Impervious to lessons

Familiar bureaucratic maneuvering brought an end to the Miner's Strike, writes Mark Fischer

The meat of this John Miller article from March 1985 issue of The Leninist, forerunner of the Weekly Worker, is a report of the Mineworkers Defence Committee conference in February of that year. Of course, the comrade’s sign-off - that an alternative organisational/political centre to both the official trade union movement and its leftwing shield-carriers was “a burning necessity”, a “matter of the most extreme urgency” - was given a sad irony because by the time the paper was in the hands of most comrades in that pre-internet age, the strike was over.

The comrade’s description of the bureaucratically stage-managed, intentionally chaotic nature of that MDC conference will be depressingly familiar to readers with some experience in today’s movement. It underlines again just how impervious the contemporary left appears to be to the bitter lessons of the past.

Mark Fischer

Organising for action?

How many times have we heard militants say, ‘The miners are fighting for us all’? Yes, the miners certainly have been fighting: seven have been killed, thousands fined or imprisoned. And, yes, the struggle they have waged with such determination and courage has indeed been ‘for us all’ - a strategic struggle in the interests of the whole working class and others oppressed by capitalism, and not merely some sectional wages strike. But how have these others been fighting for the miners?

Undoubtedly the millions of pounds worth of food and money raised by the miners support movement and the trade unions nationally and interna­tionally have helped sustain the strikers and their families. But the fight for finance, though essential, is only the most basic level of solidarity; it alone has not and will not help the miners break through to victory. Neither will merely staging mass pickets outside scabbing pits, as those abysmal downturn defeatists, the Socialist Workers Party, stupidly declare.

For never has it been so crystal-clear that, unless widespread industrial action of general strike proportions by other sections of the working class in defence of the miners, in defence of their unions against the anti-union laws, and for better benefits and wages starts very soon, not only the miners but the whole working class will go down to a bitter defeat. Increasingly, militant miners are coming to see that need.How then is such action to be won?

Although it was quite correct to campaign for the TUC to organise industrial action in support of the miners before its 1984 congress, to have simply continued to appeal to those cosy fat-cat bureaucrats for real action after congress was more and more absurd. We remind those who now campaign for a recall of the TUC that it has not even enforced its own policy (and never intended to) on the blacking of all coal and oil, so what do they honestly expect from such misleaders as Willis, Duffy, Basnett (and Todd and Knapp)1 if their aim were to be achieved? More paper resolutions, promises and no action.

If the TUC refuses to act - and it should have been blindingly obvious to all militants (even the SWP) that they were not going to organise industrial action unless put under the most intense pressure from below - then they must be bypassed. From the very start of the strike the working class move­ment cried out for an organisation of rank-and-file militants, cutting across sectionalism and including militant miners. If that perspective, which we put forward last May, had been firmly grasped and campaigned for by the left from the start of the strike, today we could be seeing a vigorous minority movement in action, a mass movement of the minority of workers prepared to take industrial action for the miners and for their own demands; an organisation composed of rank-and-file miners, railworkers, power workers, carworkers, public service workers, etc, building up a tremendous head of pressure on the official movement, and at the same time linking together and campaigning politically in the workplaces for the ‘total physical support’ necessary for victory. And it is such an organisation that is needed even more today.

Unfortunately, such action that has been organised by unofficial bodies that exist, like the Mineworkers Defence Committee, the Liaison Committee, Bloc2 or the Workers Revolutionary Party’s All Trade Union Alliance (none of them bearing any resemblance whatsoever to a Minority Movement-type organ­isation) has been utterly inadequate.

The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LDCTU), initially formed in 1966 to rally opposition to incomes policy, became the leadership of the fight against the anti-union laws emanating from both Labour and Tory governments in the late 60s and early 70s.

In 1970, after the ‘consultative document’ on the proposed Industrial Relations Bill was published in October, the TUC predictably responded by merely calling a protest rally for January 12 1971. The Liaison Committee, itself, led by Communist Party industrial militants, almost immediately called for “mass industrial action” - a strike on December 8 1970. And, although, as the LCDTU themselves point out, “the call was made by an unofficial body and [with] the reservations, even hostility, of most union leaderships”, it became a massive display of industrial strength, with three quarters of a million workers striking and demonstrations everywhere, including 20,000 in Liverpool and 30,000 in London.

The Liaison Committee had also called for similar action to be taken on January 12, and because of its militant campaign managed to push the TUC into supporting meetings in works “where necessary” - on the day, an estimated five million workers took part in such meetings. The workers often marched out of the factories and did not return. Following that, on February 21 1971 the biggest demonstration of industrial workers seen this century marched through London.

Thus the struggle against the Industrial Relations Act was initiated by an unofficial movement of shop stewards which organised rank-and-file workers, putting pressure on the TUC and bypassing the labour bureaucrats when they were forced to.

The final demise of the act is a well-known story. The LCDTU’s active record then, though certainly not flawless, contrasts completely with its role during the present miners’ strike, for it has been noticeable more by its absence. Apart from a tiny contingent lobbying the 1984 TUC congress, this pale shadow (or even ghost?) of an organisation has organised just one conference - on January 17, over nine months after the strike started.

The declaration of the 200-strong conference confined itself to a call for the implementation of TUC policy and support for pickets and demonstrations, plus some general criticisms of no-strike agreements: those unions preparing to accept cash for ballots.

And that was about it! The anaemic declaration, to which no amendments were allowed, contained only one proposal for action - a demonstration on a Sunday!

The sad truth is that the Liaison Committee has over the past 10 years degenerated, becoming increasingly bureaucratically run - allowing no democracy to develop. Though it retains some influence among the middle layers of the trade unions (branch secretaries, convenors, etc), its influence among the rank and file has declined dramatically to the point of non-existence.

But while the cat’s away (or perhaps asleep) the mice will play, and so they did.

The Mineworkers Defence Committee (MDC) was formed at the 1984 Labour Party conference by an amalgam of Labour Briefing/Bennite and other left factions of the Labour Party. After remaining more or less dormant (no doubt waiting for the TUC to deliver the goods) for a month or so, it gradually started to dawn on this self-appointed committee that there was a need for the coordination of basic solidarity work.

After a month’s hurried preparation, the MDC held its ‘conference’ on December 2 1984, which, largely due to the bureaucratic manoeuvrings of Socialist Action and the SWP (who had been coopted onto the MDC after its formation by the Briefing/Chartist group), became a glorified rally and talking shop. To all militants, miner and non-miner, concerned with transforming the MDC into an organisation capable of mobilising for action, the December 2 event proved to be a great disappointment.

For a further two months the factional manoeuvrings for the upper hand on the MDC between the right-moving SWP/SocialistAction bloc and the left-posing Chartist/Socialist Organiser3group continued within the labyrinthine corridors of County Hall.

Then in January emerged the weekly bulletin of the MDC, the Black Dragon (as every worker knows, the dragon is an ancient symbol of solidarity!). As simply an up-to-date source of information on picketing, benefits, etc, the beast was of some use. As an agitator and co-coordinator of the campaign for the general strike so clearly needed, it completely failed to give a consistent lead. In Nos 2 and 3 we read editorials expressing official NUM policy; in No 4 the editorial consisted of the Chartist’s position, calling for an indefinite general strike in defence of the NUM, and the Greater London Council commencing on March 6 and for the recall of the TUC; whilst Nos 5 and 6 contained not a mention of such demands!

Reading further in the bizarre saga of the Black Dragon,we meet the offspring of the ‘Pit Dragon’, an ensemble of alternative, left or radical musicians, jugglers and fire-eaters (let the bourgeoisie tremble) for a miners’ victory, whose task is to entertain the picket lines. Saves them talking so much politics, we suppose.

The final chapter of this ungainly creature consists of the promised second ‘conference’ of February 9. Whereas the December 2 rally did attract large numbers of miners and women from the pit areas, February drew much fewer, even though it was held in Sheffield rather than London. And again much time was spent listening to various big-name speakers, leaving no time for the delegates to discuss the strategy and the politics of the support movement or even the resolutions. Another opportunity to launch an effective campaign was thus tragically lost. But this half-rally, half-conference contained not just elements of tragedy, but also of pure farce.

The organisers had bureaucratically and unilaterally decided, in their wish to ingratiate themselves with left union leaders and Labour names, to expand the MDC to include an array of representatives from each national union/broad left, regional Labour Parties and Labour council groups, an “unlimited” number of NUM reps and only one rep from each of 16 regions, so that, for example the whole of north London or Scotland has only one member on the MDC! Thus thousands of those actively involved in support group work are represented by a handful of individuals. Instead of a nationally organised miners’ support movement based on elected, recallable delegates from area and particularly workplace organisations, the MDC has spawned a cumbersome, bureaucratic monster, quite unrepresentative of the movement it purports to lead.

The final touch of absurdity was provided by the method of election of the area reps. This took the form of the delegates being directed to an allotted segment of the Octagon Theatre’s seating blocks: “all those from the southern [!] region to go to the fourth section on the left”. In the ensuing confusion a number of unrecallable and uncontestable ‘representatives’ were ‘elected’ with the barest minimum of discussion. Such a shambles would have been screaming­ly funny if there were not such a serious issue at stake.

The MDC has thus become a bureaucratic appendix. Now, with the ascendancy of the rightist elements like the tailist Socialist Action Trotskyites and SWP defeatists, it is quite useless for organising action.

Given the paralysis of the official trade union leadership, which is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, a Minority Movement-type organisation is indeed a burning necessity both for a miners’ victory and beyond. It is now a matter of the most extreme urgency.

John Miller


1. Long-serving union bureaucrat Norman Willis was elected TUC general secretary in September 1984; Terry Duffy was the leader of the engineers’ union, the AUEW, and was openly hostile to the strike; David Basnett was general secretary of the GMB union from 1973 to 1985; Ron Todd and Jimmy Knapp were leaders of, respectively, the Transport and General Workers Union and National Union of Railwaymen, who were responsible for squandering the opportunities of national dock strikes and rail stoppages alongside the miners.

2. The Broad Lefts Organising Committee, set up in 1981 by Militant, the forerunner of today’s Socialist Party in England and Wales.

3. The Socialist Organiser group is today’s Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, of course.