Solidarity squandered

In the third article of his series Ian Donovan looks at the attempts to coordinate action alongside the miners

As the miners settled in for what seemed destined to be a long struggle in the spring of 1984, the class struggle in British society was very much in the balance.

Obviously, as analysed in the previous article, there were serious, but not necessarily fatal, divisions in the miners’ ranks (Weekly Worker March18). Nottingham area was still largely working, albeit with a fiercely loyal and often heroic minority defying the scab majority and throwing in their lot with the bulk of the strikers. In some of the other fringe areas, there were wide divisions - for example North Derbyshire mainly scabbed, whereas in South Derbyshire there was rather a different story.

The Tory propaganda mills, the gutter press, and indeed the so-called quality media, including the BBC, ITV, etc, were putting out the message that the National Union of Mineworkers was isolated in society as a whole; that no union would join the miners; that the winter was over and coal stocks were high; and that therefore the miners were as good as defeated. But this section of the working class, once roused to action by Thatcher’s provocations, proved to be well up to the task of fighting on despite the millstones that had been hung round their necks by the scabs and the trade union bureaucracy.

A curious thing began to happen, despite the bosses’ propaganda about the miners’ ‘isolation’ and supposedly inevitable defeat. In part one of this series I talked about the wave of reactionary chauvinism that overtook large sections of the population in the aftermath of the Falklands war (Weekly Worker March 11). That nationalist atmosphere in the British body politic was certainly a potent factor at the beginning of the strike. But the sheer intransigence of the miners, the earth-shaking and strategic nature of their struggle, began to polarise society along class lines. There was a real, palpable, though diffuse and unorganised, popular sympathy with the miners emerging throughout society, among the oppressed, the downtrodden, those who had been on the receiving end of Thatcher’s free market ‘revolution’ (as the bourgeoisie put it). As the strike wore on and the ‘Falklands factor’ began to drain away, this took some rather remarkable forms.

Women Against Pit Closures

One early indication of the major social impact the miners’ strike was to have was the emergence, rather early in the strike, of the women’s support movement. In the late 1970s and early 1980s in particular, when organised strikebreaking became de rigueur for the bosses, one key propaganda weapon used against working class militancy was the appeal by the bosses’ press to strikers’ wives and girlfriends, as a conservative social pressure to force striking men back to work. On more than one occasion in the recent past, this had worked for the bosses. But not this time.

The first, hackneyed attempts to try to incite this kind of thing backfired spectacularly indeed, as literally thousands of miners’ wives and girlfriends hit the streets - and the picket lines - in support of their menfolk. Mobilising under slogans such as ‘Stand by your man’, this was certainly not a feminist movement, as much of the British left would have expected from their understanding of the woman’s question. It did not pose women’s struggles as being in some way directed against men; it was a proudly working class movement fighting for the interests of both female and male workers. But, although many feminists - particularly of the middle class variety, typified by Bea Campbell of the Euro wing of the ‘official’ CPGB - lamented the fact that this women’s movement was militantly anti-separatist and thereby effectively anti-feminist, it was a key part of a revolutionary change of consciousness that took place in the coalfields.

The point being that the logic of the strike, and in particular of women participating as militants in their own right, had tremendous social implications. This was the starting point of something quite profound. Women in pit communities were traditionally forced into a pretty conservative role: as partners of men engaged in an extremely arduous, physically demanding occupation, their job was, arguably more so than in other sections of the class, to support their man and raise children.

Geographical factors also played a role, in that unlike many other sections of the working class, mainly located within the big cities, pit communities were usually in separate locations, outside the cities, and thereby tended to be much more self-contained. Alongside the fierce traditions of union militancy, there was much in the circumstances of the pit communities that made for a conservative ethos. They also tended, in large measure because of geographical factors like these, to be mainly white, relatively isolated from some of the changes in composition of the working class that had come about as a result of immigration since World War II in particular.

The eruption of Women against Pit Closures, then, had a major effect in terms of these communities. Women not only went about raising money and support for the strike; as their militancy grew, they demanded to be active on the picket lines alongside the men. They were thus subjected to police brutality on much the same scale as the men, and they came to hate and despise the forces of the state just as much as the men. It was the sheer impetus of the strike, the logic of such a life-and-death struggle for the pit communities, which brought into being such a wrench in social behaviour. Many men were initially taken aback by the change in the women, many at first were uneasy. One thing was clear: the women fighters were so transformed by this experience that it would be very difficult for them to go back to the old roles that they had been used to before the strike. This massive shake-up of traditional roles was probably the first ingredient in a much more profound change in miners’ consciousness.

Black and gay solidarity

Another major manifestation of the change in consciousness worked by the strike became obvious as the struggle went on. The Miners’ Solidarity Fund - kept formally separate from the NUM in order to safeguard this lifeline for striking miners’ subsistence from the clutches of the law - was set up. Rather wisely, as the later course of the strike was to reveal. It was the experience of miners who went to the big cities collecting money that really produced the change: the more white, middle class neighbourhoods were generally quite stony ground in terms of solidarity money - Thatcher’s territory, in other words. But it was the working class areas, and particularly those working class areas with a high black and Asian population, which were the places where the miners’ struggle inspired popular sympathy the most, and where consequently they raised much more money.

What cemented this particularly was the fact that this was not simply a one-way identification. The solidarity shown by oppressed communities for a major working class struggle was in many ways natural and not that unusual. What was less usual and most gratifying about the miners’ strike, however, was the fact that the identification went the other way just as much, and such empathy and solidarity between miners in struggle and the oppressed minorities grew more and more solid as the strike wore on. This was above all because of a similar experience of the police. In times of relative class peace, in an imperialist society like Britain, where racist and chauvinist discrimination against racial minorities is endemic and at times has amounted to open state policy, workers from the dominant national grouping tend to regard themselves as on better terms with and favoured by the police, and to look down on the minorities who do get systematically victimised as being troublemakers at best.

However, what you had in 1984-85 was a strategic section of the majority, mainly white, working class being subjected to systematic police harassment and terrorisation on a nationwide scale. In fact, when collecting money in the cities, the police were instructed to harass miners and did so, frequently arresting those collecting on spurious ‘obstruction’ charges and the like. On more than one occasion when this was attempted in the black community, ordinary people would in turn harangue and on some occasions themselves confront the cops for picking on miners. The tinkle of scales dropping from workers’ eyes was on these occasions very audible indeed - it is arguable that this aspect of the miners’ struggle had an effect that still persists to this day in the wider working class. This demonstrated - not as a matter of a theory in a Marxist textbook, but in life - the power of a hard class struggle and head-on confrontation with the forces of the state to break down divisions in the working class.

It was also quite extraordinary to see a similar identification come about between the most advanced sections of the miners and struggles for gay rights. The basis was more or less the same - a common experience of police harassment and oppression. It was quite normal to see ‘Lesbians and gays support the miners’ banners actively welcomed on solidarity marches and the like. Rather an unusual event by the standard of those times, where Tory politicians were openly homophobic, and the Labour Party leadership, notably Neil Kinnock, were often inclined to cringe before and echo such sentiments.


Then there was the interaction between the miners’ strike and the question of Ireland. The progressive position of many in the NUM on this question had much to do with it, but it was also quite remarkable to see how the strike undermined not only the popular chauvinist wave that was created by the Falklands war, but also the gut level instinct of many workers to simply side with the British state against Irish republicans.

In August 1984 a delegation from the NUM that had been sent to the Six Counties attended a mass march in Belfast to commemorate the anniversary of the introduction of internment in 1971. Probably ordered to go in hard by the Thatcher government, the Royal Ulster Constabulary attacked the march, firing off plastic bullets indiscriminately at the demonstrators. A young catholic man, Sean Downes, was fatally wounded by a plastic bullet that hit him at close range; it was pure chance that there were not several more deaths. This generated worldwide publicity and condemnation of something that had more than a whiff of Bloody Sunday about it. But also the presence of the miners’ delegation received wide publicity, and once again real links were forged in struggle between this key section of the working class at home and those oppressed by British imperialism.

The other classic example of the political interaction between the miners’ struggle and the Irish question was more famous still: the Brighton bombing of October 1984, when the IRA, having planted a sophisticated, delayed-action bomb (controlled by a video-recorder mechanism) in the Grand Hotel in Brighton weeks earlier, came within a whisker of wiping out Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in the middle of the Tory conference. Such was the change between the Falklands war and this period, nearly halfway through the miners’ strike, that the popular reaction from large sections of the working class ranged from indifference to mirth. Jokes circulated widely about how there were “50 million suspects” for the crime, and the laughter in the working class at television coverage of Tory hard-case Norman Tebbit being fished out of the wreckage in a wounded and dishevelled state was quite remarkable. There was no wave of popular anger over this highly spectacular terrorist ‘outrage’ - this above all testified to the change in the political climate that the miners’ strike had wrought.

In stark contradiction to this semi-revolutionary aspect of the miners’ strike, however, was the attitude of the trade union and Labour Party bureaucracy. The close association between the two means, of course, that they tend to have common political objectives. Under Kinnock, who had been elected to the Labour leadership in 1983 in succession to Michael Foot after the disastrous ‘khaki election’ of that year, the miners’ strike was seen as an embarrassment and an obstacle to the ability of the Labour leadership to prove to the ‘people’ (in reality to the bosses) its ‘responsibility’, ‘reliability’, and ‘fitness to govern’.

Thus, right from the start of the strike, Kinnock had been outspoken in his condemnation of the ‘violence’ of the striking miners. The ‘violence’ he was talking about was simply basic class self-defence, against brutal, highly tooled-up cops, who turned up at large numbers at picket lines seeking to crack heads, or occupied and terrorised entire neighbourhoods, often arresting or beating people who dared to step outside their front doors. Or perhaps retaliation against scab miners, who were themselves not averse to thuggery against strikers in alliance with the police, as shown by the first two deaths of strikers, that of David Jones, a Yorkshire miner who was killed with a brick in a battle with scabs and the police at a colliery in Nottinghamshire on March 15, or of Joe Green, also from Yorkshire, who was run down by a scab lorry while picketing a power station on June 15. These casualties of the Thatcher government’s campaign against the NUM were not what the windbag was talking about, of course, when he issued his condemnations.

But much later in the strike, when a taxi driver, David Wilkie, was killed by a lump of concrete dropped off a bridge in south Wales, while he was ferrying scabs to work, then Kinnock was really in his element denouncing ‘violence’, while Thatcher also had a field day. This was the celebrated case of Dean Hancock and Russell Shankland, who had aimed to stop, not crush, the taxi. That was the one occasion when even Arthur Scargill fell into line, condemning violence “away from the picket lines”. But the question of violence was of course ideological - the Labour leadership, for all its reliance on working class support, was terrified of working people taking matters into their own hands: violence against the working class by the state, however, was something Kinnock could only hypocritically wring his hands about. At bottom, committed to capitalist ‘law’ and ‘order’, his role as chief labour lieutenant of British capital meant he characteristically went along with it.


As the strike wore on, the need to break the isolation of the NUM - on strike alone against the full might of the bosses and their state - grew more and more obvious to important sections of the working class. Right from the beginning, the miners had been very sceptical of any approach to the TUC for solidarity - the experience of the printworkers’ dispute prior to the strike, when the TUC’s finance and general purposes committee had felt itself unable even to pass an elementary statement of solidarity with the NGA print union, whose assets had been seized by the courts, meant that many miners understandably felt that asking for help from the TUC was asking to be stabbed in the back.

Major TUC components were openly hostile to the miners: most notable being the electricians (EETPU), led by Eric Hammond, the engineers (AUEW), led by Terry Duffy, and the steelworkers (ISTC), led by Bill Sirs. At the TUC congress before the strike, these types had made it very clear what they thought of Scargill, running their own mini-red-hunt against him for his opposition to Polish Solidarnosc and a speech he had given in Moscow denouncing the warmongering of Thatcher and Reagan (“the cowboy and the plutonium blonde”).

The attitude of these people to the miners’ strike was no secret. Then again, there were other unions affiliated to the TUC - the TGWU, the rail unions (Aslef and NUR), and the seamen’s union, which verbally offered solidarity. The bureaucracy was ‘supportive’ of the miners’ strike within the most minimal, mealy-mouthed framework - verbal support was in plentiful supply and financial support was also significant. But what the miners needed was not hot air, nor simply more money to sustain the strike for longer, albeit within the same limited sphere of only the miners (and not all of them) confronting the government and police. What the miners needed above all to win their strike was the opening of a second front against the government, by some other strategic section of the class, throwing their lot in with the NUM through coordinated action.

There was no shortage of sentiment in favour of this among those unions with at least a verbally supportive leadership. In the rail industry, for instance, there were instances of rank-and-file workers engaged in sustained, and quite illegal (under the Tory anti-union laws) blacking action against scab-produced coal. Coalville in Leicestershire comes to mind as an exemplary action. Around 60 railworkers kept up their blacking for months; the tactic of the nationalised British Rail bosses under government instructions was to play down the impact of this sympathy action and hope it would not spread. For months they did not discipline those workers carrying it out in case the issue blew up into a confrontation with the rail unions themselves.

Such a confrontation would have been more than the government was able to handle. It was of course the complete lack of direction from the Aslef and NUR leaders (Ray Buckton and Jimmy Knapp), and the absence of real rank-and-file organisation, that, fortunately for Thatcher, ensured the Coalville example did not spread across the rail network.

Missed opportunities

But even more important than the evident potential that existed on the railways was what happened on the docks. Twice within just over a month, national dock strikes were called - only for the dockers to be sent back to work by the national leaders of the TGWU, centred on Ron Todd, a classic middle-of-the-road bureaucrat.

The first dock strike in particular had the potential to cripple the government and British industry. It began as a result of a violation of the National Dock Labour Scheme - a major gain that dockers had fought for in the post-war era, involving a large degree of union control over working conditions and an end to casual labour. The attempt by the government to circumvent this scheme and use new, non-scheme ports such as Immingham to bring in coal supplies was what provoked the strike.

The first dock strike lasted 10 days, and Thatcher was driven to the point of desperation by it. Agreements were made to honour the NDLS and - lo and behold - the dockers were sent back to work by their leaders, once again leaving the miners to fight alone. As if this betrayal was not enough, further breaches then provoked another, more short-lived, reprise of the original strike; again Todd and co sent the dockers back to work. These strikes had originated at grassroots level in the union, and they were in reality the result of spontaneous working class aspirations to come to the aid of the miners. But it was an important, crucial lesson for militants when even the TGWU leaders, who claimed to support the NUM, in practice acted as saboteurs when joint strike action was posed in real life.

The two dock strikes were only the two most notable examples of missed opportunities for concrete solidarity. Others included Liverpool council, led by the Labour Party’s then Militant Tendency. They were threatened with legal action for setting budgets that broke government spending limits, with councillors facing the possibility of surcharge, and with a militant and restive trade union base in a city that had really faced the brunt of Tory attacks for the whole period of Thatcher’s rule - the once booming Liverpool of 1960s fame had become severely blighted by mass unemployment.

Thatcher, with transparent motives in terms of postponing a confrontation with Militant until after the miners had been dealt with, offered them a quite generous deal for that year. One would have expected a supposedly Trotskyist, revolutionary leadership to have refused to accept it, and to have told the working class why: ie, Thatcher is trying to buy us off now, so she can defeat us later when the miners are out of the way. Unfortunately it was not to be: like the short-sighted left Labourites they were in practice, Militant accepted the settlement and Thatcher was indeed able to take them on and defeat them subsequently.

The final opportunity that came along to do something to break the miners’ isolation was the Nacods dispute in the autumn of 1984. This really was a very slender reed to base hopes upon. The pit deputies/supervisors union had up to them remained aloof - in the strike-bound areas, the NUM had generally worked with them to maintain ‘safety cover’ (elementary maintenance of pits, so there would be a pit to go back to at the end of the strike). In the scab areas, Nacods members had worked and supervised the scabs. But the problem for the government was that it was not possible, legally at least, and practically with any elementary safety standard, to run pits without the presence of Nacods members. The pit-deputies, having been antagonised by the government over matters connected with pit closures, belatedly resisted, voting to strike. Again deals were done, and a hardly militant union leadership called off the projected strikes.

All these were spontaneous expressions of the organic, objective fact that such a strategic class confrontation as the miners’ strike posed the objective necessity of a general strike. The big problem of course was how to get one, given that, as explained earlier, the bureaucracy of the trade unions feared a victory of the working class in struggle over the capitalist state even more than they feared a defeat for the miners. For the NUM and Scargill too, the whole purpose of the strike, at least officially, was to defend the ‘British coal industry’, which could ‘remain competitive’ in the international market, not to defend the interests of the working class regardless of the interests of capital and profit. The strike was certainly not conceived as a frontal attack on the prerogatives of capital. Yet that is what was necessary to win.

Support groups

Ultimately, what was needed was for some means to be created for the rank and file of the trade unions, and indeed other sections of the working class outside the unions themselves, to assert themselves as politically independent of the bureaucracy. We in The Leninist wing of the CPGB considered that the miners’ support groups that had sprung up all over the country, organising partisans of the strike from the left groups, from the unemployed and from other trade unions, offered the beginning, though only the beginning, of what was needed.

The task was to both broaden the base and deepen the roots of these support groups, so that they and, just as importantly, a movement centred in the trade unions, politically led by the advanced militants involved in them, could begin to offer alternative leadership to that of the trade union bureaucracy. At the same time, it was necessary to maintain maximum rank-and-file pressure on the existing leaderships of the trade unions by ceaselessly demanding action from the TUC and individual trade union leaders (if nothing else than for educational purposes). It was necessary to prepare the means to take it out of their hands. “General strike - with or without the TUC”: that was the perspective our comrades put forward in the crucial period of the miners’ strike.

In hindsight, this still looks like the correct perspective - especially when you contrast it with some of the other responses on the left. The Socialist Workers Party, for the early period of the strike, mocked the miners’ support groups as ‘charity-mongering’ organisations, whose sole purpose was apparently the collection of tins of baked beans. Notwithstanding the importance of collecting sustenance for strikers and their families, this was an insulting caricature.

About halfway through the strike, the SWP changed its mind about the support groups, entering them en masse and becoming the most ardent practitioners of just the kind of apolitical charity-type work for which it had previously been denouncing others. The SWP, of course, had no perspective of what to do with the support groups. Its theory of the ‘downturn’ meant that it could not even envisage calling for a general strike, let alone envisage the support groups having any role in providing the leaven for the kind of councils of action that would be necessary to run a general strike. In fact that is one of the most notable things about this strategic confrontation - the failure of the SWP to call for a general strike when it was really desperately necessary if a strategic defeat for the whole class was to be avoided.

Other odd examples of political failings of the left were the Spartacist League, who characteristically refused to involve themselves in the miners’ support groups - for them “playgrounds of the left”, infected with reformism and fake revolutionism, and thereby to be avoided like the plague. The Sparts demanded a general strike: however, their version of this was simply a call on the ‘left’ unions to lead it over the heads of the TUC, combined with abstract propaganda for the spreading of the miners’ strike on the ground - without an organisational locus with which to do so. Since in practice the lefts proved just as treacherous as the rights, this was not much of a perspective.

For similar reasons, the Workers Revolutionary Party also largely absented itself from the support committees. Though in its case this produced the beginnings of rank-and-file rebellion - the prelude to the splintering of that cultist organisation the following year. The WRP means of fighting for a general strike was through the monotonous repetition of the slogan, ‘TUC, get off your knees: organise a general strike’. In that form, a hopeless and forlorn perspective.

It was only quite small groupings like The Leninist, and also other leftwing activist groups like Workers Power, who put forward a realistic and realisable perspective of how to get a general strike - combining unrelenting agitation from below for the union leaders to do what was necessary with real attempts to bring into being the kind of organisations that could take things out of their hands - rank and file organisations in the trade unions, miners’ support groups as incipient councils of action for the wider labour movement.

Unfortunately, the odds were very much against all participants in that endeavour and, as everyone knows, after with great difficulty maintaining itself through a very tough winter of defensive struggle, and having had the union’s assets seized by court sequestrators under the Tory anti-union laws in the autumn of 1984, the NUM was finally forced to order a return to work without an agreement in early March 1985.

In the final part of this series, I will deal with the aftermath of the defeat, the attempts that were made to maintain effective trade unionism among the miners, and some of the overall political lessons that can be drawn from this titanic struggle.