Miners' strike: The gathering storm
In the year of the 30th anniversary of the start of the great miners' strike of 1984/5, we present the first of a series of contemporary extracts from our then factional journal The Leninist
Over the coming months we will be featuring, in this paper and on our website, articles, interviews and other materials that tell the story of and draw the lessons from the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85. We start our occasional series with extracts from an important article that actually preceded the epic battle, James Marshall’s ‘Britain: before and after the election’ from a 1983 issue of The Leninist, the factional journal, run by oppositionists within the ‘official’ Communist Party, that was the forerunner of today’s Weekly Worker.1
TL’s 1981 founding statement explicitly linked its open factional battle with the task of programmatically and organisationally re-equipping the working class itself. Thus, the principle of transparency and the willingness to air the ‘dirty linen’ of the CPGB in public was crucial to this, but not simply to politically educate the existing cadre of the CPGB and the wider revolutionary left: “Open struggle would … have the most important effect of drawing new forces into the Party from the working class, for the ideological struggle in the Party is not the preserve of intellectuals, but the vital concern of the working class itself.” 2
Just how “vital” was to be negatively confirmed in the miners’ strike of the following year, as the articles in this series will show. For now though, the extracts from comrade James Marshall’s article below provide not only a thorough overview of the state of the class struggle on the eve of the strike, but also the prescient observation that, whatever the balance sheet of victories and defeats between our class and the Thatcher government at that stage, a strategic confrontation was in the offing - one for which our side must be thoroughly prepared to fight and win.
Britain: before and after the election
1. The election
Future historians might well look back upon the June 83 election as a milestone on Britain’s path to social revolution. For, while the Tories secured a massive post-1945 record majority of 144 seats, this has revealed and exacerbated the deepening crisis of reformism.
This crisis and the consequent dangers for social stability were referred to, if in oblique fashion, even as the election campaign was in progress. Former foreign minister Francis Pym expressed his fears for parliamentary democracy if the Tory victory were to turn into a landslide. While he concentrated on the possibility that a landslide might create divisions on the Tory backbenches, it was clear that he was referring to the ramifications which would flow from a collapse of the Labour Party as the alternative party of government. Similar fears were voiced by other Tory ‘wets’ after the massive majority had been secured; both Heath and St John Stevas openly warned of the prospect of working class discontent breaking out from the confines of the parliamentary system. And Arthur Scargill and Ken Livingstone, eager to secure leadership of any future extra-parliamentary mass movement, quickly threw their hats into the ring and called for opposition to Tory attacks using mass actions rather than parliamentary rhetoric. Scargill vehemently argued that “we should undoubtedly need to take extra-parliamentary action, and that includes the possibility of political strikes”.
Certainly the prospect of the working class seeing no realistic possibility of defeating the Tories on the parliamentary field, and seeking other avenues, is real enough. What’s more, it must be stressed that, although the Tory Party gained a sweeping victory, it achieved its landslide on the basis of a fall of 2% in its popular vote. Also this was a peak of popularity, for if we look at opinion polls and by-elections over the last four years we can see that public opinion has been exceptionally volatile. Thatcher’s early years saw the polls registering her as the most unpopular prime minister since records began; and when the Social Democratic Party was formed it soon swept ahead of both the Tory and Labour parties, confirming its standing with dramatic by-election victories in alliance with the Liberals. It was only with Thatcher’s determined - some say even fanatical - struggle to ‘liberate’ the Falkland Islands from Argentina that the Tories saw their fortunes lifted to the ‘dizzy heights’ which enabled them to win 42% of the popular vote.
So we must note that the Tory victory represented their standing in relation to other parties at the moment which Thatcher considered most favourable: ie, when the volatile electorate were swept by a jingoistic fervour and, because of the British constitution, could be ‘photoed’ at their most rightwing. Nevertheless, while the Tory landslide must be seen as only a parliamentary landslide, this must not distract us from the growing fundamental crisis which is affecting the Labour Party.
2. The first term
Although the working class had been somewhat disorientated by the vicious attack launched on them by ‘their’ Wilson/Callaghan government, the Tory general election victory in May 79 saw the workers’ movement by no means cowed.
Trade union membership was at a record high - 12.5 million; the class had just emerged from the ‘winter of discontent’, when a strike wave of proportions not seen since 1926 had forced the restoration of wage levels to something near the level before Wilson had been in office. What is more, over the preceding decade or so the workers’ movement had secured important victories as a result of outstanding militant struggles: the 1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes, with their mass pickets, solidarity strikes and, as a result of Heath, the February 74 general election. These were linked to the overtly political battles against the Industrial Relations Act, which witnessed tens of thousands participating in one-day strikes organised by the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, culminating in the massive strike wave in solidarity with the Pentonville Five and the threat of a general strike.
Because of the militant record of the late 60s and the 70s, and the ability of the working class to resist successfully measures designed to force down wages and attempts to chain the unions, whether from Barbara Castle or Robert Carr, there were many who were brimming with confidence at the prospect of a showdown with the newly elected Thatcher government. But such a view was soon shown to be based on a foolish misreading of the last decade - the fallacy that the miners had in 1974 swept the Heath government out of office in semi-revolutionary fashion - and above all the failure to take into account the changing economic conditions. For, whereas the 60s battles took place at the end of the boom, and those of the 70s in a time of stagnation and transition, the 80s saw the emergence of the early but unmistakeable signs of a looming general crisis of capitalism.
In the 60s the capitalist class could afford to placate the working class with not inconsiderable increases in living standards. This course had become impossible by the 80s and, far from a general increase in prosperity, the needs of the day led to attacks on working class living standards, pitiless speed-ups and a staggering growth in the number of unemployed.
The first great battle under the new Thatcher government, one that clearly marked a turning point and was destined to affect the general pattern for the proceeding period, was the steel strike of 1980. The rightwing ISTC leadership under Sirs did its best to tone down the struggle, to prevent it going too far. But, despite them being ever willing to compromise their members’ jobs and living standards, the strike assumed a bitter and protracted nature as a result of the determination of the rank and file and the intransigence of the Tory government. It lasted 13 long weeks, but, despite the mass picketing, solidarity strikes from the private-sector steel workers and widespread sympathy from the working class (all taken to their highest forms in South Yorkshire), the failure to organise effective assistance meant that the strike collapsed.
The result on the position of steel workers was appalling. British Steel Corporation chairman MacGregor implemented a programme which included increased exploitation, differentials to facilitate divide and rule and a decimation of the number of workers in the industry. Between 1979 and 1982 the workforce was cut by 52%, and because of the demoralisation caused by the defeat of the 1980 strike this was carried out with only minimal resistance.
This pattern was paralleled in many respects by the car industry. Even before the election of the Tory government the employers had been on the offensive, and in the summer of 79 they successfully defeated strikes by Vauxhall and Talbot workers. As a result speed-ups were imposed and real wages cut. Following this and the debacle of the steel strike, the Labour-appointed Edwardes management at Leyland smelt blood. A concerted assault was directed at undermining the shop stewards’ organisation; particularly because of his prestige, but also because of his isolation from the shop floor, the Longbridge convener, Derek Robinson, was the ideal target. Despite 57,000 workers downing tools to defend Robinson, the management won the dispute, mainly as a result of overt betrayal by the AUEW leadership and the passivity of the TGWU. Because of this failure to prevent Robinson being sacked Edwardes felt completely confident, whereas the shop stewards were despondent and the workforce was completely disorientated and powerless to resist. Isolated pockets of militancy were crushed, a rigid works discipline, the ‘slaves’ charter’, was introduced, along with a speed-up, cuts in real pay and a rationalisation programme which cost 70,000 workers their jobs.
The sacking of militant Cowley shop steward Alan Thornett in 1982, along with the successive imposition of real pay cuts and the inability to resist the erosion of rights, all bear witness to the extent of the retreat by Leyland workers. And, as with Leyland, the other car producers were equally successful in imposing their own versions of the ‘Edwardes plan’ and the ‘slaves’ charter’, thereby increasing their rate of exploitation.
Despite partial and isolated victories, the overall picture of Thatcher’s first four years was clearly one of working class retreat. Public-sector workers saw their struggles undermined by inept and sectional leaderships, and in the case of the healthworkers and train drivers defeat was ensured through cynical betrayal by the TUC itself.
The miners exemplified above all others the crisis of the working class . During the 70s they had justly earned the reputation of being the most powerful, most determined and best organised section of the working class. So with the retirement of the dearly beloved (by the bourgeoisie) Joe Gormley, and the election of Arthur Scargill with a massive 70% first-preference vote, the stage seemed set for decisive confrontation. But this was not to be, for the divisive productivity deal which set pit against pit and area against area, plus the government’s refusal to be drawn into an early - and for them premature - battle, meant that not only did one strike ballot after another show that the miners had no inclination to fight, but, even when the National Coal Board closed pits in Scotland and South Wales, attempts to launch solidarity actions collapsed in disarray and despondency.
The lack of resistance to the Tory onslaught was vividly illustrated by the dramatic slump in strike figures. They fell from a post-war peak of 29.5 million days in 1979 to a low of only 4.2 million days in 1981, and the figure for 1982 continued to reflect the low level of struggle. Such conditions enabled the Tories to attack social services with near impunity - healthcare, education, childcare and benefits for the working class all deteriorated.
One central element changing the balance from the days of militancy of the late 60s and early 70s to the setbacks of the 80s has been the massive growth of unemployment. It not only doubled under the Wilson/ Callaghan government, but doubled again in Thatcher’s first term, rising by 1.71 million from 1.3 million to 3.02 million. Using the old method of calculation, the number unemployed at the time Thatcher called the 83 election would have been nearer 3.35 million (at the height of the 30s slump Britain had 2,796,000 unemployed). Commenting on the effect that this had on the economic power of the working class, Philip Basseth, the Labour correspondent of the Financial Times, wrote: “… fear of unemployment has dramatically altered the bargaining climate. Long gone are the days of the wage free-for-all in the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978-79, and the less noticed, but at least as pervasive, wages explosion in Mrs Thatcher’s first year in office. Then pay across all industries and services rose by an average of 22.4% ... Now most settlements are running at about a third of that rate … [unemployment has] produced a cowed and demoralised workforce.”3
Faced with mass unemployment, the unwillingness or inability of the trade union leaders to fight and a determined offensive by the employers and the Tory government, the working class saw their living standards stagnate. While real take-home pay for those with jobs rose by about 3% over the last year of Thatcher’s first term, the living standards of the working class as a whole fell by 1.25% since she took office. “But the drop in real (inflation-adjusted) personal disposable incomes - the official measure of living standards - has been borne almost entirely by the 2.25 million people who have lost their jobs over the past four years.”4
Well, in our short potted survey we have shown that the working class has suffered a long string of defeats; one industrial dispute was lost after another. As to the ‘victories’, the Cowley ‘washing up’ strike ended in defeat after the election, while the water workers’ struggle saw Thatcher openly denounce and belabour the Water Council for not fighting. So these ‘victories’ showed all too clearly that the exception most definitely proved the rule of defeat. But we must note that, despite the near universally bleak last four years, the working class has only been forced to retreat - it has not suffered a defeat of a strategic nature, along the lines inflicted by the Tories in 1926, when trade union organisation was decimated and thousands of militants were blacklisted.
The first four years of the Thatcher government showed that the bourgeoisie was prepared to carry out an increasingly vicious attack on the working class, screwing down the real incomes of our class in order that we should pay for their crisis. But, while the bourgeoisie’s leadership showed great determination to fight the class war, our Labourite leaders showed no such determination. One sell-out followed another; one after another piece of utopian and even chauvinistic hypocrisy was cynically proclaimed as the salvation of ‘Britain’ and the workers’ movement - all in order to avoid the task of leading the class struggle against the bourgeoisie and their system. But in contrast to the increasingly evident treachery of the reformist leaders, sections of the oppressed took to the streets spontaneously, providing a lesson of combativity and militancy for all workers. What’s more, the Six Counties of Northern Ireland witnessed the continuation of a protracted military and political campaign for national liberation, which proved a constant thorn in the side of the bourgeoisie, the only solution for which they see as being military terror.
But, all in all, the important lesson for us is the fact that Britain has not only three million unemployed, declining industrial production, growing social unrest and a seemingly intractable (for the bourgeoisie) armed conflict going on inside the ‘United Kingdom’, but this is before the capitalist system has plunged into general crisis. This indicates that Britain is becoming far more ripe for socialist revolution than ever before in its history - something that will be fully revealed when the general crisis emerges.
For let us remember that slumps occur in direct proportion to the preceding boom. This phenomenon is closely connected to the role played by the credit system, which allows booms to be far more protracted and powerful than would otherwise be the case, but, when the over-extended credit system finally bursts, the resultant crash is catastrophic (see articles by Frank Grafton in The Leninist Nos 2 and 3). So the longest ever capitalist boom, that of the 50s and 60s, will paradoxically result in the deepest, most protracted, most destructive and dangerous slump in the grotesque history of capitalism.
6.1. The class war
In its first term Thatcher’s government was able to force the working class into one retreat after another, but, as we have stated, these defeats for the working class have not assumed a strategic nature. The working class is thus bloodied but unbowed; its trade union organisations are still intact, membership only marginally weakened by loss due to the growth of unemployment.
But, importantly, the underlying mechanisms of the capitalist economy propel the capitalists towards imposing measures on the working class which could well require a strategic struggle. For, while the expected economic upturn may produce an upsurge in pay demands, for British capitalism to compete on an international scale requires that wages are kept down, while profits are boosted. A fierce clash is therefore well on the cards, and it is to meet such an eventuality that the Tories have not only passed through parliament anti-trade union measures, under both the ‘wet’ Prior and the ‘dry’ Tebbit, but have also assiduously prepared the forces of coercion to ensure that the law can be imposed.
For, while the Tories have exploited many of the undemocratic procedures in the trade union movement, using them as a cover to introduce anti-trade union legislation, the key question at the end of the day is the ability of the state to enforce its will. The Tories have not forgotten the fiasco of Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, and the humiliating reversal they suffered at the hands of the working class, organised in defence of the Pentonville Five. The fact that they were forced to release the imprisoned dockers from jail, using the shadowy figure of the official solicitor in the face of a growing general strike threat, made a deep impression on the ruling class. This and the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, especially the failure to keep the Saltley Gates power station open, despite a massive police presence, not only led to near hysterical editorials in the bourgeois press about Britain becoming ungovernable, but, years later, under the Thatcher government, to the measures which would, they hoped, ensure that there could be no repetition.
Under the guise of anti-IRA and anti-‘terrorist’ operations, the police and army have been trained in what brigadier Kitson called “low-intensity operations”. The riots of 1981 capped the process, for, during the struggle to control the streets, we not only saw a situation where certain chief constables were on the verge of calling in specially prepared army units, but the aftermath swiftly witnessed emergency measures carried through in the organisation of the police, and a radical upgrading in their anti-personnel equipment. The end result means that now illegal mass pickets, such as witnessed at Saltley Gates, would not be facing mass counter-pickets of ‘good old-fashioned bobbies’, so loved by our opportunists, Euros and Straight Leftists alike, but in all likelihood highly trained, specially equipped police, just itching to deliver swift, deadly and vicious assaults, using CS gas, rubber bullets and a host of other newly introduced instruments of intimidation and repression.
The fact that during Thatcher’s first term the mailed fist was reserved for the nationalist population of the Six Counties, rioting youth and Argentinians should in no way make us complacent, for this was unquestionably not the result of Tory concern for the sensibilities of British workers, but a reflection of the fact that at no point did British workers raise the struggle to a stage which required either extensive or significant use of the new-style forces of coercion against them.
The laws of capitalist economics, the entire mentality of Thatcher and her team, can only lead one to the conclusion that an attempt to deliver a strategic defeat on the scale of 1926 is far from impossible. Already the Tories are making the issue of no-strike clauses a fact of life in the public sector; many new industries - the darling sunshine industries, so beloved by Thatcher - are keeping their operations union-free. On the basis of a strategic defeat such isolated measures can become generalised in order to facilitate a substantial increase in the rate of exploitation.
6.2. Organising the offensive
How does our Party meet the challenge? Of course, it opposes the Tory offensive, declares that the struggle to defend the trade union movement is “a major democratic question of key importance to all workers”, but, instead of directing this struggle against the capitalist system, we are told to “support all campaigns by the TUC”, to fight for “binding ever closer the traditional organic links between the trade unions and the Labour Party, which is the mass party of the working class and its allies”; for our leadership believes that the crisis of capitalism can be overcome, without socialism, that the TUC’s Alternative Economic Strategy can transcend all the economic laws of capitalism, including the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.
We must raise the slogan, Begin with what the working class needs, not what capitalism can afford.
What we must do is to build our Party to fight around what the working class needs, something which under the conditions of emerging general crisis comes into direct conflict with what the capitalist system can afford. We must also fight for changes in existing mass workers’ organisations, and the creation of new forms to facilitate, deepen and underpin the struggle for what the workers need, something which today inevitably leads to raising the question of power.
It is because many old organisations of the working class are incapable of meeting the offensive against working class living standards and rights, let alone the tasks of revolution, that we must seek changes in them, and create new ones. The first term of Thatcher’s government, and even the last Labour government, showed all too clearly that the trade union movement had great difficulty in even maintaining the living standards of their members in work, but what about fighting unemployment, women’s oppression and racism? Thatcher’s second term will undoubtedly expose the weaknesses of the existing trade union structure, its inability to defend wages, and most certainly democratic rights.
Already, we have seen workers’ struggles undermined, not only by direct sell-out, but by the sectionalism of trade union organisation. Examples of this have been legion, but vivid examples must include workers in the car industry, the health service and printing. The fact that workers in these industries are organised in many different unions not only creates difficulties in terms of coordination, but leads to sectional conflict, divide and rule, and the collapse of united struggles by one union leadership caving in. There can be no question that a restructuring of the unions, so that one union organises one industry, would greatly strengthen the ability of the workers to fight. The slogan, ‘One union in one industry’, must be revived. This must be achieved not as a result of trade union mergers based on narrow financial considerations, as we saw with the Agricultural Workers Union merging with the TGWU, not as a result of bureaucratic self-interest, but by action and pressure from the rank and file.
Paradoxically, in order to have a vision of the future, we must look at the past. In the light of this, communists today should not only learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution, but study the history of our own Party, with particular emphasis on the struggle to build the National Minority Movement, the National Unemployed Workers’ Union, councils of action and factory councils. It is not a question of reinventing the past, imposing alien forms, for new organisations will emerge out of the class struggle itself. As this struggle grows more widespread and intense, the new will be ushered in at the call of necessity, the mother of invention.
Surely to expect the TUC and the Labour Party to put up a serious fight against Thatcher would be, on past performance, naive. Most leaders of the official labour movement are content with petitions, protests that are securely confined within ‘moderate’ shackles. For these leaders, cosy chats with government ministers and schoolboy catcalls and hoots on the floor of the House of Commons are to be preferred to mass political strikes, occupations and other forms of direct militant action, which might lead to a challenge to ‘parliament and the rule of law’. It is because such leaders are in the overwhelming majority in the official labour movement, and even most of the left Labourites show great determination not to go beyond rhetoric, that we must seek to construct forms that circumvent the deadly bureaucratic grip.
The National Minority Movement sought to unite all workers committed to an unremitting fight for what the working class needs. It linked rank-and-file organisations around unified demands and structure. On its foundation in August 1924 it not only represented 200,000 workers, but, as we can see from its programme, it was under no illusions about the need for revolutionary perspectives: “to organise the working masses of Great Britain for the overthrow of capitalism, the emancipation of the workers from oppressors and exploiters and the establishment of a socialist commonwealth; to carry on a wide agitation and propaganda for the principles of revolutionary class struggle, and work within existing organisations for the National Minority Movement programme and against the present tendency towards social peace and class-collaboration and the delusion of the peaceful transition of capitalism to socialism; to maintain the closest relations with the Red International Labour Unions.”
The programme also made detailed proposals around the need for a minimum wage, the fight for higher wages, the abolition of overtime. It also dealt with the issue of reorganising the trade union movement: calling for factory committees and representation of trades councils and the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement on the Trades Union Council. What is more, it demanded workers’ control of industry and a united front of workers to fight capital.
The pursuance of a broadly similar perspective today would surely meet the needs of the working class, avoiding the pitfalls of relying on the TUC. It would provide not only the best means of uniting all militants, but also the basis on which to launch a struggle to boot out the knight-errants of capital in the workers’ movement, such as Frank Chapple and Roy Grantham.
What of the problem of the unemployed? While the present structure of the labour movement atomises unemployed workers, casts them into despair, today’s conditions can propel unemployed workers into actions which violently oppose the capitalist system. It is no good the Party political committee coming out with pious speculations, such as “The possibility of the development of an unemployed workers’ movement should be kept continually under review”. We must declare the creation of an unemployed workers’ union our solemn aim.
But the real damning indictment of all recent Party proposals and initiatives over the unemployed is the determination to make the unemployed subjects of charity and parsimonious liberals. This and the obsession to subordinate the unemployed to the official labour movement is something that can only lead to defeat.
No, the communists must realise that the unemployed are of tremendous revolutionary importance - the fact that around half of the long-term unemployed are under 25 can only underline this. Their energy, courageousness and latent revolutionism must be harnessed. By doing this, the struggle to oust the toadies who head so many unions today can be enhanced. For, by uniting unemployed workers’ organisations with the class struggle, minority struggles can be extended far beyond the limits of the original conflict, can come to threaten traitors in our movement, and become the launching pad for strategic offensives.
While the unemployed are used by capital as a reserve army of labour, used to force down wages, they can even become victims of fascist contamination, organised as strike-breaking gangs. In the face of this, the political committee seems determined to mould the unemployed into cannon fodder for the TUC and the Labourites. But, instead of this disgraceful course, surely we should focus ourselves on making the unemployed into an active army of the revolution.
We have already referred to the undeniable truth that a strategic struggle is on the cards. The ability of the working class to resist the onslaught, to turn the defence of their interests into an offensive against capitalism, rests ultimately on the state of their revolutionary party - the Communist Party. While it is dominated by Eurocommunist revisionism, there is no chance of the working class acting independently, charting its course to socialism.
Opportunism disarms the workers, delivers us bound and gagged to the altar of capitalist profit. The period ahead demands a relentless struggle against all forms of opportunism, for, unless the Communist Party ends its tailism to the official trade union movement, ends its servile attitude to the Labour Party and its infatuation with the reformist, myopic AES, the working class will be like an army with no general staff. Resistance can be heroic, but any offensive will prove to be nothing more than a desperate gesture.
Comrades, now is not the time to slink off into domestic ‘bliss’, to drop into cynical despair, because of the state of the Party. Now is the time to rally to the fight in the Party. The period ahead promises fierce battles; the decisive, life-and-death struggle with our class enemy looms over the horizon. The first skirmish, the vital preparation, is the ideological and political struggle in the Party. The best elements in the class, all genuine communists, whether in the Party or excluded, must take up the challenge.