Of course it was political

The miners' Great Strike marked a crossroads. Its defeat had profound political consequences. Dave Douglass, branch secretary of Hatfield Main National Union of Mineworkers, spoke to the March 14 Communist Forum

The difference between where we are now and where we were then is huge. Now there are some 11 branches of the National Union of Mineworkers; then there were around 180. Now the NUM has 3,000 members; in 1984 at least 170,000 went on strike. For every miner’s job, some 10 others were dependent on it - for example, coal accounted for 75% of all rail freight.

Taking into consideration wives and families, you are talking about a very considerable number of people - not spread across the country, but concentrated in key industrial areas built around real, fixed communities where men had worked down the pit for generations. Long traditions of local, national and international solidarity among miners had been built up.

If the miners had won in 1984, it would have been the second time in a 10-year period when an industrial union successfully turned out a government. The consequences in terms of bourgeois democracy would have been terrifying: no more waiting for another five years before you put your cross on a meaningless bit of paper; you could exercise industrial power and say, ‘We’re not having that’; you could function as a whole, intervening mass to put a stamp on society.

It was that ability of the miners to intervene at various times in history as a class force with a consciously political dimension which marked us out. We were certainly just as political as the left parties. You may argue that, had there been a strong and united workers’ party behind the miners at the time of the strike, then things might have turned out differently. My view on the reification of organisation is that class consciousness exists regardless of organisation. Organisation is a reflection of class consciousness, not the other way round. We had a Communist Party in 1926 which put forward disastrous slogans like ‘All power to the TUC general council’ - now there’s a slogan for you! What did the general council do? Sold us down the bloody river, and the communists gave them all the power to do it.

Margaret Thatcher took on the miners not for economic reasons such as cost-cutting or a glut of coal on the market, but because of what the miners stood for and were able to bring about politically. Revenge against the miners for their victory in 1974 may have been a part of it, but the fact is that the miners remained more than merely a bunch of workers struggling against the threat of unemployment. In terms of their consciousness they were the most politicised workforce in Britain, a force capable of making a difference.

The strike was always about much more than saving jobs. There is a song with the words, “Why do want to save these jobs?” Back-breaking, disgusting work on your hands and knees that saps your strength and destroys your health. Today something like 15,000 former miners are dying each year from chronic bronchitis - not to mention pneumoconiosis and the like. Why fight to preserve that kind of job? There was certainly nothing ennobling about it.

Despite all that, this was a job in which, unlike in a factory on the production line, the working miner had a terrific amount of control, where nobody could tell you what to do. To a great extent the job was self-regulating - collective work, where people decide things together, literally watch each other’s backs and look after each other - real comradeship. In this respect, you can actually be less alienated from your work than in many other jobs.

The miners themselves decided who worked where, so that every three months all the numbers went into the hat and jobs were allocated in that way. Management had no chance to put the agitators in the worst places and give the soft jobs to the bosses’ men. Likewise, if the boss wanted overtime done on a Saturday, he had to ask permission of the union, and if the list was not in by Thursday dinner time, he did not get it.

But the bottom line was our ability to develop a collective vision for the future and to challenge things on that basis. In their political ignorance and prejudice, the pundits depicted the miners as being greedy for more money - they still do, totally failing to understand that the strike was not like that. It was not about money, nor was it just about just pit closures. It was about our ability as a social force to change things. Of course, it was political.

As a nationalised industry and a major part of the state-controlled sector, everything that happened in the coal industry was political, and usually with a big ‘P’. Issues around wage restraint, hours of labour, trade union laws were all aspects of the need to control a massive work force - in Ted Heath’s day some 360,000 miners. Right from the start, the paternalistic vision of a nationalised, welfare-orientated industry meant the miners were always going to constitute a political challenge to whichever party was in government. Large chunks of the Labour Party’s labour and trade union policy were determined by what went on in nationalised industries such as the pits. In those days, the National Coal Board was the biggest employer in Europe.

So it is crystal clear that, if Thatcher wanted to see off the working class in terms of the organised trade union movement, the miners at some point would have to be confronted. Dodging around and shadow-boxing would not do. The confrontation was long and deep in preparation - not just the 1979 Ridley committee, with its contingency plans for fighting the miners, but more long-term plans which actually envisaged what was at that time the unimaginable possibility of Britain without any coal mines at all. For Thatcher the latter was a step too far, but the idea of running down the coal industry to a point where it no longer existed came back under Major.

Did the confrontation have to happen when it did? Even if the closures had been enforced gradually, there would inevitably have been a fight at some stage. Areas had been very reluctant to take industrial action. Some actions, such as the overtime ban, were the result of national conference decisions, but previous ballots had been lost and areas had been very short-sighted. Thatcher knew that taking on the Yorkshire coalfield would definitely prompt a fight and she may have been gambling on the union losing a national ballot. The late Frank Cave was asked in my presence during a visit by US students why a strike ballot was not held in that period and he replied, “Because we would have lost it”. I don’t happen to agree with Frank about that, but in one sense the ballot was irrelevant anyway, because, once Thatch-er took on the Yorkshire coalfield, then Yorkshire was going to strike.

One of the prevailing myths is that Arthur Scargill called the strike. He did not. The strike started in Yorkshire. Arthur, who by that time was national president, was not present at the meeting that took the decision and in any case had no way whatsoever of calling a strike in Yorkshire. What Arthur did have the power to do was to get the national executive to declare the Yorkshire strike official. On that basis we were able to call on other areas to make a stand in support of Yorkshire. There were some spectacular decisions made around that time: ballots in Wales and Lancashire went against a strike but, once it had begun to build up momentum, the miners in those areas supported it, and a total of some 170,000 joined in.

Many of us felt at that particular time that this was a stop-gap measure before a national ballot. Once people were on strike and involved in the fight, they were fully aware of the situation. Against the background of mass meetings involving whole communities, lengthy debate and argument, the women mobilising behind the action, growing solidarity and awareness of our own strength - a ‘hot’ ballot would have produced the conclusion that the miners as a collective force had to strike. Things had always been decided in such a way - though, to be fair, there were successful national ballots in 1972 and 1974.

The crucial difference that pushed people away from the idea of a national ballot was that national pay bargaining had been wrecked on the rocks of the incentive scheme. The Callaghan government had dreamed up a means of derailing the miners from ever threatening any government. National pay bargaining had hitherto kept the divergent elements of the coalfields together and united them into one force - wherever a miner worked, his pay was negotiated nationally: eliminating local disparities like how thick the seams were, how good the machinery and so forth. The incentive scheme brought all of this back again, dividing area from area, causing people to think parochially and selfishly. Crucially, the introduction of the incentive scheme destroyed the national solidarity which lay behind the ballots of 72 and 74.

There was, in the early months of the strike, a national conference on whether we would have a ballot. The executive changed the rule to reduce the necessary majority from 55% to 51% in anticipation. We then went back to the mass meetings of the men, who had already been on strike for weeks and asked them, “Do you want to have a ballot?” They nearly took me outside and hung me off the bloody rafters. They shouted, “Don’t you come back here trying to sell us out. What are you asking for a ballot for? We’re already on strike.” It looked to them as if members of the executive were trying to find a way out; that we were going to say, ‘We wanted to fight, but these bastards wouldn’t bloody vote for it.’ So the men thought we were trying to sell them out with a ballot and that it was dishonourable for people to ask for one when they could clearly see what the issue was about.

However, by the early summer of 1984, even the most rightwing press was saying we would have won a ballot hands down, had there been one. In retrospect we might have done so by something like a margin two to one. But the ballot is an irrelevancy really. It would not have changed the fortunes of the strike one way or the other. It would have taken away the propaganda from the other side, but it would not have taken away the scabs. I have made the point many times - if you cannot see what side you’re on, from the wrong side of 20,000 riot shields, going to work in a bus covered with wire mesh, all the ballots in the world are not going to convince you.

On the question of the extent of rank and file involvement in the strike, I dealt with this in my riposte against the Socialist Workers Party’s nonsense (Weekly Worker March 11). The SWP obviously did not have a clue about what was actually going on. One consequence of the strike was that there were at least two sets of structures: the formal structure of the union and the informal links that men built on the hoof as the action progressed. For example, the branch committee was elected according to established rules. But, once the action started, we elected strike committees - different men with different responsibilities and authority. The same thing happened at area level with the strike panels, plus alliances of panels, which were not part of any formal structure.

Then there things we didn’t know about like the hit squads - rank and file lads getting together, planning, organising and carrying out specific actions. All of these things represented mass involvement by the workers themselves. When it came to pickets, these were not controlled top-down by Arthur. He could not deploy any pickets, because he did not have any. Until, that is, the call to Orgreave, but that is another story.

The response to the strike in different areas was variable, based on different political, historical and cultural perspectives. People have come up with all kinds of mysterious answers as to why the Notts miners voted against strike action. The Workers Revolutionary Party, for example, told us that it was Arthur’s fault for having condemned Solidarnosc; apparently there were a lot of Polish miners in Notts who took the opportunity to get back at him for this. Absolute rubbish. There were just as many Polish miners in Doncaster who were on strike and getting battered to hell as there were Polish miners in Nottingham who were scabbing.

At the end of the day it comes down to class-consciousness. It is true that in the early days, though they would not join the strike, Notts miners did not cross picket lines and contented themselves with going home. It was not until the ‘back to work’ strike-breaking campaign started, as a political force set up by the other side, that these men crossed the class line and joined the other side themselves. At that point, instead of trying to persuade them, we had to obstruct them. Instead of worker talking to worker, we faced each other as class enemies. If you have crossed the picket line and joined the other side, it does not matter that you are from the working class: you have ideologically become an enemy of the working class. That is when picket line tactics changed from a gentle push and shove to throwing bricks.

Do not tell me that the miners who crossed the picket lines or the men who drove the scab trucks - protected by armoured layers of cops with truncheons, dogs and horses - did not know what was going on and did not know that they were taking the bread out of the mouths of strikers’ kids, because they bloody well did. It is particularly unfortunate and nasty when we have to confront enemies in our own class.

I am sorry to say that the Nottingham miners by and large were not the same as other miners. In 1926 they were the people who led the return to work; they were the people who formed the scab Spencer union, which then went around spreading itself through other industries, calling itself a non-political union because it despised communists and socialists and anarcho-syndicalists. In the new era of nationalised coal production, we let the Nottingham men back into the NUM, even giving Spencer a seat on the national executive - to our shame. But they always remained a sleeping force, with their own caucus meetings. As late as 1983, Notts miners were still being paid the increment for scabbing in the 1926 strike.

Finally, was the strike always foredoomed? I do not think it was for one minute. They picked when we went on strike when they threw down the gauntlet to Cortonwood by announcing its closure - it was strategically the best time for them. They had also changed the rules, giving the cops their head to do what they wanted and manipulating all kinds of regulations - DHSS, welfare, etc - which would really make poverty bite among the workers. For 12 months men who had already finished in the industry and had nothing to do with the strike never received a penny in unemployment benefit, etc. This was done in order to punish the coal communities as a whole and increase poverty.

Despite all this there were three occasions when it seemed to Thatcher and National Coal Board chairman Ian McGregor that they were in danger of losing. Twice when Nacods, the safety/supervisors union, voted by over 80% to take industrial action. Nacods were crucial in the defeat of the miners, but do not blame the deputies and the other men, because they voted, lobbied and demonstrated to strike. Their leaders for whatever reason stopped the strike taking place.

Then the dockers’ action was the catalyst of a solidarity action that had the country by the bollocks. If the dockers at Immingham had not allowed non-union dock labour to load coal onto scab lorries (because the railwaymen were not allowing it through), McGregor says Thatcher was ready to give in within two days. So dockers’ solidarity action would have sealed it and the action would have been a de facto general strike, with everything closing down. Remember that Arthur’s call to other sections of the class was not that they should go on strike, but to take solidarity action: don’t cross picket lines; don’t transport or burn scab fuel. With help like that, we could have done the rest.

It was Immingham, with the possibility of a rail and dock strike and the isolation of the steelworks, which was the vital flashpoint, not the Orgreave mass picket, which was a total distraction. Once Arthur, full of the vision of another Saltley Gates, imagined Sheffield steelworkers and foundry workers downing tools and marching in support of the miners, Orgreave became in his mind the key tactic and the key battleground. Right idea, wrong place. The docks were the place to do it, rather than fighting in a field every day, where we could only take a beating.

We had victory in the palm of our hands on a number of occasions. However, when these chances failed to materialise, we did not have a lot of places to go. It was clear that the TUC was not going to deliver what we had asked - don’t use scab fuel. We did not ask them to do anything else.

But the fight had to be had. At the end of the day what was remarkable was that afterwards we were still there. In 1989 there were still 100,000 miners in Britain, supplying 90% of the fuel, so if the plan had been to wipe out the coal industry, it did not work. We still organised 100% in the NUM areas, although the scab outfit controlled most of Nottingham. So they had not broken the union. In that initial period, the strike from their point of view had failed. In 1987 there was a national ballot which produced an 80% vote for strike action; we had a mass of unofficial area strikes sweeping the coalfields.

In 1993 Whitehall decided on the ‘final solution’ - changing the way in which the power industry worked, ending its obligation to obtain the cheapest fuel (coal). This robbed coal of its market. By that time people had little or no belly for industrial action. We did run a very successful public campaign, but at the end of the day the government showed it was impervious to public opinion.

We are now down to about 3,000 miners in around 14 pits. My own pit, which accesses one half of all Britain’s coal reserves, is currently filling up with gas and water, waiting for someone to raise £30 million to buy it. I cannot see anybody doing that. I have written to Mr Blair asking him if the government would at least fund the development, but I expect no reply. UK Coal has no plans for any of its pits beyond another three years and already intends to close Selby within the next two years. A string of other pits are under threat. By 2006 there will no coal mined in Britain. Around 30% of the energy market will still be provided by coal, but it will be imported, not dug by us.