Tactics and the Great Strike

Ian Isaac responds to David Douglass's review of his book, 'When we were miners'

It is always interesting to read two different accounts of the same thing: a strike, a meeting or an analysis of a series of events from people who could say, ‘I was there’. In this instance if you were to read the book and then Dave Douglass’s review (‘A Militant take on the Great Strike of 1984-85’, November 25 2010), you would be forgiven for being somewhat confused as to who had said what.

Dave often compares his own role to what was stated in the book and ends the description of each part he played with a one-sided polemical debate. This is hardly a very good method for honest review and as a consequence his subjective style and incessant search for the detail in the name of ‘research’ often fails to hit the mark. In the scheme of things he no more won majority support for his own position at critical times than I did. There is a critique to be had about the tactics of picketing, the lack of meaningful dialogue that could have led to more secondary action between the National Union of Mineworkers and the rest of trade union and labour movement, especially in the steelworks and power stations. I consider my views on these matters to be as valid as his in that we were not presidents or general secretaries of our respective NUM areas.

The piece begins by misspelling my name in the introduction and then rapidly denounces my book as being “poorly titled and slim” (at 184 pages). One in the teeth there, Dave! His own book, he says, is entitled Ghost dancers. On this basis perhaps we are entitled to assume that Dave Douglass’ book might be about American Indians. Perhaps he would extend me the courtesy of a review copy, so that I might decide for myself whether or not my views on Orgreave, for instance, are objective by comparison to his. The caption to the photo that accompanied the piece written by Dave describes Orgreave as a “diversion”! Says who and on whose authority? I think we are entitled to know.

A coach full of pickets was sent to Orgreave from my NUM lodge at St Johns, south Wales, on June 18 1984. I followed behind in a car with some pickets and another lodge official. However, our car was stopped and turned back by police, causing me to miss this particular violent dress rehearsal by the state in the form of mounted police, riot shields and batons. I am under no illusions as to the importance or otherwise of the event in relation to the outcome of the strike.

That is not to say I agree with the analysis put forward by Dave Douglass - indeed I would refute his attachment of great importance of the event to the final outcome of the strike itself. Other more destructive forces lurked in the shadows of negotiations during the strike, including officials of the Nacods supervisors’ union, the TUC and the Labour leadership - all hell-bent on ensuring that the miners would not return to work with the deserved victory of the right of veto over pit closures unless through proven exhaustion of coal reserves.


I get the impression that Dave’s review was rushed to meet some kind of deadline and his work suffers from this. Dave, I did not move to the Cowley car works after Ruskin College (1978). I worked in Cowley between 1971 and 1974. I started in St John’s Colliery, Maesteg in August 1974 and went to Ruskin College, Oxford on a two-year scholarship in October 1976 and returned to the pit and was elected full-time lodge secretary in July 1978. Also I have never been a “longstanding member of the Communist Party”, as stated in the review. I was a Labour Party Young Socialist from 1969 to 1976 and a Labour Party member until I was expelled in 1989.

Dave rushes to the defence of the Yorkshire coalfield, as if somehow I have set out to be critical of it. My apologies to the hardworking Doncaster miners on the subject of the accessibility of coal seams: I was merely generalising when I wrote that the Yorkshire and Midlands coalfields had more readily accessibly seams. What is not in question is that these areas enjoyed more investment per man, better pay and better conditions than those afforded to other coalfields, including my own. This is an established fact. The political point I was trying to make is that this divide-and-rule strategy of pitching miner against miner and area against area was created by the bosses, be it in the guise of private coal owners, or the senior managers and bureaucrats of the nationalised mining industry.

In 1982 under NUM president Joe Gormley we returned to piece work (added payments by results) under the area ‘incentive schemes’ that turned out to be no more than industrial Trojan horses sowing the seeds that led to the destruction of Britain’s finest ever trade union. For the record - OK, Doncaster district apart - the Yorkshire and Midlands coalfields historically had better, more accessible coal seams, more investment per man, better conditions and better pay during the years of piece work and incentive pay schemes.

Dave could have given some thought to the account of the significant campaign for trade union democracy in the NUM before, during and after the strike. In an article I wrote in November 1986 in The Mineworker, paper of the national miners’ Broad Left, I called for one union and a national delegate conference linking the national officials to the rank and file, and doing away with the area unions and the last vestiges of federalism. This is described to a large extent in my book.

Dave describes the “trajectory” of the CPGB/Labour Left/Broad Left. These left officials and academics were mainly full-time officers organised around professor Vic Allen from Sheffield University. They were drawn from the so-called ‘progressive’ coalfields of Yorkshire, Kent, Scotland and Wales. The new national miners’ Broad Left, which I helped organise, put on at least 10 open conferences over a three-year period, with attendances of 200 and more miners to discuss without rancour the best strategy and tactics to win the strike and create a socialist, democratic, fighting NUM. The state, the Labour and Tory leaderships and the systemic disunity within the NUM were powerful forces to contend with. Ultimately the role of state prevailed.

Now all that would be a worthwhile study. You could start with Seamus Milne’s The enemy within, a book whose title quoted Margaret Thatcher and exposed the role of the state in the defeat of the miners.

Dave takes issue with my analysis of The miners’ next step of 1912. He speaks of the syndicalists as if they were a socialist government in waiting! They were far from it. Sixty years later, the miners’ strike was not the catalyst for the revolutionary overthrow of Britain and the setting up of workers’ councils (soviets) out of the miners’ support groups and women’s support groups. This was never a possibility, given the balance of forces at the time. The work of the miners’ support groups had an enormous, uplifting impact on morale, but they were not soviets in waiting. The strike was a “political civil war without guns”, in the words of Ken Smith in his excellent book of the same name.

One union

The question arises as to whether rule 41 and a national ballot were to be the main instruments or not for organising 100% member support for the strikes of 1981, 1983 and 1984. The first two refer to strike actions of two weeks’ duration in each case which started in the South Wales coalfield. Despite what Dave states in his article, a national ballot did not take place in 1983 over Ty Mawr/Lewis Merthyr in South Wales or elsewhere - there were only area ballots.

The fact remains that the old CPGB-led Broad Left did nothing about the rule book, which was a concoction for bringing together of a series of area unions (including craftsmen, cokemen and clerical (weekly paid industrial staff) sections into one, ultimately loose confederation. This process was brokered in 1944 (The NUM was formed on January 1 1945) by none other than Arthur Horner of the CPGB himself, remained unfinished business in 1984-85 and is still so to this day. There should have been one union for mineworkers, whether as underground or surface workers, craftsmen, deputies or overmen. If there had been one union instead of a dozen, then a different outcome historically could have been achieved. These lessons of creating the structures for cohesive action and organisations capable of fighting back are being learnt and understood today in the industrial and public sector unions brought in the shape of mergers, arising from the necessities of the situation in the 1990s and 2000s.

Dave challenges my view on the role of safety workers during the strike. It would have been an absurd situation if the union were to have called for no safety work to be carried out in the mines. There would have been no mines to return to after, as it turned out, 52 weeks. Any socialist, communist or trade union leader worth his salt will appeal for the right strategy and tactics, and will lead from the front, not follow a band of urban guerrilla fighters from behind or sit on the sidelines until its all over. Anything other than the preservation of an industry to return to is quite frankly anarchic and pathetic.

Dave states: “If Ian’s attitude towards vigorous opposition to scabs and cops is anything to go by ...” and then quotes my opposition towards paint-bombing scab lorries and similar actions as “pranks”. As someone who participated in (and organised for three days) the cranes occupation at Port Talbot steelworks and who was arrested by six policemen on the Margam picket line, spending 14 hours in a cell, I can say quite clearly that I did indeed witness pranks that did nothing to further the cause of the strike. Whilst not being afraid to be in the thick of the action when it was necessary or forced upon us, I saw no merit in organising the paint-bombing of scab coal lorries and such like.

On the question of the burgeoning bureaucracies in the NUM, they were already there and full-time positions were being used to protect these cliques, left or right. But there came a time when, yes, Dave, we had to go back to work with as much dignity as could be retained. We did not want a deal without the right of a qualified veto on pit closures. It was not about having any compromise deal based on the Nacods deal struck as early as July 1984. The Nacods rule book was used to declare that the 80%-plus ballot result was ‘timed out’ by that union’s general secretary, Peter McNestry, and president, Ken Sampey. This was a fatal blow to the NUM, as well as to Nacods members themselves, who reverted to their non-striking, quasi-safety role. From then on these national figures representing deputies and overmen went back and forth between Nacods headquarters, the TUC at Transport House and the arbitration and conciliation service, Acas, in Kings Cross like men without a mission, knowing full well that they had done in the NUM.

I do accept the typographical error that Ravenscraig Steel works was stated as being in Lancashire, when it should have read ‘Lanarkshire’- my apologies to all Scots. If I was in a pub quiz I would get it right every time, especially now.

I also appreciate the time and effort taken by Dave Douglass in reviewing When we were miners. However, this is not say that I accept his recollections of events or his analysis of the period as being an official history. It is not. He, like many, myself and millions of others, played an equal part in what became an historical chapter of the struggles of our class. I believe the book sets out many of the lessons learned.

For more information contact www.whenwewereminers.co.uk.