was the significance of the refusal to hold a national ballot.
The split in the NUM, a fundamental feature of the strike, was mirrored throughout the Labour and trade union movement as the strike progressed and workers were forced to take sides. It says much for the courage and determination of the striking miners and their communities that it took twelve months of bitter struggle, with very little support from the organised trade union movement, before Labour and trade union leaders were able decisively to undermine the strike.
Once it became clear early on that the opportunist forces – the so-called ‘moderates’ - within the NUM and in the Labour Party and trade union movement were unable to significantly restrict the strike, the full force of the state was brought in. A national co-ordinated police action was directed against the striking miners, involving 20,000 police with some 8,000 operational at any one time. This action was coordinated by Scotland Yard using massive computer-backed data-gathering. Road blocks, political questioning, beatings, illegal fingerprinting and photographing, snatch squads, phone taps, infiltrators and agents provocateur were used against the striking miners. Miners on picket lines were brutalised by baton-wielding police in full riot gear.
Alongside the police violence was the mobilisation of the courts and the law against the striking miners. General Sir Frank Kitson explained this process in his book Low intensity operations, insurgency and peace-keeping. Kitson said that the law is:
‘just another weapon in the government’s arsenal and it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.’
Kitson’s views draw together years of experience of British strategy in counter-revolutionary violence against liberation movements throughout the world and, of course, in the Six Counties of Ireland from 1970-1972. This strategy was used during the miners’ strike, with leading NUM militants arrested and political bail conditions used to bar striking miners from picketing or approaching NCB property. The right to picket, to protest effectively, became a ‘criminal offence’.
While using its laws to attack the striking miners, the state used every means at its disposal to sustain the scab miners and their organisations – police protection and private business finance – offering bribes and other inducements to persuade miners to come back to work. This was accompanied by a propaganda barrage from the media and TV which daily became little more than a mouthpiece for the government and the NCB.
Faced with state repression, the miners responded on the same lines as the oppressed have responded everywhere. The lessons of Ireland, of Brixton and Liverpool 8 were very quickly learned under such conditions. The miners built barricades, set them alight, overturned cars, hurled bricks and stakes in self-defence against the police. They were forced to go way beyond the legal, constitutional and peaceful methods of struggle so beloved by opportunists like Kinnock, Murray, Bill Sirs and others.
James Anderton, Chief Constable of Manchester, blurted out at an early stage the ruling class approach to this, when he said mass pickets were: ‘acts of terrorism without the bullet and the bomb’.
Such labels were part of the ruling class ideological offensive to isolate the miners from other workers, as dangerous ‘extremists’. And, in particular, to try to isolate Arthur Scargill, the one major trade union leader who stood by his class.
Scargill made it clear he would rather go to prison than betray his class. He refused to condemn miners’ ‘violence’ in defence of their jobs and communities. By doing so, he challenged not only the ruling class and its courts, but also opportunists like Kinnock, Willis, Sirs and the rest.
The miners’ strike was a political threat to the traditional Labour and trade union leadership. The opportunists, the staunch upholders of the old order, were terrified that their carefully built institutions, based on years of treacherous compromise with the ruling class, would be blown apart if the miners’ strike continued outside their control. For this reason, throughout the strike the Labour Party and TUC leadership did everything in their power to dissociate themselves from the militant leadership of the NUM.
Kinnock supported a national ballot and condemned the ‘violence’ of the miners’ picket lines under the guise of ‘condemning all violence …without fear or favour’. By sitting on the fence, he betrayed the miners. Willis did likewise, as did most trade union leaders. Both Kinnock and Willis used the NUM/Libyan ‘connection’ to undermine the NUM leadership while remaining silent over the seizure of NUM funds by ruling class courts at the end of October. Kinnock refused to speak at five NUM rallies organised at a crucial point in the strikes in early November and so it goes on. On the central issues of workers’ democracy versus ruling class democracy, workers’ violence versus ruling class violence and ‘illegality’ versus legality, Kinnock and Willis sided with the ruling class.
With ‘friends’ like these, who needed enemies? Lenin’s characterisation of the opportunists as the ‘principal enemy’, as ‘better defenders of the bourgeoisie than the bourgeoisie itself’, was demonstrated time and again during the miners’ strike. ‘Without their leadership of the workers, the bourgeoisie could not remain in power’. Without their leadership of the workers, Thatcher and the NCB could not have driven the miners back to work.
Their lack of solidarity with the miners’ strike must be contrasted with their solidarity with each other. When Willis was rightly jeered and booed at a South Wales miners’ rally in November for his role in undermining the miners’ strike, and a noose was lowered from the balcony above
his head, almost every trade union leader came to his defence and attacked the miners for treating him that way.
The crisis of imperialism will inevitably lead to the disintegration of the Labour Party, as the social base of the labour aristocracy shrinks and its ability to control the working class movement is undermined. The miners’ strike demonstrated that this development is inevitable.
Perhaps the most politically decisive factor in the miners’ strike has been the fact that, as the strike progressed, the most politically conscious miners and their supporters have recognised the need to ally themselves with the oppressed fighting British imperialism at home or abroad. That is, miners are starting to argue for an anti-imperialist standpoint in the British labour movement.
Very quickly the miners drew connections between their treatment and that of black workers in South Africa; the treatment of the Irish people in the Six Counties and that of black youth by the racist British police here at home. This was expressed dramatically in the headline of The Miner in July 1984: ‘Belfast comes to Blidworth’. More recently Kate Whiteside, a member of the new national co-ordinating committee of the NUM Women’s Action Group, relating her growing political involvement during the strike, said:
‘Police [were] treating people rough: coming in at six in the morning and frightening the children. Suddenly I said “My God, that’s been happening to blacks for years”.’ (The Guardian, 19 February 1985)
It has been because miners have recognised that a defeat for their struggle would force thousands of them into unemployment and poverty that they have fought in such a determined and courageous way. Recognising what awaits them should they be defeated, they have, through the practical experience gained in a determined struggle against the British state, begun to see where their real interests lie and who are their real allies.
A victory in an outright sense for the miners, of the 1972/74 Saltley Gate kind, appeared unlikely throughout the strike because of the bitter split in the NUM and the growing split in the organised trade union movement. After the TUC Conference in September, such a victory became virtually impossible. It became clear that the split in the organised working class movement is not simply one between the trade union ‘bureaucracy’ and the rank and file but goes down deeper into the ranks of the working class. Key workers such as dockers, power and steel workers, lorry drivers and sections of miners themselves – on the whole the better-paid, more secure jobs – were scabbing on the miners’ strike.
However, the year-long struggle itself represented a political victory. The lessons learned, the forms of struggle adopted, and the new organisations thrown up during the strike will have a lasting impact on the working class movement in this
The miners’ strike has transformed political life for hundreds of thousands of people. The political gains of the strike are significant and if built on will lead to a lasting advance for the British working class movement. What are these gains?
First, the mining communities and hundreds and thousands of their supporters have come to understand the vicious class character of the British imperialist state as they have experienced its police, courts and prisons. Many now recognise the need for disciplined organisations to defend themselves against it.
Second, thousands of workers have come to know the character of the leadership of the Labour Party and trade union movement and realise that a new fighting movement can only be built after a decisive break with these leaders and the section of the working class which follows them.
Third, the mining communities, themselves forced to fight with the brick, the barricade and the petrol bomb against Thatcher’s national riot police, have come for the first time to see allies in those fighting for freedom in the Six Counties of Ireland and in black people forced to fight against the racist police state in Britain.
Fourth, perhaps the most important political development in the strike has been the critical and often leading role of the women in the mining communities in defending and sustaining the strike through organisation, demonstrations, street activities and defence of their relatives and friends in prison for supporting the strike.
The women’s support groups in the mining areas and miners’ support groups in the towns and cities are a major gain of the strike. Their work is still crucial to continue the struggle against victimisation of striking miners and to defend the imprisoned miners. At a Chesterfield rally in commemoration of International Women’s Day on 9 March 1985, Scargill urged the women’s support groups to rededicate themselves to the struggle even though the strike had ended.
‘This is not the end. It’s the beginning because you are part of this union and must remain part of the miners’ union…
‘We’ve got to take this fight forward and step up the campaign. The women’s support groups have got to take on a broader role.
‘You must become involved in the wider issues. Learn and understand that rate-capping affects each and every one of us and that the peace movement is absolutely important…’
Scargill went on to demand of the Labour and trade union leaders that they stop equivocating on the demand for an amnesty for all miners victimised during the strike. He said: ‘Those men who have been arrested and gaoled as far as I’m concerned are political prisoners. They’ve been gaoled because they fought for this union’. Scargill demanded that any future Labour government ‘wipe clean’ the stain against all those arrested.
Finally he launched a bitter attack on the union leaders, particularly those in the power industry, whom he said:
‘should hang their heads in eternal shame for what they have done during this dispute. They can come forward with whatever arguments they wish but they will never be able to erase the fact that when the chips were down they supported Margaret Thatcher and turned their backs on the NUM’. (Newsline, 11 March 1985)
Scargill’s speeches continually pose a way forward for the working class which goes beyond the traditional methods of struggle of the trade union movement. It would indeed be progress if the working class women who have been involved in the support groups took their experience into the movements for peace, against rate-capping, took a stand in solidarity with those fighting racism and with those fighting imperialism in Ireland, South Africa and throughout the world.
To become ‘involved in the wider issues’, they will have to fight many Labour Party and Communist Party members within the NUM and outside in the wider trade union movement for the right to exist and develop their work. For there are those who will not follow the path of these new class organisations and are intent on reasserting the deadly grip of traditional labour movement methods
of organisation, negotiation and compromise.
The major organisations to the left of the Labour Party have without exception ignored the split in the working class which has deepened throughout the strike. In the case of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) they have attempted at every stage to cover up for it. The Morning Star reported on 9 March that:
‘Scottish miners’ leaders yesterday were greatly encouraged by positive support from Labour leader Neil Kinnock in their campaign to get hundreds of sacked miners their jobs back.’
Kinnock has in fact refused to support an amnesty for all miners sacked. The Vice-President of the NUM, Mick McGahey, a leading member of the CPGB, has already met Kinnock and an invitation has been extended to Kinnock and Willis to take part in the Scottish Miners’ Gala later this year. The crucial lessons of the year-long strike are being thrown aside as some NUM leaders and officials are all too ready to build bridges with the opportunists who did so much damage to their strike.
Real communists oppose any attempt at reconciliation with such opportunists. Those advocating ‘unity’ with such forces are, as Lenin argued, ‘objectively defending the enslavement of the workers by the imperialist bourgeoisie with the aid of its best agents in the labour movement.’ Communists and socialists have to abandon their preoccupation with the privileged minority of the working class and their leaders and go down ‘lower and deeper to the real masses’. That, Lenin said, is the ‘whole meaning and whole purport of the struggle against opportunism’.
The bitter year-long strike has exposed the role of the organised trade union movement and has thrown up new class organisations of the kind that would be capable of taking the struggle of the working class forward. The work of women’s support groups and the miners’ support groups made a crucial contribution to the strike precisely because they were outside the control of Labour and trade union bureaucracies. If these support groups continue to carry out the work necessary to defend miners victimised and imprisoned during the strike, and take their experience into other working class struggles, then indeed the miners’ strike 1984-85 will have ‘brought a new dimension to British politics’.
David Reed (David Yaffe)
During the summer of 1984, miners organised undercover hit squads to deal with scabs breaking the strike with police protection. Labour leaders such as Neil Kinnock denounced these saying that ‘violence is not part of British trade unionism’. The SWP joined in the condemnation, saying that hit squads ‘can give trade union officials an excuse not to deliver solidarity’ (Socialist Worker 11 August 1984) and then arguing that:
‘We are opposed to individuals or groups using violence as a substitute for mass struggle. That’s why we oppose planting bombs, assassinating politicians and criticise some of the miners’ “hit squads”’. (Socialist Worker 24 August 1984)
The SWP has consistently opposed the violent resistance of the oppressed: in Ireland against British imperialism; the military struggle against South African apartheid; the uprising of black and white working class youth in 1981. The SWP position is driven by the need to preserve its alliance with the Labour and trade union left.
FRFI 178 April / May 2004