Socialist Appeal - the Marxist voice of Labour and youth.
Twenty years ago on March 5, 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) embarked upon the most important class struggle in Britain since the general strike of 1926. A ferocious battle ensued. Billions of pounds were spent by the ruling class to crush the miners’ militancy. More than ten thousand miners were arrested; two were killed on the picket lines and countless others injured. Decades of so-called consensus were obliterated and the real and ugly face of British capitalism was exposed for all to see.

Twenty years ago on March 5, 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) embarked upon the most important class struggle in Britain since the general strike of 1926. Over the following twelve months of ferocious battles billions of pounds were spent by the ruling class to crush the miners' militancy. More than ten thousand miners were arrested; two were killed on the picket lines and countless others injured. Decades of so-called consensus were obliterated and the real and ugly face of British capitalism was exposed for all to see. The masks of Democracy and the Law, behind which the ruling class try to conceal the rule of capital, were shattered as the veil of so-called independence of the courts, the police and the media was lifted to show the real role of the state in capitalist society.

The courage and determination of the miners and their families, struggling to defend their communities from an unparalleled assault by the ruling class, should serve as an inspiration to a new generation. The strike is rich in lessons, and we would be doing that heroic struggle no favours if we did not also try to understand the mistakes which played an important role in the dispute as well as drawing inspiration from the colossal resolve and sacrifice of the miners' struggle.

Engels once explained that in some periods twenty years can pass as if they were a single day, whilst, at other times, the experience of twenty years can be concentrated into just 24 hours. Between March 1984 and March 1985 there were 365 such days.

The consequences of the strike - and its eventual defeat - for the miners, the coal mining industry, the labour movement and the working class as a whole make it our duty to study its many lessons. The miners were defeated, but contrary to the twenty years of propaganda which has followed declaring the class struggle to be finished, two decades have passed quietly only on the surface. Beneath, wounds have been healed, a new generation has grown up, new experience has been gained, and capitalism has squeezed and pressed the working class to the limits of its patience. Far from the miners' strike representing the end of class struggle, it provides us with a wealth of lessons to prepare for the new battles which have already begun. Twenty years after the miners' strike of 1984-85 new class battles are today being prepared in Britain.

Bosses "invest" in defeating the miners

When Thatcher's Tory Party came to office in 1979 they were still smarting from their humiliation at the hands of the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974. Ted Heath's government was brought down by the militant action of the miners and the Tories were determined to prevent such a humiliation ever happening again. This fact coloured many aspects of the dispute. Revenge, however, was not the principle cause of this orchestrated attack on the miners and their communities. For the ruling class confronting and defeating the miners, widely seen as the vanguard of militant trade unionism, was the vital prerequisite for an all out assault on the working class as a whole. There was no longer any room for consensus, compromise and concessions. Reforms aimed at placating the working class could no longer be afforded. The answer of the ruling class to the decline of British capital was to restore profitability at the expense of the working class, just as they had done in 1926.

This was never solely an economic question, however. For decades billions had been squandered on nuclear power and on oil demonstrating the anxiety felt by the ruling class at the dependence of the British economy on coal, and the power this bestowed upon militant miners.

In 1926 the miners' struggle had led to the general strike and nine days that shook the very foundations of society. In the 1970s their action brought down a Tory government. The militancy of the miners represented a serious threat to the capitalist system. No strike on its own, not even a general strike can overthrow capitalism. That requires political organisation and action as well as industrial muscle. Nevertheless, throughout their history, every national miners' strike has marked a fundamental turning point in the situation in Britain.

Between 1926 and 1972 there was not one official national miners' strike. Where was the miners' renowned militancy during this period? The lack of such national action provided many academics, some even claiming to be Marxists, with 'proof' that the miners had been 'bought off'. Nationalisation, job guarantees, and higher wages, these ladies and gentlemen argued, would ensure that the miners would never fight again. This most thoroughly un-Marxist assertion demonstrates the danger of being seduced by the surface of events, failing to see the molecular process burrowing away beneath.

In reality, it had taken from 1926 until the second world war for the miners to recover from the mortal blow of the 1926 lock-out. In the period roughly from the end of the war to 1970, following the nationalisation of the pits, all serious disputes were resolved through negotiation at national level. Against the background of the world upswing of capitalism, and the introduction of new technology, mechanisation etc, living standards generally improved. Hundreds of pits were closed but there were no compulsory job losses.

Initially, the nationalisation of the pits by the Labour government in 1947 was greeted with jubilation. Many miners felt the pits now belonged to them. They were soon to discover, however, that the old, hated coalowners had been replaced by boards whose task was to manage coal mining as a 'milch cow' for capitalism, by supplying a cheap source of energy to industry.

Throughout this period there was a consensus approach between the union and the National Coal Board (NCB). Disputes were settled through negotiation and therefore there was no need for national strikes. As a result, the union at the top was in the grip of the right wing, although, given the miners' traditions, there was always a left presence, including one or two Communist Party members, in the leadership.

This consensus, however, was only on the surface. In coal mining especially it is necessary to know what is going on underground. Whilst there were no national strikes, disputes in individual pits and areas between 1947 and 1957 constituted 70 percent of all the industrial action in the country. In these struggles a new generation of militant leaders was born and schooled. Some of these struggles saw more miners on strike than in 1984. This was the case in 1955 and again in 1961.

1970s – miners bring down Tories

In 1969 and 1970 these disputes escalated into serious strikes over hours and wages. In 1956 miners had earned 122 percent of average manufacturing workers' wages, but by 1970 this had fallen to 89 percent. Thus falling living standards and the continuing closure programme combined with a new generation of militant activists to prepare the strikes of 1972 and 1974.

The Tory government of Ted Heath had imposed an incomes policy to limit workers' pay increases, but mounting inflation was eating away at the miners' already low wages. Nearly 60 percent of the NUM voted to strike for a 47 percent pay rise.

The tactic of flying pickets and mass picketing played a decisive role in these disputes, most notably the mass picket at Saltley Gate. Pickets were not needed at the pitheads in 1972 because the strike was rock solid, so the mass pickets concentrated on the power stations. Solidarity action was spreading with other sections of workers taking sympathy action. The Tories, running scared, declared a state of emergency. A major confrontation was prepared at the coke depot of the Saltley gasworks in Birmingham. Engineering workers across the region went on strike to support the miners, and 10,000 of them marched on Saltley Gate to join the 2,000 miners already picketing. With only 1000 police officers in attendance, the authorities had no alternative but to close the gates. The miners, with widespread support, and a solid strike, using the militant tactic of flying pickets, scored a tremendous victory. The 21 percent pay rise they secured was only a part of that victory. So too was the growing confidence of the working class.

Two years later in 1974, the threat of a new miners' strike, forced Heath and the Tories to call a general election – which they lost. The miners had secured an historic industrial and political victory. The ruling class were visibly shaken. Something would need to be done to prevent this ever happening again.

Tories plan revenge

In 1978 future Tory cabinet minister Nicholas Ridley prepared his now infamous report for a confrontation with the miners. Ridley's plans included building up coal stocks and increasing coal imports; recruiting non-union lorry firms for coal transport; transforming power stations to enable them to burn oil; cutting the state benefits available to striking workers; and the creation of a national, almost paramilitary, police force.

In the early Thatcher years, between 1979 and 82, there had already been important disputes at British Leyland, British Steel, in the health service, and on the railways. In fact, the Tories almost provoked the miners prematurely in 1981 when they announced their intention to close 50 pits. The South Wales miners walked out and sent flying pickets to other coalfields. Within days the Energy Secretary David Howell was forced to withdraw the plan. They had done exactly the same thing in 1925, delaying, retreating to fight only when they were ready. As Howell explained "Neither the government nor I think society as a whole was in a position to get locked into a coal strike… The stocks weren't so high. I don't think the country was prepared, and the whole NUM and the trade union movement tended to be united all on one side."

An internal Coal Board report published in June 1983 claimed that 141 out of the 198 pits were 'uneconomical', 100,000 jobs would have to go in the space of five years. For years pit closures had proceeded through agreement with the union on the basis of the exhaustion of mineable supplies. Now they wanted to close them for economic reasons. That is, to recognise that the mines existed not to extract coal but to make money. The miners' case was really unanswerable in relation to the needs of industry and the long term supply of energy. Logic and the facts, however, would not be allowed to interfere with the needs of the ruling class in securing their profits and defeating the trade union movement.

Thatcher brought in Ian MacGregor – an American union-buster who had already served his apprenticeship as the butcher of the steel industry – as the new head of the NCB, and moved Peter Walker to the post of Energy Secretary, informing him on his appointment, "we are going to have a coal strike." This statement betrayed not just Thatcher's desire to provoke such a battle, but also a recognition of a process which was already underway.

1981: NUM shifts left

In 1981 the shift to the left at the top of the NUM was confirmed by the election of Arthur Scargill, one of the militant leaders of the 1972 strike, as President of the NUM. At the end of 1982 The Coal Board announced the closure of Kineil colliery in Scotland. The miners occupied their pit over Christmas but no strike was called.

At the beginning of 1983 the closure of Lewis Merthyr colliery in South Wales was announced. The response of the miners was again to occupy the pit and this time their strike spread to other collieries with 3000 miners walking out. The South Wales Area of the union endorsed the strike, and the Yorkshire and Scotland areas both voted for strike action. At the union's National Executive Scargill argued for a Rule 41 strike, but lost. This rule of the union allowed the Areas (South Wales, Yorkshire etc.) to call their members out separately without calling a national ballot. The use of this tactic was soon to have profound consequences in the 1984-85 strike.

On this occasion a national ballot was held, with 61 percent voting against national strike action. A campaign was clearly needed throughout the coalfields explaining the threat to tens of thousands of jobs and the attacks that were being prepared on all sections of the working class. Such a campaign of propaganda and agitation would have played a vital role in preparing the ground in Nottinghamshire, in particular, and in those other pits that had voted against action. This fight was not going to go away.

MacGregor made provocative statements about the need to close 20 pits and destroy 20,000 jobs. The ruling class had been preparing and were now clearly ready for the confrontation. The miners' preparations began in earnest in November 1983 when a national overtime ban was organised to try to run down coal stocks.

The Coal Board announced another pit closure at Polmaise in Scotland. They proceeded to flood neighbouring Bogside colliery, claiming that the overtime ban was to blame, offering a glimpse of the unparalleled black propaganda campaign that was to follow. During the course of the strike, miners and their local and national leaders were subjected to the most appalling campaign of smears, slanders and abuse in the press.

The final provocation

On March 1, 1984, the final provocation came with the announcement of the closure of Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire. Flying pickets were dispatched around the country, immediately bringing Scotland and Wales out. This time however the ruling class had prepared its stocks of coal, its transportation systems, and had created a national police force – all the plans outlined in Ridley's 1978 report - to confront the pickets and place mining communities across the country under a state of siege. The battle lines were drawn. This was to be class war.

Within days 171 pits were at a standstill. Yorkshire, Wales, Kent and Durham were solid and flying pickets were sent into Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and North Derbyshire to spread the dispute.

On this occasion, however, there was to be no national ballot. This decision resulted in a storm of protest in the media, echoed by the right wing Labour and trade union leaders. These 'democrats' are only keen on democracy when it suits them. Back in 1977 a national ballot rejected a new incentives scheme by 55.75 percent. Right wing NUM leader Gormley declared the result of the ballot to be irrelevant. When the matter was taken to the high court, the judges agreed with Gormley, and the democratic decision of a ballot was overturned.

To pose democracy as an abstract question is false and misleading. Those at the top of the labour movement demanding a ballot never offered their own members the same courtesy of democracy by organising a ballot for action in support of the miners. Their demand was not based on 'democracy' but an excuse for not spreading the struggle. For that reason holding a ballot would have completely undermined them.

For the labour movement the vital question is what tactic can secure and maintain the maximum possible unity of the workers in their struggle. In 1984 NUM vice-president Mick McGahey argued – against the need for a ballot - that the miners would not be 'constitutionalised out of their jobs'. This was quite right – in principle. The trade unions should decide upon how they conduct their affairs themselves without the interference of the state. However, this principle far from exhausted the question.

Ballot or no ballot?

Scargill had already lost several national votes over pay, and over closures. This must have been a factor in the decision not to call a new ballot, betraying a certain lack of confidence in the rank and file. Once the vast majority of miners were on strike, and certainly by May when the national demonstration took place in Mansfield, there can be no doubt that a ballot would have been overwhelmingly endorsed.

With the strike underway, and the majority of miners having voted with their feet, the need to build and strengthen unity became clearer than ever. A majority of miners in the Nottinghamshire area continued to work. The continued failure to win them over through picketing illustrated the need for a ballot.

Why should there have been a ballot? The unity of the strike was decisive. A ballot would have assisted the strikers in Nottinghamshire to make their case amongst those miners still working. Could a ballot have created the necessary unity nationally, and isolated those determined to organise scabbing? We will never know for sure, but it would have helped. A majority in a national ballot could have brought the majority of Notts' miners out, and this in turn would have transformed the situation. Above all, it would have completely cut the ground from beneath the leaders of the TUC and the Labour Party who consistently cowered behind the question of the ballot to prevent solidarity action.

In any strike or dispute tactics are vital. In a titanic struggle such as this, with the might of the state lined up against them, the tactics adopted by the miners' leadership were decisive. Not holding a ballot once the dispute was underway proved to be a serious mistake. Not because the Tories or the press said so, but because of the need to build unity and to break the stick that was being used to beat them.

March 5, 2004

See Part Two

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.