Created: Thursday, 17 April 2014 21:00
Written by Bob Shepherd
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014
Thirty years ago at the beginning of March 1984 the majority of miners in the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) began a historic year-long strike against pit closures and job losses. They were eventually forced back to work by a combination of the draconian and brutal actions of the Thatcher government allied with the treachery of the official Labour and trade union movement. The defeat of the miners was not just a defeat for the workers involved but also a major defeat for the whole working class, and its effects are still being felt today. BOB SHEPHERD reports.
The strike affected working class communities across the country as organisations and individuals were forced to take sides. What quickly became clear to the miners and their supporters was that for the strike to have any chance of success they had to organise beyond the trade union and labour movement as the Labour Party and TUC did all in their power to undermine it. The role of miners’ wives and other women in their communities became crucial firstly in organising food supplies and then in building broader political support for the strike. The strikers also received support from miners’ support groups that sprang up across the country.
Thirty years on we face a government engaged in a massive attack on the working class. Once again, the Labour Party is complicit in this attack, and once again, the broader trade union movement has proved incapable of defending those sections of the working class who are experiencing the brunt of the government’s austerity programme. Taking on board the lessons of 30 years ago is central to building real opposition to the ruling class.
How the strike unfolded
The strike was provoked by the government when the National Coal Board (NCB) announced a programme of pit closures that would lead to 20,000 job losses. Arthur Scargill, leader of the NUM, said that the plan would actually mean at least 80,000 job losses. Scargill’s prediction was correct, and has been borne out by figures in recently released government papers from the time. Strikes began in pits immediately threatened by closure in Yorkshire and flying pickets spread the action across all the major coalfields apart from Nottingham.
FRFI’s first report on the strike set out the issues involved:
‘After two weeks of bitter struggle the miners’ fight to save jobs dramatically demonstrates the fundamental political features of working class struggle in this period. These are first and foremost the split in the working class movement. Second, the reactionary and oppressive character of the British imperialist state, its police laws and courts. Third, the ruthlessness with which the British ruling class in a period of intense crisis will use all means at its disposal to crush any opposition to its rule. And finally that only by going beyond legal, constitutional and traditional methods of trade union struggle can such a fight be won.’ (FRFI 38, April 1984)
The strike immediately exposed a split in the NUM between two distinct sections of miners: one better paid and with more secure employment, working in high productivity pits, especially in the Nottingham area; the other, lower paid and working in less productive pits and under constant threat of redundancies. It was this second group who dictated the terms of the strike, and prevented the Nottingham miners and ‘moderate’ trade union leaders from derailing it through an appeal for a national ballot on the action.
As the strike progressed it also became clear that the split in the organised working class movement was not simply one between the trade union ‘bureaucracy’ and the rank and file, but went down deeper into the ranks of the working class. Key workers such as dockers, power and steel workers, and lorry drivers were to scab on the strike at critical moments.
The law, ‘just another weapon in the government’s arsenal’
Once it became clear that the so-called ‘moderates’ within the NUM, Labour Party and trade union movement were unable significantly to restrict the strike, the full force of the state was brought to bear. A nationally coordinated police action run from Scotland Yard was directed against the striking miners. It involved 20,000 police, with some 8,000 operational at any one time, roadblocks, political interrogation, beatings, snatch squads, phone taps and agents provocateur. Miners on picket lines were constantly attacked by baton-wielding police in full riot gear. Over 11,000 miners were arrested during the strike.
Alongside the police violence was the mobilisation of the courts and the law. General Sir Frank Kitson explained this process in his book Low Intensity Operations, Insurgency and Peace Keeping, arguing that the law is ‘just another weapon in the government’s arsenal and becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public’. Kitson’s views drew together years of experience of British strategy in counter-revolutionary violence against liberation movements throughout the world including the north of Ireland
In line with this strategy, NUM militants were arrested and received political bail conditions that prevented them from rejoining picket lines. Picketing became a criminal offence. This campaign was supported by an ideological offensive against the strikers; James Anderton, then Chief Constable of Manchester, for instance, blurting out that mass pickets were ‘acts of terrorism without the bullet and the bomb’.
TUC and Labour Party traitors
In refusing to accept the rules of the normal trade union game, the miners’ struggle presented a serious political threat to the Labour and trade union leadership. Throughout the strike the Labour Party and TUC leadership did everything in their power to dissociate themselves from the militant leadership of the NUM. Thus the Labour Party leader, Neil 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’. TUC General Secretary Willis did likewise, as did most trade union leaders. When, after a year of struggle, an NUM special conference in March 1985 voted narrowly for a return to work, Arthur Scargill made the responsibility clear: ‘the trade union movement in Britain, with a few notable exceptions, have left this union isolated’. Throughout the strike, the opportunists proved themselves the principal enemy, and, as Lenin once said, ‘better defenders of the bourgeoisie than the bourgeoisie itself’.
Lessons of the strike
The strike transformed the political lives of thousands of people and for a short period of time threw up new forms of class organisation. At the time it seemed that the working class was on the verge of taking big political strides forward, but in the end the strength of opportunism proved too much.
The strike had shown miners and their supporters the ruthlessness of the British imperialist state when faced with a militant challenge – its unbridled use of police brutality and the courts and prison system. In facing ruthless state repression, the miners had responded on the same lines as the oppressed had responded everywhere else. The lessons of Ireland and the youth uprisings of 1981 in Brixton and Liverpool 8 were very quickly learned. The miners built barricades on picket lines and fought back using all means of self-defence against the police. They were forced to go beyond the legal, constitutional and peaceful methods of struggle so beloved by the Labour Party and the TUC. Scargill refused to condemn miners’ ‘violence’ and made it clear he would rather go to prison than betray his class. By doing so, he challenged not only the ruling class and its courts, but also opportunists like Kinnock and the rest.
Thousands of people learned through bitter experience that new fighting organisations of the working class had to be built. The development of women’s support groups in the mining areas and miners’ support groups across the country were the embryonic forms of this necessary development. Yet while the true class character of the Labour Party and its trade union allies was on constant display throughout the struggle, major organisations to the left of the Labour Party brushed over the open split in the working class. The SWP condemned the violence of miners’ hit squads. The Vice-President of the NUM, Mick McGahey, a leading member of the then Communist Party of Great Britain, invited both Kinnock and Willis to take part in the 1985 Scottish Miners’ Gala. The crucial lessons of the year-long strike were thrown aside as the ‘left’ opportunists scrambled to maintain their unity with the likes of Kinnock and did all in their power to prevent any political break with the Labour Party; almost all of them called for a vote for Labour at the 1987 general election.
Communists oppose any attempt at reconciliation with such opportunists. Those advocating ‘unity’ with such forces were, 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’. We face this struggle today, as in parliament, the Labour Party backs austerity, as Labour councils impose ever more savage cuts, and the trade union movement proves incapable and unwilling to offer any meaningful resistance.
Miners strike 1984-1985: People vs state, David Reed and Olivia Adamson, Larkin Publications 1985.
‘The war on the miners, 1984-85’: http://tinyurl.com/l5fwrss
‘The fight goes on: The miners’ strike 1984-85’, FRFI 178, April/May 2004: http://tinyurl.com/kuhrhyc
See also reviews, Images of the past below and Look back in anger in this issue.
Images of the past: the miners’ strike
Mark Metcalf, Martin Jenkinson, Mark Harvey
Pen & Sword Books, 2014, £14.99
This book, one of a number that are being published to mark 30 years since the start of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, will most certainly be one of the better ones. It has a fantastic collection of black and white photographs, some familiar and some never published before, the majority the work of Martin Jenkinson who was the official photographer for the Yorkshire area of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) during the year of the strike. The photographs illustrate and complement the text as we move from the period leading up to the strike with rising unemployment under the Thatcher government through the strike itself, up to the immediate aftermath.
The text is written in a low key manner but contains all the relevant points of information to allow the reader to follow the progress of the strike and importantly to understand the range of forces lined up against the miners from the National Coal Board (NCB) and their Chairman MacGregor, the Thatcher government, the police and courts, to the Labour Party and main sections of the trade union movement. The important role of the Women’s Support Groups and the wider Miners’ Support Groups are also documented. A recommended read for anyone who wants to know the real history and story of the miners’ strike.