Socialist Appeal - British section of the International Marxist Tendency

An essential lesson to draw from the miners’ strike is the vital role of leadership. The miners’ leaders stood head and shoulders above the majority of British trade union leaders. The leaders of the NUM were a source of inspiration. At the same time these leaders were inspired by the courage and determination of the rank and file miners, of their wives and their communities. Unfortunately courage alone is not enough to win such titanic battles. It must be accompanied by correct tactics and strategy.

Role of leadership

An essential lesson to draw from the miners' strike is the vital role of leadership. The miners' leaders stood head and shoulders above the majority of British trade union leaders at this time. Arthur Scargill in particular demonstrated an unbending will to struggle in the face of the most appalling personal abuse and character assassination. In this sense the leaders of the union were a source of inspiration for the miners in the areas. At the same time these leaders were inspired by the courage and determination of the rank and file miners, of their wives and their communities. Unfortunately courage alone is not enough to win such titanic battles. It must be accompanied by correct tactics and strategy. Mistakes in these vital areas were made even by the best NUM leaders.

To be clear, however, the responsibility for the eventual defeat of the miners' struggle rests squarely upon the shoulders of the leaders of the labour and trade union movement.

It is possible that the miners could have won even this colossal struggle without widespread solidarity action. The determination and sacrifice of the miners themselves was one necessary factor, and this was available in abundance. What was also needed was the utmost unity, and correct tactics on the part of the leadership.

With solidarity action, spreading the strike to other sectors who would soon be facing the same attacks themselves, the miners could easily have won, more than that they could have brought down the Tories. There would have been no third Thatcher government.

At the very least the dispute needed to spread to the power stations, the steel plants, the railways and the docks. Despite the initiative of workers in each of these sectors to support the miners, the leaders of their unions struggled might and main to prevent solidarity strikes from taking place.

There was the serious possibility of a national docks strike – the dockers themselves were facing renewed attacks. This development would have been a fundamental turning point for the miners. However, the dockers' leaders failed to link up the disputes, and an important opportunity was lost. This was not the only case. The railway workers were in dispute and Thatcher intervened personally in their pay negotiations with management to prevent a second front from opening up. Similarly in November 1984, following a strike at British Leyland, the Transport and General Workers' Union were fined £200,000 under the Tories' anti-union legislation. Instead of organising all out action in defence of their union and in support of the miners, the leaders of the TGWU sat back and did nothing.

It was not just the right wing union leaders who failed to organise action in support of the miners' struggle. The left leaders too echoed the right wing's claims that they 'could not deliver' their members, ie they passed the buck to the rank and file who they claimed would not strike. In reality, if these leaders had raised just their little fingers at any point in the dispute the response would have been massive and decisive.

Instead the miners were left to fight alone, attacked not only by the bourgeois press, the courts and the police, but by the leaders of other unions and by the leaders of the Labour Party, most notably Neil Kinnock. Desperate to prove himself worthy before the ruling class, Kinnock refused to throw the immense authority of the Labour Party fully behind the miners. Instead he made 'statesmanlike' speeches condemning picket line violence, evenly distributing blame between the almost paramilitary police and the miners' pickets.

Orgreave: "the enemy within"!

As in 1972, the mass picket of a coking plant would play a decisive role in the 1984-85 dispute, but this time with a different outcome. The ruling class had clearly learned from their earlier defeat at Saltley Gate.

Between the end of May and the middle of June the events at the Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham led to the most violent confrontations witnessed by the British labour movement since the first world war.

NUM pickets assembled on the Sheffield side of the plant while the police gathered in their thousands at the front of the plant, with mounted brigades lined up in an adjacent field. Police with dogs and thousands in riot gear surrounded the pickets. As soon as the lorries had entered the plant, the riot police launched their offensive. The mounted divisions rode into the surrounded miners, followed by truncheon wielding foot police. This was a military operation. For all the beatings and arrests, the miners were not cowed.

On June 18, 5000 strikers turned up to be met by an even greater number of police and an unprecedented orgy of violence. The forces of law and order ran riot, beating and bludgeoning the miners. From their experiences on the picket lines, and not just the obscenity of Orgreave - the taunts and insults, officers waving their overtime payments in miners' faces - many rank and file miners who before the strike had respect for the law and the police who upheld it, learned a bitter lesson from the end of a truncheon, that the law, the courts and the police are arms of the state for the defence of private property, that is, for the defence of the capitalist system.

The capitalist media portrayed Orgreave as the height of picket line violence… by the miners! Thatcher infamously denounced the strikers as "the enemy within". In the Falklands she said they had fought the enemy without, and now they would fight the miners, this in other words was to be their 'industrial Falklands.'

Kinnock was joined by Willis - the TUC leader, both desperate to prove their respectability - in condemning both sides 'even-handedly', reserving most of their venom for the pickets. Doctored film footage was shown on the BBC – which years later conceded that a 'mistake' had been made – demonstrating that the miners attacked first.

Could the strike have spread to other workers?

There were no more mass pickets at Orgreave after this ferocious battle. Mass pickets were not having the desired effect. The scab operation to move coal by road was stepped up. For the miners to have won on their own would always have been an immense task. As months passed solidarity action from other unions became ever more decisive. Yet it was not forthcoming. Railworkers in Leicestershire blacked coal at great personal risk. The printers at the Sun newspaper – a filthy rag which put itself at the forefront of the propaganda war against the miners – refused to print a front page picture portraying an alleged Hitler salute by Scargill (actually a wave caught at an angle by a photographer) under the despicable heading 'Mine Fuhrer.' But these were only isolated incidents. There could be no doubt that the might of the labour movement brought out in support of the miners would not only have secured the future of their pits and their communities but could have brought down Thatcher and the Tory government.

Was such support available from the rank and file of other unions? There is an argument that the miners strike was taking place against a background of a decline in strikes after the period of 1979-82. Nonetheless in 1984 of the 26.5 million working days lost to strike action, 4.3 million were not the miners. The support of workers across the country was demonstrated by their tremendous donations week after week, support which was matched by workers overseas. But this tremendous solidarity was not matched by the union leaders who timidly cowered behind the law to cover their bare backsides.

A whole separate article would be necessary to deal with the magnificent role played by the miners' support groups and especially by the miners' wives. The collection of money, organising of soup kitchens and social events was only one side of the work of these groups. The wives played a most militant role, including on the picket lines, indeed, it would be hard to imagine how the miners could have endured so long without the immense sacrifice they contributed.

In August a new opportunity raised the miners' spirits. The Coal Board had foolishly torn up an agreement with the pit deputies represented by NACODS. In a ballot a remarkable 82.5 percent of their members voted for strike action. If these workers, responsible for safety in the mines, had walked out then no pit in the country could have worked. Tragically, 24 hours before their strike was due to begin, the NACODS leaders shamefully called it off, preferring to sign a separate deal with the coal bosses, an agreement which the NCB bosses were quick to renege upon. The miners were on their own again.

In September the TUC passed a mealy mouthed resolution supporting the miners but offering no concrete action. One would search in vain in the archives of the TUC for leaflets supporting the miners' struggle. They did not even organise a national demonstration. Had they done so the response would have been immense. This in turn would have put the TUC leaders under enormous pressure to organise solidarity action, and this they were not prepared to do.

TUC leader Willis addressed a mass rally in November at the Afan Lido in Aberavon, South Wales. Thousands were packed inside, and thousands more lined the streets outside. The mood was electric. But Willis chose this venue, for the sake of the watching press, to once again condemn violence by pickets. During his speech a noose was lowered in front of him carrying a placard reading 'where is Ramsay McKinnock'. This is just one example of the humour of the strike, illustrating the contempt in which these leaders of the working class were increasingly held by the miners they would not support.

When the NUM's funds were to be sequestrated - the courts and the law again being used to try to crush the miners - the TUC had one last opportunity to organise solidarity action. A one-day general strike would have shaken the ground beneath the judges, the NCB and the Tories. But no such action was forthcoming. As in 1926, the leaders of the TUC had abandoned the miners to their fate.

War weariness

As the likelihood of serious support diminished, so too did any realistic chance of victory. Early in 1985 Energy Secretary Peter Walker publicly guaranteed that there would be no power cuts. On the surface it appeared that the Tories long prepared plans of stockpiling coal and organising scab lorry firms had worked. The import of coal from 'socialist' Poland played its part too in maintaining coal supplies, casting shame on this Stalinist regime more concerned with trade than with supporting the struggles of the working class.

The reality at the power stations, however, was somewhat different. After the strike it emerged that there had indeed been power cuts – rationed out in the middle of the night, or spread out in the countryside, with heavy industry contributing by cutting back on its use of power. Consistent action to black coal and prevent its movement by the TUC, and not just the brave attempts of individual groups of workers, would have crippled the supplies to power stations, steel plants etc.

Instead, the apparent lack of power cuts, combined with the tremendous propaganda pouring out of every paper and TV station must have begun to demoralise some miners.

Ironically the industrial vandalism of the British ruling class now ensures new power cuts like the one that gripped London in September 2003. Britain increasingly relies for its power on imported oil and gas. Despite the huge reserves of coal which remain beneath British soil, electricity generation will soon be dependent on gas piped from such stable countries as Iran and Azerbaijan. This dispute was never simply about economics. It was certainly not about the economic viability of coal mining, which could be demonstrated at will. For the miners this was a defensive struggle to save their jobs and their communities. For the ruling class this was not about coal mining but about defeating the unions and preparing the ground for an all out attack on the rights and living standards of the working class.

At the beginning of 1985 there was a drift back to work. The miners and their families had fought valiantly for a whole year against everything the state could throw at them, from the constant barrage of propaganda, to the siege of their communities and the violent confrontations on the picket lines. Their solidarity and sacrifice remains to this day an inspiration. They could have done no more.

Inspiration for future generations

At a special conference on March 3, 1985 delegates voted by 98 – 91 to return to work. On March 5, the day the strike ended there were still 27,000 miners out. Everywhere miners returned behind colliery bands and banners, heads held high, proud of the tremendous struggle they had been engaged in.

The struggle had cost the ruling class over £5 billion. From their point of view this was money well spent. New anti –union legislation was pushed through. The counter-revolution on the shopfloor to drive down workers' wages and conditions across industry went full speed ahead.

In the Autumn of 1985 the so-called Union of Democratic Mineworkers was formed in attempt to break up the NUM. From the beginning the scabs who led this attempted breakaway, Roy Lynk and David Prendergast, had the full backing of Thatcher, MacGregor and the right wing press. They also had the support of the so-called 'moderate' – read right wing – leaders of the labour movement, especially the leaders of the EETPU (the electricians' union), who were soon to play an equally despicable role in the printers' strike. The devastation of the mining industry however proceeded apace, and did not differentiate between working Nottinghamshire pits and those who had supported the strike. At its height one third of Notts miners were on strike. The Notts miners were not inherently right wing as some argued, the majority of Notts miners could have been won over. After the strike whether they had worked or not they lost their jobs. Even Roy Lynk had to admit, "I am bloody disgusted, senior Coal Board managers and Ministers who urged us on for months on end have now conspired to finish us off." To have saved their jobs and their pits the majority of Notts miners would have had to have supported their brothers striking in Notts and the rest of the country.

The leaders of the UDM meanwhile have earned more than a few pieces of silver for their role. Neal Greatrex, today the leader of the rump of the UDM is one of the highest paid union officials in the country despite having a minuscule membership. His £150,000 a year comes not simply from union members' dues, but from the compensation claims of those many miners suffering from lung disease, vibration white finger and other consequences of this very dangerous business of coal mining. They achieve this deft act of pickpocketing through the use of a private company – Vendside – set up by the UDM, to handle miners' compensation claims. Their cut is then channelled back into the UDM in Notts and on to the bank balance of Greatrex and co. This new revelation will come as a great shock to many miners who have made such compensation claims unaware that they were helping to finance the UDM and the lifestyles of individuals like Greatrex.

Better to go down fighting

Was it worth all the sacrifice? Many men lost their jobs, others were jailed. Thousands more were forced into heavy debts that took years to pay off. It is clear that without a struggle the pits would have still been closed and the bosses would have launched their attacks not only on mining but on all sections of the working class. Those attacks could not have been defeated by the TUC's 'new realism' – in reality class collaboration. The consequence of that policy, as we have seen over the last twenty years, has been the destruction of thousands of jobs and the decimation of whole industries.

Despite the immense cost to the miners and their communities to go down fighting has left behind a proud and inspiring tradition. Lessons were learned during this strike that will never be forgotten. They are burned into the consciousness of a whole layer of workers.

The consequences of the miners' defeat for the working class as a whole were profound. As attack after attack was launched, the mood of workers became "if the miners can't win no-one can." The right wing consolidated its grip on the labour movement, leading eventually to the low point of 'social partnership' in the TUC, and the triumph of Blair inside Labour.

The right wing always rests upon defeat and inactivity. Their triumph however, was only temporary. Eventually the working class recovers from defeat, and is forced by the conditions imposed upon them by capitalism to return to struggle once more.

We have a duty to uphold the proud memory and tradition of the miners' struggle, and not just for sentiment's sake. A new generation is now preparing to enter the road of struggle.

The recent broadcasting of two primetime television documentaries on the miners' strike demonstrates that the ruling class is aware of this fact. The tawdry rubbish aired on Channel Four, and the slightly more sober-minded BBC programme were clearly designed not as histories but as a warning to a new generation of workers. The miners lost and so will you if you try to fight. You will be beaten – in both senses of the word. The ruling class is preparing through its media, and through new legislation designed to further curtail workers' rights, for new battles. We must prepare too.

In the titanic struggles of the working class to come in Britain, a thorough study and understanding of past struggles is of decisive importance. Alongside the general strike of 1926 today's new generation must also study the great miners' strike of 1984-85.

March 5, 2004

See Part One

Read more about the miners' strike and the struggles of the British working class in Rob Sewell's History of British Trade Unionism. You can buy a copy from Wellred Books Online Bookshop.