Friend, comrade, and occasional sparring partner

Obituary: Peter Heathfield, March 2 1929 - May 4 2010. David Douglass celebrates his life

It came as a great shock to many in the coalfields to hear that Peter Heathfield, the former general secretary of our National Union of Mineworkers, had died.

We were all too well aware he was seriously ill. Four years ago, he was present at the Jones-Green memorial lecture, paying tribute to all those miners who had died as fighters for the NUM. He was painfully thin, and explained that he had a wasting condition. His eyes still sparkled and he was as witty as ever, but Peter was a shadow of his former self. Still, we all hoped against hope he would pull through.

Peter was elected general secretary in January 1984 and took up office just days before the start of the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85. He was one of the triumvirate - Arthur Scargill, Mick McGahey and Peter Heathfield - and never swerved from his solid loyalty to the union, to the action it had undertaken and to Arthur personally.

He was a Derbyshire miner through and through, who had gone down the pit after leaving school, starting underground work at the Williamthorpe colliery. Like me, Peter had the good fortune of studying on the NUM’s three-year day release course under the direction of Sheffield University’s extramural department. It was a hotbed of the new militancy breaking through the living dead the union had become in the mid-60s.

It was the Derbyshire area of the NUM which fired the first shot in the declaration of war against the old leadership in 1969 with an unofficial rally in London and then a nationwide wildcat strike, which put militancy, and an alternative leadership, on the agenda. Without that movement, the crushing victories for the miners in 1972 and 74 would not have been possible.

In 1966, Peter, who was very active in the Labour Party and its re-emerging left wing, was elected to a full-time NUM post for the first time, became vice-president of the Derbyshire NUM in 1970 and Derbyshire area secretary in 1973. Some said he would be the left’s runner for national president in 1981, while others thought this post was predestined to be Mick’s. As it turned out, the ‘left’, and in the particular the CPGB, threw their support behind the younger Scargill.

In January 1984, Peter was elected general secretary of the NUM, taking over the post from the once dynamic Lawrence Daly, who had been in ill health for some time. Without Peter’s steady hand on the tiller through those stormy days the conduct of the strike and its tenacity may have been much weaker. It was a classical case of ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’.

Peter was a most forceful speaker, his body literally bounced on the stage with the power and emotion of his words; his body pulsed, his voice, arms and head like electric, his stomping making many a stage rock. His sweeping gestures flayed alive the scabs and police. I had shared many platforms with Peter over the years - not just for miners’ events, but to mark the anti-apartheid struggle, our opposition to the Vietnam war, our hostility to nuclear weapons. Peter was an old-style guts communist, who saw the workers coming to power through a Labour Party impelled by an independent, militant trade union movement.

He was 100% loyal to the strike, and 100% behind the strategy, which the members imposed on the union, especially over the vexed question of the ballot. Vexed as far as the media and rightwing critics were concerned, that is, not the rank and file. Even now, after his death they still get it wrong, The Guardian commenting in its obituary: “When the Conservative government announced its intention to close 20 pits, Heathfield backed Scargill from the start of the strike in March 1984, and, like his president, rejected a coalfield ballot. Yet everyone who knew Heathfield believed that he harboured inner doubts about Scargill’s strategy” (May 4).

Of course, neither Peter nor Arthur rejected a ballot at all. The national executive made no recommendation on the question, and neither spoke either in support of or against any of the five resolutions on the floor of conference called to debate that very issue. Neither voted for or against any of the propositions (Arthur was in the chair), but why spoil a good folk myth with facts?

Following the strike and the years of confused repositioning and struggles for direction and democracy in the union, he and I often clashed over how to respond to the new situation. How to remain relevant to the rank and file, what we could hold onto and what we had to let go. Peter and Arthur both felt that at pit level we were giving and repositioning too much. I believe they felt we were allowing the National Coal Board strategy of isolating the leadership to work, and we should have shut up shop and thrown away the keys until the NCB was prepared to recognise the union at national level and re-establish nationwide conciliation. On the other hand, we felt they had become remote and unrealistic - making impractical demands of a battle-scarred, exhausted army. Peter and I went toe to toe over the newly installed ‘Doncaster option’ bonus agreement, and later over Hatfield colliery’s own pit payment scheme, which I felt he did not understand and he thought was breaking ranks. Some of this is explored in my current book on the period, Ghost dancers (published by Christie and available through Central Books), I hope sympathetically. Not that any of that broke our friendship or mutual regard and we spent a great deal of time rehashing and reviewing the whole post-strike period afterwards.

The most damning thing in Peter’s life, however, was not the strike, nor even its defeat and the years of declining union power and influence which followed, but the scandalous slander unleashed by the media with their charges of financial irregularity. Worse than that, there were accusations of fiddling and double-dealing for personal gain. Peter, a man of immense pride and self-respect, principled to a fault, was mortally wounded; he never recovered from the insult and injury. The charges were launched by sensational disclosures in the Daily Mirror and by Central Television in 1990.

Actually what they had discovered was an ‘anti-personnel PR bomb’ drawn up by the state’s special ‘counter-insurgency’ forces. It was meant to go ‘boom’ in the final minutes before the expected miners’ victory, rob us of our support among our own ranks and pull the rug on solidarity action across the union movement. As things turned out, it was not needed, since the sellout by the supervisors’ union had tripped our impending victory at the post. But the device, the plot, the scandal was left in the field like an unexploded bomb, for the media to discover by accident. They were too thick to realise what it was they had found - the greatest example of state interference, of state manipulation, in an industrial dispute and the media in the past century - and instead ran it as a ‘fingers in the till’, corrupt union official story.

Most people to this day still do not realise the scale of the state’s set-up of these two men in an effort to break the strike. The NUM appointed an independent inquiry under the chairmanship of Gavin Lightman QC, which cleared both Scargill and Heathfield of all the main accusations. But Heathfield never forgave the NUM NEC for suspending him and Arthur and handing over the enquiry to the QC. He never overcame the impact of that particular kind of scandal. Despite speaking to adoring crowds at many rallies and meetings afterwards, despite being cleared of all charges, despite all the applause and backslapping, the accusation was enough to rob him of something deep and treasured.

He retired from the position of general secretary in 1992, and started a new life with his young partner, Sue Rolstone, having broken up with his first wife, the dynamic Betty, a founder-member of Women against Pit Closures and long-time communist activist, in 1989.

Peter was a thoughtful, intellectual, honest and loyal comrade. He had earned the right to a long and healthy retirement, but sadly he did not see much of that, spending years fighting off the legacy of that fearsome slander. Then to struggle with and finally be struck down by the gradually deteriorating condition he endured was a final and undeserved injustice. Peter was a giant in my book, a leader of the miners who can take his place among the biggest and best in our long history.

Peter’s body in death will be donated to science in the hope of assisting his fellow workers, just as in life it was dedicated to their struggles for justice. As such, there will be no funeral. However, a commemoration will be held at 2pm on June 30 at the Chesterfield Miners’ Welfare, Chester Street, Chesterfield S40 IDL.

Our sympathy goes out to Sue and his children, to Peter’s family, friends and comrades. A great number of leading members of the socialist, communist and trade union movement are expected to give orations or just be present at the commemoration.