Pickets, ballots and workers' defence

Ian Donovan continues his series on the miners' Great Strike of 1984-85 by examining the key tactical and political questions

The announcement in March 1984 of 20 pit closures, starting with Cortonwood - an initial loss of 20,000 miners’ jobs - resulted in the whole of the Yorkshire area coming out on strike. This rapidly spread throughout the country, as the main regions either walked out or were rapidly picketed out in a matter of days, hours even. The strike thus acquired an early momentum that rapidly brought out a large majority of the 187,000 or so miners.

However, right from the very early days of the strike, it was obvious there was a real problem, centred primarily in the east Midlands. The Nottingham area of the National Union of Mineworkers, with over 30,000 members, voted three to one against striking. Derbyshire area also voted against, this time only narrowly by a mere 16 votes. In other smaller areas, such as Leicestershire, the bulk of NUM members also opposed the strike: later on the minority of only 30 Leicester miners who fought alongside their fellow strikers achieved near-legendary status as the so-called ‘dirty 30’.

Above all, these divisions were the bitter fruits of the incentive scheme that the Callaghan Labour government - including, of course, the then energy secretary but in 1984 fervent NUM supporter Tony Benn - had earlier imposed upon the miners with the connivance of Arthur Scargill’s rightwing predecessor as union president, Joe Gormley. Large numbers of miners in these areas of easier geology and ‘moderate’ union leaders, foolishly believed they were safe from the Tories’ bloodlust, which they believed was only directed against the militants from the less ‘productive’ coalfields. Eight years later, long after the strike had been defeated, they discovered they were wrong about that - the Tories under Major and Heseltine closed their pits just as ruthlessly as Thatcher had done to those of the strikers. By then it was too late. But that is jumping way ahead of ourselves.


The actions of this minority meant that right from the start the NUM was polarised and disunited in the face of the enemy. Thus arose the controversy that rumbles on to this day: should the NUM have called a national ballot in the first weeks of the strike? There arises the great myth, that Arthur Scargill supposedly forced the NUM out on strike without a ballot. In cruder, tabloid form, this myth goes hand in hand with crude depictions of Scargill as some kind of Marxist, who ran his own terror regime in the NUM and supposedly was determined to attack ‘democracy’ and replace it with a totalitarian regime in Britain, the miners’ strike being his chosen means of bringing about this dystopian ‘revolution’.

The accusations were of course arrant nonsense. Scargill was an admirer of Stalinist ‘socialism’ as it existed in the USSR, but, as with Stalinists in general, what he in fact feared like the plague was the self-liberation of the working class or anything that smacked of it. So it is also worth noting that Scargill’s idea of ‘revolution’ included  the election of a Labour government, which would legislate to bring his highly stratified, bureaucratic vision of socialism into being.

The truth was, that the reason that the ballot did not happen was because many thousands of militant miners, right at the beginning of the strike, did not want one. This was not a result of any machinations by Arthur Scargill: it was simply a matter of militancy, combined with the political inexperience, of the mass of solidly pro-strike miners. Outraged and suspicious of any talk of a ballot as simply a method of strikebreaking, given the national ballots that had been lost in the months before the strike over the closures of individual pits, the predominant, firmly held view of the miners was that any national ballot would just be a means whereby one miner would get the chance to vote another out of a job.

This sentiment was so overwhelming among the miners that it was difficult to stand against it; if Scargill had come out in favour of a ballot, he would likely have been howled down by his own followers. In fact, at the special NUM conference at the end of March that took the decision not to hold a ballot, Scargill made no recommendation to his members, and it was decided overwhelmingly that no ballot was necessary or desirable - the NUM membership had voted with its feet, the reasoning was, and did not need to vote again.

This was probably the most contentious issue of the strike, and played a major role both in the anti-strike propaganda of the bosses, and in political disputes that have periodically re-emerged ever since about how the miners came to be defeated. The ballot question was one of a number of central questions that the strike threw up.

There are principles involved for every class-conscious trade unionist, in not seeking to undermine a struggle of one’s fellow workers, particularly when so much is at stake in terms of the social devastation the bourgeoisie was planning in terms of the mass sackings of miners - as a wedge against the working class. At the same time, however, any leadership in such a situation has to face the political reality that not all sections of the working class have the same level of consciousness. The militancy of the vanguard of the NUM in Yorkshire, Wales, Scotland and Kent had its complement in the anti-militancy that the bourgeoisie had already, even before the strike started, managed to engender in the majority of miners in Notts and other smaller areas through the incentive scheme.

How to deal with backward layers like this is not a question of principle, but of tactics. There is little doubt that, in the very early days of the strike, if a ballot had been called, the strikers would have won it overwhelmingly, and those scabs in Nottingham and elsewhere would have been morally defeated. That does not mean that all of them would have suddenly woken up to become sterling militants. Particularly given the police terror tactics used to defend their ‘right’ to scab, a significant number may well have continued to work, come what may. It may well have split them, however.

Scabs would have lost their ‘democratic’ fig leaf, and it would have been a powerful weapon in the hands of the NUM to be able to portray them as people at odds with the democratic will of the majority of miners. It would have nailed the absurd lie which the bosses continued to churn out right till the end of the strike - that the majority was somehow being forced to act against their own wishes. It would also have given rise to more popular resonance in the rest of the working class, particularly the more backward layers, faced with calls for solidarity from the miners.

The opportunity to do this probably only existed at most until just before the end of March, and in particular the NUM special conference that formally, and within the branch and delegate structure of the NUM, entirely democratically, decided that a ballot was not necessary. Once that decision had been taken, it was pretty well irrevocable, and agitation for a ballot took on a very different character - with battle lines consolidated it was purely and simply anti-strike agitation. To reverse the conference decision subsequently would have been seen as capitulation and almost certainly would have had a fatally demoralising effect on the strike.

For all that, it was still a mistake not to use the ballot at the very start of the strike. A mistake caused not by the sinister machinations of Scargill, as the gutter press would have us believe, but rather by the very militant, but essentially syndicalist, consciousness of the militant miners (including, of course, Scargill), who at that point were unable to see the task of defeating the nascent scab movement as a question that required tactics of a political nature, and in particular the skill to use democracy as a weapon, to turn it back on the hypocritical anti-communist reactionaries who were trying to use ‘democracy’ as a bludgeon in the war against our class.


It was not just the spontaneous consciousness of the miners and their union that was inadequate in this situation. Equally inadequate was the response of much of the left. Take the Socialist Workers Party, now the largest revolutionary group outside the Labour Party. Its recipe for victory in the strike was simple - more picketing, on the lines of Saltley Gates in 1972, was the road to success, as Socialist Worker agitation preached noisily and monotonously through the early period of the strike in particular. The implication being that the miners were not picketing enough, and thereby were not militant enough. Of course, the miners could easily teach the SWP leadership (and membership, come to that) a thing or three about pure militancy, but what was the point of that? The role of a revolutionary party is not to act as an echo chamber for existing militancy, a feature which was certainly not in short supply at that point in any case, but rather to provide political answers to the problems of the class struggle.

This the SWP was manifestly unable to do, with their fixation on mass pickets - which is not of course to denigrate the importance of mass picketing in this extremely polarised situation - but to fetishise mass picketing in this manner was a characteristic mistake of the SWP. Another important aspect of the SWP’s analysis of this situation, which at first sight appears at odds with their mass picket fixation, was the so-called ‘theory’ of a “downturn” in the class struggle - this at a time of the biggest, most militant and politically significant mass action since the 1926 General Strike.

According to SWP guru Tony Cliff, “The miners strike is an extreme example of what we have called the ‘downturn’.” Chris Harman amplified this with the statement (made during the strike) that “This isn’t 1925 or 1926. This is more like 1927” (ie, that the situation during the miners’ strike was akin to that after the strategic defeat suffered by the British working class with the failure of the General Strike). This implied a hopeless perspective, of course and in this context the SWP’s repetitive agitation for more and more mass pickets was a peculiar form of political desperation.

The complex problems that enmeshed the NUM right from the beginning of the strike produced egregious examples of gross sectarianism from sections of the left. Over the question of the ballot, two particularly bad examples were the Spartacist League, on the one hand, and the Revolutionary Communist Party, on the other. The Spartacist League today is a standing joke and a nut group no serious leftist would touch with a barge pole; in those days it was a slightly flaky but often quite dynamic orthodox Trotskyist group capable of attracting serious militants. Indeed it did, through the course of the strike, pick up a number of useful sympathisers from among the miners, as of course did other left groups including The Leninist current of the CPGB, the forerunner of our own organisation today.

The SL picked up on the ballot question very early, virtually at the beginning of the strike, and began to simply repeat and amplify the crude militancy of the miners. ‘Bollocks to the ballot’ is something you might expect from the mouth of a militant, syndicalist-inclined worker, but not something you would expect as a considered statement of a communist organisation trying to give a political lead to a section of the class. The Spartacists took great delight in going round the coalfields and telling the most militant but politically inexperienced miners exactly what they wanted to hear: that they were right to spurn attempting to politically isolate the scabs by holding such a ballot at the beginning of the strike.

While it is true that, as a result of the actual force of the strike, the window of opportunity to do this rapidly closed, as the divisions among miners consolidated, and therefore by somewhere around the end of March this amounted to a call for surrender, nevertheless the failure to hold a ballot when the opportunity existed was a legitimate criticism of the militant trade unionist politics of the NUM mainstream, including of course Scargill. The SL engaged in sectarian vilification of anyone who made these points in order to brand others on the left as really strike-breakers at heart - this kind of thing is still spewed out by their psychotic remnants even to this day.

The RCP, on the other hand, was characterised by an even more unsavoury form of sectarianism. Looking for something to distinguish themselves from other leftists, they seized upon the ballot question. With no sense that this was a sensitive question among militant miners, with no sense that there were dangers, as well as potential gains, for the union, even if this question had been handled properly, they just steamed in with full frontal agitation for a ballot. And they did not cease this agitation once it became clear that an irrevocable decision had been taken, and that the consequence of a U-turn on this could only have potentially fatal consequences for the strike.

Putting their own interests as a sect above the interests of the miners and the class, they hoped by their sensationalist ballot-mongering to win over some impressionable, discontented elements looking for something ‘different’. They did not have much success, of course - unless one counts their ‘success’ in getting into fisticuffs with rank-and-file miners around the county, and reportedly on one occasion getting their people thrown into a river. This cavalier disregard for the consciousness and interests of striking miners revealed something of the real nature of the RCP as an  odd, middle-class grouping that really was rather out of place in a working class struggle. It provided a glimpse of what the RCP was to become, as it gradually abandoned the working class and socialism entirely. It now no longer exists as a leftwing group: the clique that remains is basically devoted to an idiosyncratic form of Tory libertarianism.

It was not more mass picketing on its own that was needed - ie, more of the same militant trade union tactics that had sufficed to win in 1972 - but rather a fundamental strategic shift to take account of the fact that the bosses’ union-busting plans and militarisation of the police had rendered the old ‘push and shove’ contests utterly inadequate.

Now we faced coppers who were tooled up with riot shields, batons and no doubt much more besides, organised in phalanxes to smash heads and to defeat the strike at all costs. Now we experienced the occupation of pit villages by militarised strikebreakers out to break the will of entire communities through systematic harassment, even in the miners’ own homes. Combined with this, there was the promotion, by professional strikebreakers like David Hart, of scab ‘heroes’ like ‘Silver Birch’, and later those who went on the lead breakaway ‘Union of Democratic Mineworkers’ in Notts.

This naked use of state power necessitated a move beyond ordinary trade union methods of struggle. Two important things could have been done to counter attack. One was the organisation of real, practical solidarity action from other sections of the working class, the struggle to spread the strike and open up other fronts against the government, thus overcoming the miners’ isolation. There was a spontaneous tendency among wide sections of the class to do this: the main obstacle being the opposition of the pro-capitalist trade union bureaucracy.

Workers’ defence

Miners themselves, perceiving their disadvantage at the hands of a well prepared state, spontaneously began to organise hit squads to deal out rough justice to scabs. But what was needed was something much more - organised self-defence, and the building of independent workers’ defence corps that could begin to redress the imbalance between the militarised police and the workers.

This perspective was very far from the minds of the reformist leaders of the trade unions, including those on their extreme left such as Scargill. Likewise for many revolutionary groups, including the SWP, whose calls for more mass picketing took no account that existing mass pickets were already being brutally smashed up by the police. Only a relatively few leftwing organisations called for the organisation of workers’ defence squads: ourselves, Workers Power and the Spartacist League were probably the only ones to do so.

The Spartacists, however, called rather abstractly for ‘joint trade union defence guards’: ie, for the NUM to organise such bodies jointly with other unions who unfortunately, were not out on strike with the miners. A great idea, but impossible to implement without other unions striking jointly with the miners. This seemed like something of a cop-out from advocating miners and their supporters themselves begin the task of organising working class defence, which of course could incorporate wider sections of the class, as these were drawn into struggle.

Our May Day 1984 statement on the miners strike put the case simply: “Set up workers’ defence corps to protect meetings and picket lines. These should be controlled by trades councils, or, where this is not possible, by miners’ support committees. They should consist above all of unemployed workers and strikers” (The Leninist May 1984). We produced an extensive theoretical supplement on the question of the workers’ militia (The Leninist was transformed from a quarterly journal into a more agitational monthly newspaper at the beginning of the strike), which covered this question both in terms of history and current possibilities in some depth.

A later edition headlined: “We need workers’ defence corps” (The Leninist August 1984). It explained, in the context of the police rampage against miners picketing the Orgreave coke depot in Yorkshire (where the NUM leadership had attempted naively to repeat the famous 1972 victory of Saltley Gates): “Now the working class, particularly those sections with experience of the new police tactics such as the miners, have to face the brutal truth behind the brutal methods. Do we just complain at police thuggery, try to stop funding through police committees, and generally appeal to the bourgeois state not to be so nasty; or do we plan our tactics at least as well and hopefully better than those heading the police offensive on picket lines? Of course it is a loaded question. There is only one answer if we are to win battles at Orgreave or anywhere else where our class faces attack from the class enemy: we must plan our own defence.”

And in a more theorised article, taking up some of the inadequate responses (both of miners themselves and of left groups such as the SWP) to such organised police brutality as was carried out at Orgreave, we pointed to history where workers had organised their own defence, not least during the 1926 General Strike in the  Scottish pit village of Methil in Fife: “After police charges on mass pickets the defence corps, which 150 workers had joined at the outset, was reorganised. Its numbers rose to 700, of whom 400, commanded by workers who had been NCOs during the war, marched in military formation through the town to the protect the picket. The police did not interfere again” (Workers Weekly June 11 1926; cited in The Leninist October 1984).

Class against class

The failure to organise the defence of picket lines and workers’ organisations from the attentions of the state was another crucial barrier to victory. It was also a manifestation of wider questions involving the need for a political alternative to capitalism. The need for basic class solidarity was posed point blank in the strike: in order to defeat the government, class-wide strike action was needed. However, in a period of acute class struggle, the bureaucracy of the trade unions inevitably plays a treacherous role. Given that the state and the ruling class was going all out to crush the miners, stopping them from doing this posed tasks of a revolutionary type, in real life. It posed the need for the working class to defeat the state power itself. The miners’ strike was in this sense a case of history repeating itself; the same issues were posed as in the 1920s, when trade union leaders were faced with the necessity to defeat the government, as the following extract from Aneurin Bevan’s book In place of fear made clear:

“‘But if you do so [ie, call a general strike],’ went on Mr Lloyd George, ‘have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For, if a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. ‘Gentlemen,’ asked the prime minister quietly, ‘have you considered and, if you have, are you ready?’

“‘From that moment on,’ said [TUC negotiator] Robert Smillie, ‘we were beaten and we knew we were’.”

This is the eternal problem of ‘non-political’ trade unionism. When the class struggle reaches a decisive pitch, and reality strikes home that the only way to defend the basic interests of the workers is to defeat the forces of the state in open struggle, it has no choice but to cave in.

This logic was continually posed throughout the miners’ strike: the need for solidarity was felt throughout the working class and on a number of occasions broke out into the open in strikes and other forms of industrial action by other sections of the class in solidarity with the miners. Yet even in the best of these cases, it was unable to escape the political influence of this kind of narrow trade unionism, and thus was liable to be sabotaged by the leaders of the trade unions, even those who claimed to be on the left and in support of the miners. All of them feared the consequences of a defeat of Thatcher by a united and aroused working class more than they feared the defeat of the NUM and the likely consequences of that for the trade union movement as a whole.

The fact that the miners’ strike had this almost insurrectionary logic produced some remarkable changes of consciousness among the front line troops - the miners themselves. It also produced a breaking down of divisions between the miners and other more submerged and oppressed sections of the working class. In the next article in this series I intend to address some of these issues, from the emergence of the militant movement of miners’ wives, Women Against Pit Closures, to the remarkable learning process undergone by miners, facing systematic police persecution, about the parallel experiences of ethnic minority communities in Britain’s inner cities.

Equally importantly, I intend to address what were probably the decisive moments: the two failed dock strikes, and the threatened action by pit deputies in the later part of 1984, when the miners’ strike really did seem likely to spread and become a joint strike with other sections of the class.

All this, of course, pointed to the need for a general strike, and I will look at how this could have happened and how some on the left addressed this question (or not, in some cases).