25 years after the Great Miners’ Strike

Issue: 126
Posted: 23 April 10

Jack Robertson

The year-long miners’ strike which started in March 1984 marked a decisive turning point in the history of the class struggle in Britain. In the 20th century it is only matched by the General Strike of 1926. Normally presented as essentially an ideological clash between the prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, and the president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Arthur Scargill, the strike actually marked the culmination of an extended period of class conflict going back to the mid-1960s, during which a number of deep-seated problems in British capitalism had remained unresolved. Of these, not least was how to deal with the underlying strength of shop-floor organisation which had emerged during the post-war boom years in a number of key industries, including coal mining.1

As we now know, the government eventually succeeded in beating the miners, but only through the biggest policing operation ever used in any industrial dispute in this country and by paying out astronomical sums to enable the electricity industry to run on oil rather than coal.

This article aims to look in some detail at three particular aspects of the strike. The first is the context in which the dispute took place, concentrating on the series of attempts made by successive Labour and Tory administrations to handle the nascent shop stewards movement. It will also look at the series of points in the dispute at which the miners came close to victory, and will attempt an overall assessment of the aftermath of this historic battle.

The rise of shop stewards’ organisation

The strike had deep roots. Thatcher’s priority was to deal once and for all with what she regarded as “the enemy within”, the organised workers responsible for the explosion of militancy which had toppled the Tories in 1972 and again in 1974. Despite enormous setbacks in the late 1970s, workers’ organisation in key industries—coal, engineering, the docks—still posed a serious threat and the miners were regarded by the Tories to be the biggest obstacle, not least because they were one of the few groups of workers to have survived relatively intact and they could still draw confidence from their great victories in 1972 and 1974.

To explain the origins of the special regard in which the miners were held, both by the government and by other workers, we need to go back to the period immediately after the Second World War when shop-floor organisation became especially strong in sectors such as engineering and the car industry as well as in the docks, in the print and in the coal industry. This strength was maintained despite a long process of depoliticisation that took place within the working class in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s.

For most of this period the leaderships of the largest manual unions (except for the Transport and General Workers Union, TGWU) were controlled by the Labour right wing and the largest white-collar unions were officially non-political. In many industries the collaboration of right wing, and occasionally left wing, Labour leaders with the employers during a period of capitalist expansion and rising real wages generally meant a very low level of industrial action.

But things were very different in some key industries. The largest of these was engineering where unofficial stoppages were the norm. Unofficial disputes did not necessarily represent a challenge to the right wing national union leaders. Most of them typically involved only individual sections in a particular factory or workplace; what was important was the way that workers in large sections of engineering and the motor industries had found themselves able, under conditions of full employment, to turn a system of payment by results called piecework into a mechanism for raising wages, section by section, far above the rates negotiated nationally between the employers and the right wing union leaders.

The shop stewards who negotiated over the piece rates in the section often came to be regarded by their members as much more important than the national officials. The outcome was that in engineering and motors, alongside the formal, national union structure dominated by the right wing, another informal structure emerged which was made up of an estimated 100,000 shop stewards.

By and large, these shop stewards did not have revolutionary politics. Probably no more than 5 percent were members of the Communist Party and the great majority would have had ideas no different to those of the average worker and often well to the right of many of the official union leaders. Nonetheless, the shop stewards were much closer to the workers they represented; they usually faced annual re-election, earned the same wages and were subjected to the same bullying from management.

Until the mid-1960s shop steward organisation as such was mainly a feature of the engineering industry, but there was a tendency for this form of rank and file organisation to be copied by manual workers in other industries. In two other very important industries there was a pattern of unofficial action without a formal stewards’ system. One of these was coal mining, where there was a high level of strike activity—almost all of it unofficial—until payment by results was ended in the years 1966-70. The number of unofficial strikes involving miners was almost as great as in all the other industries put together. The unofficial action was made up of a mass of strikes by particular sections of face workers which were often independent not only of the national and Area leaderships of the union, but also of the pit level leadership.

The other important industry was the docks, where the casual system of employment of dockers by the day meant there could be no permanent stewards. This system also, however, led to innumerable disputes being led by unofficial activists organising around dock gate meetings and capable of exerting enormous pressure.2

Dealing with this “shift in the locus of reformism” (as a series of analyses in this journal put in during the 1960s) began to be regarded as a central problem by British capitalism as it came under increasing pressure on the world markets. In 1965 the Labour government set up the Donovan Commission, otherwise known as the Royal Commission on the Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, specifically to look into the problem and come up with ideas on how to tackle it.

In his final report the chairman of the Commission, Lord Donovan, rejected a frontal attack through the use of the law either on the stewards’ system or on the plethora of unofficial strikes. Instead he suggested a long-term effort to bring the stewards under the control of formal union structures and to increase the importance of union full-timers in bargaining procedures (by moving to plant-wide bargaining rather than sectional bargaining, for instance).

This strategy was in line with what important elements in the ruling class were already doing when Donovan was published in 1968. In the car industry, for example, Ford already had a Measured Day Work payments system which did away with on the job bargaining between shop stewards and management over job times. Other car firms such as Rootes (later Chrysler) and British Leyland followed suit.

In coal mining the introduction of the National Power Loading Agreement in 1966 also did away with payment by results and, therefore, with the major cause of unofficial strikes. On the docks the Devlin Report recommended replacing casual day by day organisation with a formal system of stewards for the first time, as a way of decreasing the likelihood of strikes. Finally there was a general move towards productivity bargaining in an attempt to increase output per worker.

The aim was to begin a long-term process of establishing a climate in which management would increasingly have the upper hand when it came to imposing new working conditions and speeds. However, a section of the employing class did not like this “softly, softly” approach, but wanted tougher measures including the outlawing of unofficial strikes. It was a Labour government which took the first steps in this direction in 1969 when the employment secretary at the time, Barbara Castle, published a White Paper called In Place of Strife.

For the first time in the post-war period, legal curbs on union activity were proposed, but Labour was forced to retreat under pressure not only from union leaders, who feared the attack on unofficial strikes would damage them as well, but also from the networks of unofficial activists, who then went on to organise the first political strikes for nearly half a century against the government’s anti-union legislation.

Labour’s initial attack on the unofficial shop stewards’ organisation was driven back but when the Tories were elected in 1970 under the leadership of Ted Heath they set out to renew the offensive. This time the result was the biggest and most political wave of workers’ struggles since the 1920s. Unemployment was deliberately increased in the hope that this would intimidate workers but the onslaught against full employment backfired when a very popular work-in was organised at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971.

Heath also attempted to enforce the new Industrial Relations Act but this provoked calls for protest action from the minority of activists associated with the hard left in the Communist Party, the Labour left and, occasionally, the revolutionary left. These initiatives met with a response from wide numbers of non-political union activists, producing official and unofficial one-day protest strikes in 1970 and 1971, and widespread unofficial action in support of the dockers in the summer of 1972.

At the same time, repeated attempts by the government to hold down wages through incomes policies and wage norms began to impact on other sections of workers who had not yet seen the benefit of the kind of “do it yourself” reformism achieved through informal stewards’ organisation and section-by-section wage bargaining. These other groups of workers, many of them already low-paid, had been hit hardest by government pay policy and increasingly began to fight back.

Teachers and dustmen took part in strike action in 1969, there were strikes by Pilkington glass workers, manual council workers and Leeds clothing workers in 1970, by postal workers in 1971, and by gas workers, civil servants and hospital workers in 1973. Far from containing the shop steward forms of organisation, government action inadvertently encouraged their spread to whole new industries.

Shop steward organisation also spread to mining, where the switch from piecework to a national rate also began to backfire. Miners now began to display a united and nationwide anger over pay such as had not been seen for four decades since the General Strike. This took the form of unofficial strike movements in 1969 and 1970 before the national official strike of 1972.

At the same time, the left in the unions was given new life. The organisational structures of the Communist Party and the Labour left had declined in the 1950s and 1960s but networks of political militants remained in many industries and these were capable of providing at least some degree of coordination and focus for these struggles.

In engineering there was a national Broad Left organisation which was particularly strong in districts like Glasgow, Sheffield, Manchester, Coventry and London. On the docks there was a National Dockworkers Shop Stewards’ Committee. In the coal industry the central focus was the Barnsley Forum, an unofficial network based in the Yorkshire coalfield.

These networks were re-energised as the struggle rose. The activists of the Barnsley Forum took the initiative in the miners’ strikes, the convenors and stewards at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders tapped a massive reservoir of support for the “work-in” to keep the yards open, the dock industry shop stewards led the fight against the Industrial Relations Act that culminated in the release from jail of the Pentonville Five, and the Communist Party-led Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU) was able to call nationwide one-day strikes involving half a million workers against Labour’s In Place of Strife in 1969, and against the Tories’ Industrial Relations Bill in December 1970.

The nationalisation of miners’ militancy

All these developments form an important part of the backdrop to what was happening in the mining industry in the lead up to the miners’ two great victories, first in 1972 and again in 1974. At the time of nationalisation in 1947 miners were promised a future for their “own” industry and more of a say in its running. In practice, however, most of the bosses of the new state-run enterprise were exactly the same people who had run the private mines, with the addition of a new layer of bureaucracy in the form of top civil servants and ex-officers from the armed forces.

In reality, the main difference was that nationalisation made it easier bring about a more systematic rationalisation of the industry than had been possible under private ownership, since it drew the leadership of the mining unions into the decision-making process. A “tripartite” set-up developed between government, management of the National Coal Board and leaders of the mining unions which produced a series of strategy documents known as the “Plan for Coal”.

This did not prevent the rapid run down of the industry from the late 1950s onwards, as new sources of energy such as oil and natural gas challenged coal. Between 1964 and 1970 the Labour government continued the pit closure programme initiated under its Tory predecessors, shedding 170,000 jobs to add to the 250,000 already lost—the fastest rate of contraction the coal industry had experienced since nationalisation.

In the post-war period the stance taken by leaders of the NUM had been that the only guarantee of stopping the decline was through the election of a Labour government. Instead, as we have seen, what happened when Labour came to power in 1964 was that the rate of closures intensified. This was coupled with a prices and incomes policy designed to put a brake on workers’ pay demands, cuts in public expenditure and a sharp rise in unemployment. Whereas many miners had, until this point, often been quite happy to get out of mining when they had their chance during the period of economic boom immediately after the war—many of them taking up jobs in the car industry—this was no longer an option when both industries were beginning to contract.

As a result, the argument for meekly complying with the NCB’s closure plans began to look increasingly untenable in the midst of the jobs massacre and attacks on pay. By the late 1960s the reactions of miners on the pit closure question were increasingly divided. Some were resigned to the idea that the term “uneconomic” essentially meant the Coal Board could shut pits as and when it saw fit. But a growing minority rejected this logic and were beginning to mount a serious challenge to the established, predominantly “moderate”, leadership of the NUM.

Discontent was exacerbated by growing friction over pay. As in many other industries, coal had traditionally been cut using a piecework system which, because of constantly changing geological conditions, required regular and very localised bargaining. The upshot of this was that three quarters of all strikes recorded by the Ministry of Labour were in coal mining, but these strikes were generally very short and very small; rarely was strike solidarity displayed across a colliery, let alone beyond it.

As the use of heavy machinery to cut coal became more prevalent in the collieries, the numbers on piecework were first reduced and then eliminated altogether after the introduction of the National Power Loading Agreement (NPLA) in 1966. The idea behind the NPLA was that it would end the wide disparities in earnings which were inevitable under a piecework system, bring some order to the pay bargaining process and—most important of all—put an end to unofficial disputes and take control of wage bargaining out of the hands of pit representatives.

The trouble was that the changeover to the new system was a disaster. It led to pay cuts for some miners—particularly those working in the more productive coalfields—who had up until then benefited from the piecework schemes and who now found that the new flat rates were lower than their existing earnings. In effect this meant that miners in the two largest coalfields, Yorkshire and Nottingham, were expected to accept below-inflation pay rises until miners in the lower-rated areas caught up. The unforeseen effect of bringing in the national agreement was to “nationalise” dissatisfaction over wages throughout the entire industry.3 This dissatisfaction had been an important contributory element in the unofficial strikes that took place in the late 1960s which were no longer limited to single collieries and instead had spread like wildfire from pit to pit and to other areas of the country.

At the end of the 1960s opposition to the right wing leadership in the NUM which had held sway for nearly 50 years had begun to emerge in areas like South Wales, Scotland and Kent, but it was strongest in Yorkshire, where large-scale closures had started to be announced for the first time since nationalisation: in 1967 alone nine pits were closed in Yorkshire. The NUM leadership in the area had been firmly controlled by right wingers for the entire period since 1947.

Part of the challenge to the old leadership was growing signs that miners were not prepared to take lying down the repeated attacks on their jobs and pay. A series of unofficial disputes took place, the earliest of which was a strike over piecework in the Doncaster area in 1961. In 1969 and 1970 two unofficial disputes swept the Yorkshire coalfield and spread rapidly to other Areas of the union. What all this heralded was that growing rank and file anger was beginning to reshape the leadership of the NUM, crucially in Yorkshire, the largest coalfield in the country.

These strikes weren’t organised by the full-time leadership of the NUM, who bitterly opposed them. Instead the activity and organisation came entirely from below via the branch leadership and the “panel” system (the Yorkshire Area of the NUM was subdivided into four smaller areas, each with its own “panel”, or subcommittee). A key event in the development of the miners’ rank and file organisation in Yorkshire was the formation of the Barnsley Miners’ Forum in 1967. This galvanised the activists, and a prime mover in the organisation was Arthur Scargill, who at this time was a face worker at Woolley Colliery near Barnsley.

The forum held monthly meetings on Friday evenings in Barnsley and acted as a ginger group of branch lay officials. It played a key role in standing up to the right wing leadership in the Yorkshire NUM and invited speakers to its meetings from other areas, including leading lights in the emerging NUM “Broad Left” such as Lawrence Daly and Mick McGahey from Scotland, Emlyn Williams from South Wales and Jack Dunn from Kent. However, by far its most important function was in creating the network of militants which was to play an instrumental role in the unofficial mass strikes of 1969 and 1970, and which was later in the forefront of the miners’ great victory over Ted Heath’s Tory government in 1972.

The key to the miners’ victory in 1972 was the devastating use of secondary picketing. There were two important versions of this—flying pickets and mass pickets. The flying pickets were contingents of strikers organised into relatively small teams to pick out selected targets, such as major power stations or pits which had not yet joined the strike, and attempt to close them down as rapidly as possible.

Contrary to media mythology, flying pickets were not about physical intimidation. Their job was to explain the strikers’ case and appeal for the most effective solidarity that other workers could provide either through secondary strike action, bans on overtime or stopping the movement of coal. Much of the masterminding of this operation was centred on Yorkshire, where Scargill had by now emerged as leader of the rank and file network built through the Barnsley Forum. Between 1967 and 1972 this movement had already won a series of important battles with the Coal Board.

So, despite the fact that the leader of the NUM in 1972, Joe Gormley, was an out and out right winger, this relatively small but extremely determined network of miners was able to bring about one of the most devastating defeats ever inflicted on the ruling class in this country. And the linchpin of the victory was another form of picketing—the mass picket.

After the flying pickets had shut down as many pits and power stations as they could, the central focus of the 1972 strike shifted to Saltley in Birmingham, the largest coke depot in the country. The miners knew that if they could stop lorries moving in and out of this huge compound—where an estimated 138,000 tons of coke were stored—they would bring the government to its knees. However, the miners did not have the resources to achieve this on their own against an increasingly large police mobilisation. After nearly two weeks on the picket line at Saltley and daily batterings from the police, the miners sent out delegations to the car plants in the Birmingham area and didn’t so much appeal for solidarity as demand it.

Shop stewards and convenors called mass meetings at all the major factories in Birmingham and, on the morning of 10 February 1972, workers began to flood out. What happened next is described by Scargill, as an estimated 15,000 car workers joined 3,000 miners on the picket line: “And then over this hill came a banner and I’ve never seen in my life as many people following a banner. As far as the eye could see it was just a mass of people… There was a huge roar and from the other side of the hill they were coming the other way… They were coming from every direction and our lads were just jumping up in the air with emotion”.4

There were only 800 police to cope with this sea of people, nowhere near enough to handle the number of workers who had joined the picket line—the police were outnumbered by more than 20 to one. The chief constable of Birmingham was left with no choice but to give in to the pickets’ demands and close the gates at Saltley in “the interests of public safety”. The odds stacked against the police were so vast that there was no violence at all. One of the shop stewards who took part in the mass picket was quoted as saying, “For the first time in my life I had a practical demonstration of what workers’ solidarity meant. We all felt so powerful. We felt we could rule the world”.5

Effective mass picketing was absolutely crucial to the success of the miners’ greatest victory in 1972. In their recent book on the miners’ strike of 1984-85, Marching to the Fault Line, the Guardian journalists Francis Beckett and David Hencke dispute this version of the events that took place at Saltley Gates, considering them to be of relatively minor importance.6 There is a reason for this: it provides a spurious rationalisation for the much-repeated opposition to mass pickets voiced during the 1984 strike by politicians such as Labour leader Neil Kinnock, and also by NUM researcher Kim Howells (later a Labour MP and Blairite minister).

However, this is a preposterous rewriting of what was not only the defining moment of the 1972 strike and the point at which the government knew it was beaten but also one of the most significant moments in British working class history because it so brilliantly illustrated the power of solidarity action. The pity is that the lessons of 1972 and Saltley Gate were not more energetically pursued in 1984.

Beckett and Hencke imply that Scargill’s version of what happened at Saltley is of a piece with his general tendency towards self-aggrandisement. In fact, Scargill’s description of what happened is perfectly accurate and is one which was shared at the time by other participants in the struggle, up to and including the chief of police in the West Midlands and the home secretary, Reginald Maudling.

Maudling later said that the reason picketing had been so effective in 1972 was that other unions had given instructions to their members not to cross picket lines.7 And, putting the events in their proper historical perspective, the historian AJP Taylor wrote that, whereas the miners had been driven back to work by hunger in 1921 and 1926, as a result of the events at Saltley, “the miners have avenged the defeats of 1921 and 1926. I rejoice at the miners’ victory and I record that February 19th will long be remembered as a glorious day in the history of the working class”.8

Thatcher herself wrote in her memoirs:

In February 1972 mass pickets led by Arthur Scargill forced the closure of the Saltley Coke Depot in Birmingham by sheer weight of numbers…it was a frightening demonstration of the impotence of the police…and it lent substance to the myth that the NUM had the power to make or break British governments, or at the very least the power to veto any policy threatening their interests by preventing coal getting to power stations.9

The success of the miners’ strike was only one of the high points in an extraordinary period which lasted throughout 1972 and was followed two years later by another strike that led to Heath’s fall. As Royden Harrison noted shortly after, the miners had achieved a series of victories which were unprecedented in British history:

First, they compelled the prime minister to receive them in 10 Downing Street—which he had sworn he would never do—then they forced him to concede more in 24 hours than had been conceded in the last 24 years. Then two years later their 1974 strike led him to introduce the three-day week—a novel system of government by catastrophe—for which he was rewarded with defeat in the General Election. Nothing like this had ever been heard of before!10

It was exactly this conclusion that most concerned the ruling class at the time. Just as the miners’ victory in 1972 was a massive inspiration for other workers, the humiliation of Heath’s administration sent the next generation of Tory leaders—like Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit and Nicholas Ridley—into apoplexy. Most of them were junior members of Heath’s government at the time and for them the settling of scores with the miners and with other key groups of workers who had won such exceptional victories during the years of the Heath government became paramount.

The social contract and the erosion of shopfloor militancy

In 1974 the Heath government was effectively forced out of office by its inability to beat the trade unions. Its Industrial Relations Act had proved completely ineffective in the face of an official boycott by most of the unions and through mass unofficial action. Both of Heath’s attempts to impose wage controls were wrecked when they ran into the resistance of the miners—in the spring of 1972 and the winter of 1973-4. Instead of shifting the balance of power on the shop floor towards the employers, government measures fanned the flames of discontent in industry; hostility to them provided a single political focus for forms of industrial militancy that had not previously had an overt political goal.

However, there were some important limitations on the militancy of these years: the electoral defeat of the Tory government in February 1974 was not due to a great shift leftwards among the majority of workers. The Tories lost because voters deserted them for other parties such as the Liberals and the Scottish Nationalists, but there was no dramatic swing to Labour. The new industrial militancy had not translated into widespread political militancy.

In addition, the swing to the left within the official structures of the trade union movement involved new faces in the bureaucracy rather than a rejection of the idea of collaboration. Typically, left wing union leaders were quite prepared to go along with Labour Party schemes for more state funding of private industry, for productivity bargaining and for planning agreements involving government, industrialists and the unions.

These ideas were accepted in turn by many of those who made up the networks of political militants which had been so important in the battles of 1969-74. The limitation of their politics was that they were based on an amalgam of left reformism and Broad Leftism, heavily influenced by the Communist Party. This had not prevented them fighting the fag-end of the Labour government in 1969, or the Tory government which followed, but these limitations became all-important once there was a new Labour government backed by left wing union leaders and, most importantly, shored up by the leaders of the two largest unions—Jack Jones of the TGWU and Hugh Scanlon of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (two unions which are now amalgamated as Unite).

Jones and Scanlon had impressive left wing credentials which gave them enormous credibility with the leadership of the shop stewards movement. Jones had taken part in the Spanish Civil War and had helped to build effective union organisation in the docks. Scanlon had also risen from the ranks in the Manchester engineering industry and had been one of the few national union officials to support industrial action against Heath’s Industrial Relations Act, in the form of a one-day national strike.

Indeed, the very fact that Jones and Scanlon had been elected to the leadership of the two largest unions in the country was regarded as the pinnacle of achievement for the Broad Left union strategy, the main aim of which had been to oust the right wing leadership which had dominated for so many years. However, in placing virtually all of its emphasis on the election of “left” leaders the Broad Left neglected the maintenance of the rank and file organisation that was the backbone of the victories in 1972 and 1974. No attempt was made to warn the shop stewards that they should have no illusions in Jones and Scanlon, nor was there any recognition that the stewards would need immense confidence to act independently of the new left wing leadership if required.

As it turned out, this was precisely what was required, and when Jones and Scanlon swung their considerable influence behind support for Labour’s austerity measures and against further strike action over pay and jobs, the leadership of the shop stewards movement lacked the political confidence to resist.

The employing class and the new Labour government that came to office in the spring of 1974 made a tactical retreat before the workers’ movement to buy off discontent, and then worked with the union leaderships to undercut the base of the militancy. Major sections of big business decided they had little option but to go along with collaboration rather than confrontation with the union leaders and the Labour government, for a time.

Typically, the Economist, the major big business weekly, welcomed Labour’s repeal of the Industrial Relations Act. It realised that the union leaders, including the Broad Left “terrible twins” Jones and Scanlon, would be prepared to police their own memberships in return for such friendly government action.

The employers’ retreat in 1974 meant the collapse of the wage controls imposed by Heath and the spread of strike activity among sections of workers whose wages had been held down in 1973—including traditionally non-militant groups such as local government white-collar workers, nurses, bakers, lorry drivers and teachers. This came to a head in a 40,000-strong wave of strikes by lorry drivers, bus workers, dustmen, distillery workers and engineers in the West of Scotland during the winter of 1974-5. The new alliance of the government, the employers and union leaders was soon getting control over this wave of militancy, however. Jack Jones of the TGWU went out of his way to denounce the West of Scotland strikes and, as a result, they petered out without ever developing into a unified focus of opposition to the Labour government’s policies.

The employers were also aided by the fact that the world crisis that had begun in the autumn of 1973 was pushing up unemployment. In 1974 the number of workers unemployed rose to two million. In the car industry the scale of job losses was already beginning to sap militancy and union leaders began to point to the rising level of unemployment and the high level of inflation as evidence that “chaos” lay around the corner unless workers collaborated with their bosses over pay and conditions.

Workers did not have the confidence to resist such arguments. They could possibly have done so had there existed a widespread network of revolutionaries rooted in the factories and strong enough to initiate an effective fightback; a mass spontaneous rebellion might even have developed against the government’s policies—but neither was present in 1974-5.

In July 1975 the upturn of the previous decade suffered a serious blow. The government announced a statutory limit on wages and the union leaders agreed to police it. Again it was the Broad Left leaders, Jones and Scanlon, who played the key role in selling this; the alternative, Jones warned, was “the end of society as we know it”.11

The following two years saw the largest decline in the living standards of employed workers of the 20th century and a collapse in the number of strikes. Whereas there were 2,974 strikes involving 1,253,000 workers between August 1974 and July 1975, there were only 1,829 strikes involving 591,000 workers over the next 21 months—the first phase of a downturn in the class struggle had begun. The decline in the level of industrial struggle in the face of an incomes policy imposed by the government and the TUC was not a new thing. The same had happened under the previous Labour government between 1966 and 1968. However, there were two important differences which gave the second downturn a more permanent character.

The first difference was that the role of the left union leaders in policing wage controls removed an important focus of opposition. The left had been in opposition in most unions under the previous Labour government and had used hostility to the effects of incomes policy to boost its own electoral fortunes. Now that left was using its influence to ensure that Labour’s “social contract” was upheld.

The other key difference was the use of the lull in the industrial struggle by the employers and the government to induce workers to accept measures designed to weaken the old shop steward structures—ending “mutuality” (negotiation over things like machine times) in factories where Measured Day Work had already been imposed, removing leading stewards from the shop floor through participation schemes, and formalising procedure agreements.

Left wingers like Tony Benn who remained in the government helped to sell schemes for workers’ participation in their own exploitation, which included the disastrous 1977 productivity scheme in the pits. Under such circumstances, it was possible for leading left wing stewards like Derek “Red Robbo” Robinson, convenor at British Leyland’s Longbridge plant in Birmingham and a member of the Communist Party, to comply with the idea that their job was to help management to make the plant “viable”—which Robinson embraced to the point of denouncing a strike by his fellow toolmakers as “divisive”.

The importance of these changes was shown in 1977-9: there was a revival of industrial struggle, but the impact of the strikes was rather different. Whereas in the period 1969-74 disputes involving one group of workers became generalised and supported by others, in 1977-9 they tended to remain isolated or were even denounced by their own side. In this way the Broad Left union leaders and the stewards who shared their politics crippled some of the key strikes of 1977, including the Heathrow engineers’ strike, the Port Talbot electricians’ strike the Leyland toolroom workers’ strike. The most disgraceful example was the Swan Hunter strike in which the former leader of the UCS workers on Clydeside, Jimmy Airlie, accepted a management proposal to transfer work being carried out on a Polish ship to the Glasgow yards from Tyneside where the workforce was on strike, arguing: “If Newcastle are losing six ships through disputes, we will build them. If not us, then the Japs will”.12

While the general shift in the unions under the Labour government of 1964-70 had been to the left, notably with the victory of Hugh Scanlon in the AUEW presidential election, under the 1974-79 government the shift went the other way, with diehard right winger Terry Duffy taking over the AUEW leadership from Scanlon.

The impact of these more general defeats was also beginning to be felt in the mining industry. Immediately after Heath’s defeat by the miners in 1974 a new “Plan for Coal” had been drawn up between the Coal Board, NUM leaders and Labour, the aim of which was to head off any further confrontation with the miners. It not only conceded most of the demands made by the miners in their confrontation with Heath, but also promised that levels of coal production would be maintained and indeed increased over the coming decade, albeit with an increasing emphasis on production from a new generation of “super-pits”. The new “Plan for Coal” marked the beginning of a phase in which the Labour government’s industrial strategy, headed up by respected left wingers Michael Foot and Tony Benn, shifted back from the full-frontal assault attempted by Heath to a more cooperative and collaborative approach.

In line with the NCB’s confident predictions for the future of coal, the major consumers—primarily the state-owned Central Electricity Generating Board and British Steel Corporation—also forecast increased demand for coal. All told, the Coal Board estimated that the demand for coal up to the mid-1980s was likely to exceed existing levels of output and could reach an annual total of 150 million tons. The plans laid for the coal industry by the Coal Industry Tripartite Committee envisaged the development of large centralised centres of coal production through sinking new pits, and linking up, rationalising and expanding existing pits. In addition, the Labour government and the Coal Board sought once again to change miners’ pay, after the fiasco of the National Power Loading Agreement. They pressed for the introduction of a new Pit Incentive Scheme, which would allow wages to be based on productivity levels rather than a flat rate.

The scheme was opposed by Arthur Scargill, who had been elected president of the Yorkshire Area of the NUM in 1973, and by a number of other Areas. When a national ballot was conducted, there was a clear majority vote against the scheme. What happened next was to become a very important issue during the 1984-5 strike. The leadership of the Nottingham area decided to ignore the result of the national ballot and go ahead with the incentive scheme regardless. The main reason for this was that workers there were virtually guaranteed high bonus earnings because the seams in Nottingham were among the most productive in the country.

In the event, opposition to the introduction of the new scheme disintegrated in other areas and the divisions led to the opening up of huge pay differentials between collieries in the largest and most productive coalfields such as Yorkshire and Nottingham, and those in the “peripheral” coalfields of Scotland, Durham, South Wales, Lancashire and Kent. Even within districts and within individual collieries there could be large differences in take-home pay and this now depended much more on factors such as geological conditions and levels of investment than on the amount of effort put in by individual miners.

All this was taking place in coal mining at about the same time as the now notorious “Winter of Discontent” of 1979 which, although it did produce very impressive strike statistics, was of a completely different character to the upsurge of militancy of the early 1970s. These disputes were not called and organised by the shop stewards’ network which had been at the forefront in the earlier part of the decade, but were led by the national officials of relatively new unions such as NUPE and NALGO (now both parts of UNISON) whose membership had grown massively throughout the 1970s, mainly in the public sector areas of education, local councils and the health service. Workers in these industries, many of them women, had been particularly badly hit by successive government attacks on wages in the late 1970s but did not have the traditions of independent shop-floor organisation which had featured so prominently during the upturn of 1970-74.

The Thatcher government: the ruling class on the offensive

The political beneficiary of the disillusionment with Labour that found expression in the winter of discontent was not the left, but Margaret Thatcher. The reason for this was twofold: the trade union leaderships, the Labour government and the employers had worked together for six years to exacerbate the weaknesses of the trade union movement and the swing to the left within the movement in the preceding period had benefited a Broad Leftism that was willing to justify opposition to strikes and support for class collaboration under a Labour government.

With Thatcher’s election in 1979, the employers were determined to reap the rewards of weakened union organisation, and opinion inside the Confederation of British Industry moved sharply in a “confrontationist” direction. The same employers who had secretly welcomed a Labour government in 1974 as the only way out of a difficult situation for their class were overjoyed at its fall in 1979. Labour had done all the dirty work of which they thought it was capable, and they felt a government was needed that was less beholden to the trade union bureaucracy in order to finish the job.

The new Thatcher government set out not merely to hold the line against the gains made by the trade union movement in the early 1970s but, crucially, to carry through a decisive shift in the balance of class forces. Its strategy for doing so involved three separate components. Monetarist economic policies were aimed at imposing financial constraints on managers to shed labour, cut wage costs and increase productivity. In industry this meant refusing to intervene to protect firms from market pressures; in welfare services and local government it meant using the “cash limits” already devised by Labour to enforce cutbacks.

The Ridley Plan, drawn up by right wing Tory Nicholas Ridley in the wake of the fall of the Heath government in 1974, was a series of carefully timed set-piece confrontations designed to break the power of key unions, starting in industries where the unions were thought to be weak and leaving the most powerful groups of workers, like the miners and dockers, until last. Furthermore, the law was to be used to weaken the ability of unions to take industrial action and, by threatening their funds, to persuade their leaders to cooperate with the employers. Once again the aim was a phased attack, with mild legal changes at first and, as the unions got tied up by these, moving on to more radical measures.

The Thatcher wing of the cabinet believed that British capitalism was weak precisely because of the concessions made in the past to preserve “consensus”. So they spearheaded a carefully phased employers’ offensive right across industry. The most important attack, the victimisation of Derek Robinson at Longbridge in November 1979, set a pattern that was repeated again and again over the next five years. Management would, on each occasion, exploit the gap which had opened up between many stewards and those they represented and appeal over the heads of the unions to the mass of members. Whenever this looked as if it might backfire, they would look to dirty deals with national union leaders to regain control of the situation.

This happened at Leyland itself on a number of occasions in the first three years of the government—in April 1980 at the Land Rover plant in Solihull, in October 1981 over a wage claim throughout the company, and in November 1982 over the sacking of Alan Thornett. On each occasion it became clear that there was a hard minority in the plants who really wanted a fight, but in most cases this minority could win majority support only for a brief moment. There was no longer any strong current among the stewards ideologically opposed to action, as there had been in the “social contract” years, but on each occasion the minority found it could not hold the majority out in the face of concerted management attacks and desertion by the union leaderships.

The Thatcher government’s forcing up of unemployment helped immensely in their offensive against the workers. Unemployment rose by about 250 percent in three years. These were the bitterest years of the downturn for trade union militants. Each defeat bred defeatism on the shop floor that paved the way for further defeats.

The Tory offensive also required attacks on industries where traditions of militancy were weaker. The first major confrontation was with the steel workers at the beginning of 1980, although it soon became clear that this part of the strategy was not going to be a walkover. Management made a deliberately insulting wage offer in an effort to humiliate the main union, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC). It calculated that the union had a tradition of acquiescence; it had not taken national strike action since before 1926, the national leadership was very right wing, and there was little in the way of independent shop steward organisation or local branch initiative.

Nevertheless in the event the strike was extremely solid and militant, particularly in Yorkshire where the proportion of workers picketing turned out to be very high. The government found itself facing a harder fight than it had bargained for. However, the onset of a second phase of deep economic recession meant that industry could make do with depleted stocks of steel and the fragmentation of the class which had been so exacerbated by the years of social contract meant that other sections of workers did not automatically support the steel workers. The upshot was that scab steel streamed out of the non-striking private steel firms and was carried through the gates of hundreds of factories by lorry drivers holding TGWU cards.

Even so, the failure of the steel workers to break through did not mean that the Tories always had it easy on the industrial front. They had to beat a quick retreat in 1981 when the same South Wales miners who had refused to stand alongside the steel workers the previous year struck over the threat to their own pits and sent flying pickets out to other areas. Thatcher was forced to agree on a £400 million plan to keep pits open. Similarly, fear of the consequences held the government back from allowing port employers to impose compulsory redundancies which would have effectively ended the National Dock Labour Scheme.

The Tories also encountered resistance to their attempts to cut the living standards of National Health Service workers in the same year. The health service was hit by the biggest tide of militancy it had known as a series of one-day and selective strikes gained the enthusiastic support of hundreds of thousands of ancillary workers and nurses. However, the union leaders refused to even consider turning the selective and one-day strikes into an all-out strike until it was far too late, and the government again ended up the victor. In the aftermath of the health service strike it was able to go on the offensive, pushing through schemes to undercut wages, conditions and union strength.

The strikes in the steel industry and the health service (and on the railways) all showed that the Tories’ attacks on wages and conditions could provoke outbreaks of militancy among sections of workers which had low strike rates in the past. The same phenomenon was to be seen with selective strikes involving print workers, civil servants (over pay, in the summer of 1981), telecom engineers (against privatisation in the autumn of 1983), teachers (in 1983) and local government white-collar workers.

The increase in strike activity recorded by these industries was not nearly sufficient to counter the downward trend in engineering and motors—let alone shipbuilding, which had been virtually decimated by the rundown of the industry. However, they did point to the way the government’s attacks were creating a trend in the class that ran counter to the predominant current of demoralisation and defensiveness.

Different sections of the employing class had different expectations of the Tory government when it was elected in 1979. The divisions continued right through the government’s first five years. In 1980, at the time of the steel strike, there was considerable feeling in the Tory cabinet and in publications like the Financial Times that the government’s approach was misplaced. The same doubts were expressed a year later, after the retreat over pit closures, when the Financial Times’s description of “a thoroughly disorganised government” summed up the feelings of some sections of industry. The Confederation of British Industry’s conference that autumn was notable for the level of criticism directed at the government.

The division in the Tory Party was a relatively clear one between the Thatcherites and the “wets”. On the one hand were those who thought the profitability and competitiveness of British big business could be saved by a combination of monetarism, confrontation with the unions and the “freeing up of market forces”. On the other were those who still believed in the “corporatist” approach which had emerged from the crisis of the inter-war years, combining state intervention to build up nationally important industries and collaboration with the trade union bureaucracy to control the workers.

Looked at in one way, the Thatcherites had been resoundingly successful. In 1971 the chief constable of Glasgow had warned that troops might be necessary on Clydeside if the Heath government closed Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and destroyed too many jobs in shipbuilding. Ten years later, the manpower in those yards was being run down at breakneck speed with next to no resistance.

Similarly, in 1975, the Labour government had paid a massive bribe to keep Chrysler Linwood afloat because of the political consequences of not doing so. In 1981 the Thatcher government had no difficulty in simply allowing the plant’s new owner, Peugeot, to shut it.

Yet looked at in a different way, its achievements were limited. To destroy one job in four in manufacturing industry and still fear pressure on wages was no great accomplishment. By the time of the 1983 general election the living standards of a sizeable section of workers had risen again to their 1974 and 1979 peak levels. This reflected the strength of the pound (itself partly a consequence of Thatcher’s hard-money policies), which kept prices rising more slowly than the earnings of those still in work. Even in the public sector the government’s successes were limited. It had held the line on wages for civil servants, teachers, steel workers, shipyard workers and rail workers. But the step by step approach of the Ridley Plan entailed turning a blind eye to the activity of very powerful groups like miners, power station workers or dockers.

In its issue of 27 November 1982 the Economist suggested the government needed to cut wages by an average of about 20 percent if it was to restore the rate of profit of British capitalism. All Thatcher’s successes still left her a very long distance from achieving this goal. Indeed, she suffered from a paradox: one reason she had been able to win the general election of 1983 was because she could boast to many workers that they were as well off as they had ever been, yet that outcome was the opposite of the goals she had set for British capitalism.

A government which had seemed so full of determination and purpose in its first spell in office seemed directionless within a matter of months of winning a massive electoral victory. It had proved it could cut living standards and boost productivity while the economy was in decline. It had not proved it had a policy to cope with the economic expansion that British-based big business needed to really build up its profits.

The main sections of the ruling class were well aware that their victories in the previous decade still had not rolled back the defences of the working class movement to a sufficient extent for them to carry through a real onslaught on wages, and there was considerable fear of workers gaining a new confidence to fight as industrial production picked up. There were some signs by the summer of 1983 that these fears were beginning to be borne out. The number of strike days per thousand employees in mechanical engineering rose by nearly a third in 1983 and in “other manufacturing” by 70 percent. More than 60 percent of the recorded engineering strikes were over pay.

There was enough pressure on pay to worry the employers, but there was not enough successful action to overcome demoralisation among many groups of workers in manufacturing industry. The feeling of the shop floor was certainly not strong enough to stop the rightward swing of the union leaderships. Right wing leaders like Frank Chapple of the EETPU (Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union, now part of Unite) and Alastair Graham of the CPSA (Civil and Public Services Association, now part of the PCS) reigned supreme at the 1983 TUC congress, pouring scorn on the Broad Left leaders for being unable to mobilise their members and win victories to match their rhetoric, and the congress voted to back the “new realism” of collaboration with the government.

There was another important factor at work—a government with plans to renovate British capitalism through “market discipline” which had as yet failed to prove it could make a decisive breakthrough towards creating conditions for a new and higher level of profitability. As a result, the Tories moved to provoke a high level of confrontation in certain industries just as the mass of manufacturing employers were following a more non-confrontationist approach.

The first major offensive began in the most unexpected way in November 1983. Eddie Shah, owner of the Stockport Messenger, with the backing of the Institute of Directors, won an injunction under the Employment Act banning six skilled printers he had sacked from picketing at his non-union printshop in Warrington. When the picketing continued Shah went back to the courts, which fined the printers’ union the National Graphical Association (NGA) £50,000; the union refused to pay and continued with plans for mass picketing.

The courts then imposed another £100,000 fine and sequestered the union’s funds and a massive police operation was mounted to ensure that the mass picket of the Warrington print works did not stop the distribution of Shah’s papers. NGA members and supporters who went to Warrington found themselves on the receiving end of the sort of police violence they had hitherto thought was a figment of left wing imaginings.

Prior to Warrington the main print employers had experienced how powerful the print unions, and the NGA in particular, could be. In 1978-9 Thompson Newspapers had locked out its workers at the Times for nine months and won next to nothing. In 1980 the employers in the general print had tried to resist the unions’ wage demands and had lost.

The other employers put a lot of pressure on Shah to abandon his actions against the NGA but he wouldn’t back down, and the NGA and TUC leaderships soon proved how right he was to stick to his guns. The NGA called off a strike which had closed Fleet Street completely, lifted the picketing at Warrington for seven days to allow “negotiations” and then, when the TUC general council voted not to support its defiance of the law, backed down completely. The confrontationist wing of the ruling class had won a major battle, not only by beating a powerful union, but also by showing the rest of the ruling class that the new laws could be used as a previously inconceivable method to batter unions.

Emboldened by this victory, the government announced that trade unions were to be banned from its secret communications centre, GCHQ. The decision stunned the main TUC leaders. In desperation, the civil service unions and the TUC promised the government a no-strike agreement at GCHQ if they could be allowed to continue to collect membership dues.

At the shortest meeting between any prime minister and any TUC leaders in half a century, Thatcher told them she was not interested. The TUC leaders stormed out of the meeting and angrily called for action, including strikes, on Tuesday 28 February. What had looked previously as if it would be no more than local half-day and one-day strikes turned into a massive protest. Though the support for the stoppage was patchy, it was greater in engineering and motors than it had been for any similar call since 1973.

But there was one workplace the union leaders were careful to exempt from the strike—GCHQ itself. Told by their own leaders not to take any “disruptive action” in defence of their own rights, the great majority of the workforce caved in to the government’s demands the next day and signed forms agreeing to leave the unions. Once again, this time in the face of very widespread opposition, the hawks in the ruling class had achieved a victory.

Thatcher versus the miners, 1984-5

They did not waste any time before setting out to build on their victory. The day after the GCHQ strikes, 1 March 1984, the Coal Board told the National Union of Mineworkers that Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire was going to close in five weeks time. When there were protests at this, the new Coal Board chief, Ian MacGregor, made a speech in which he proclaimed his intention to shut 20 pits and destroy 20,000 jobs within a year.

There can be no doubt that the Thatcherites were staging a deliberately provocative action. They had seen how easy the victories had been at Warrington and GCHQ and believed they could now win a similarly easy victory against the union which many people saw as the advance guard of the trade union movement since its victory over the Heath government ten years before.

The Thatcherites assumed that one of two things would happen. Either the leadership of the NUM would get cold feet and back down without a real fight, as the NGA and the civil service leaders had, or it would call for a fight which would rapidly collapse in the face of an unenthusiastic membership. In either case, this most powerful of unions would quickly be humiliated.

The first thing to be said about the miners’ resistance is that it was much greater than the Thatcherites expected. Statements by police chiefs in the summer of 1984 indicated that they had not expected their forces to be in the mining areas for more than a few weeks. Power supply figures show that the attempts to substitute oil for coal at the power stations did not take off in earnest until the autumn.

The Tories’ optimism was based both on the ease of their victories at Warrington and GCHQ, and on the record in the mines during the two years since Arthur Scargill had been elected union president. Three ballots had been held on executive recommendations of industrial action—two over pay and one over support for South Wales miners who were already striking against pit closures. On each occasion the action was decisively rejected. Also there had been a ballot for general secretary, with the left standing Peter Heathfield, the well-known leader of the North Derbyshire miners, who had won by the narrowest of margins. The union leadership certainly recognised all-out strike action was not going to be easy to win: it had avoided calling for such action over the union’s pay demand, opting instead for an overtime ban.

What the Tories did not take sufficient account of was something which had been apparent over the previous five years—the size of the minority which was bitter, angry and ready to fight if it could win majority support. This minority had made its presence felt in the pits again and again during the previous two years, just as it had in engineering and motors. There was a growing number of unofficial strikes arising out of arguments over bonus payments, productivity and managerial bullying at individual pits.

The aim of the NPLA, which ended payment by results in the pits in the late 1960s, had been to reduce the industry’s traditionally very high level of unofficial strikes. To some extent it succeeded: in 1971 there were only 135 stoppages in coal mining, involving fewer than 10 percent of miners. But in 1982 there were 403 stoppages involving 225,000 miners and in 1983 there were 355 stoppages involving 133,000 miners.

The productivity scheme, which had tended to split the miners when it came to big national questions, was also generating increasing militancy in all areas and pits over local issues. The Coal Board was encouraged by the defeat of the union in the national ballots to apply pressure for increased productivity in each pit. Increased payments (for instance, for working in water) that used to be taken for granted now had to be fought for, and there was an appreciable increase in the level of harassment of miners by overmen and managers.

The result was a rash of local disputes. These strikes were often similar to those in the car industry—fantastic upsurges of militancy from young workers, but not accompanied by a level of organisation able to counter the pressure from officials for a settlement. The process of bureaucratisation at the workplace level had started earlier in the National Union of Mineworkers than in engineering or motors. In some places it existed even before the war, and nationalisation had given it a big boost.13 The rise of rank and file militancy in the late 1960s and early 1970s provided a counter-pressure to this trend.

Success in 1972 enabled the networks of militants to go further and to win control of the official union machine in Yorkshire, with the election of Scargill as Area president and Owen Briscow as general secretary. However, in winning the Area leadership, the left allowed the network of grassroots activists to dissolve into the bureaucratic machine at both pit and Area level. As the left took control of the union machine, its own attitudes began to change. Many of the officials began to feel that they played an indispensable role not just for the workers they represented but for the Coal Board as well, regarding themselves as partners with the Coal Board management in running the industry.

But what Thatcher and MacGregor forgot when they staged their provocations in March was that they were deliberately upsetting the very union full-timers who had been restraining the militant minority for the past year. The 1984 strike took off so rapidly in Yorkshire in its first week because the Area officials were giving the go-ahead to the same young “hotheads” they had condemned during the unofficial disputes a few months earlier

The attitude of Thatcher and MacGregor towards the officials was not an accident. The whole argument of the Thatcherite wing of the government was that it was possible to control the working class without making the concessions to the union bureaucracy that had been made in the past. For them, the whole array of consultation and review procedures that had to be gone through before pits could be shut was part of a larger obstacle to the revitalisation of British capitalism.

There was also something else at stake. The miners’ union leadership was a living reminder of the militancy of the early 1970s. The Thatcherites felt they could only purge the memory of that militancy—and therefore dismantle the collaborationist structures that had been used to buy it off—if they could inflict personal humiliation on Arthur Scargill and, if possible, split the miners’ union into Area-based fragments.

Most media commentators like to portray the 1984-5 miners’ strike in the same light as the General Strike of 1926, with the miners again abandoned to their fate by the TUC. This portrayal glosses over the fact that, in the previous two confrontations between the miners and a Tory government, in 1972 and 1974, the miners had won famous victories and in 1981 Thatcher herself had been forced to retreat over a pit closure programme after flying pickets had brought half the nation’s coalfields to a standstill.

The difference in 1984 was partly that the Tories had prepared much more carefully beforehand and were determined not to repeat the defeats they had suffered in 1972 and 1974. And whereas the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 had taken place against a background of rising militancy and confidence within the working class, the story in 1984 was entirely different. In the intervening decade the confidence of the rank and file had been severely weakened, firstly by the demoralising effects of the policies carried out by the Labour government between 1974 and 1979 and then by the savagery of the anti working class measures introduced by Thatcher after 1979.

If all the pressures of recent years had trapped Arthur Scargill in bureaucratic procedures and led him to distance himself from the militant rank and file trade unionism that had made his reputation, the strike pushed him back in a militant direction. As a result he stood and fought in a way that no trade union leader had done in living memory. Scargill still approached many issues in a very bureaucratic way, for instance refusing to openly criticise other officials when they blocked the militant action he knew to be necessary, but he did give a fighting lead.

Things were rather different with the Area leaderships. Their calculation was that British capitalism would want coal out of the most modern pits for the foreseeable future and would want to continue to bargain with them to control the workforce whatever the outcome of this particular confrontation.

At the same time, however, an immediate open retreat was very difficult for the leadership of the biggest and most important Area, Yorkshire. The memory of the early 1970s and the experience of the more recent disputes meant that there were large numbers of rank and file miners who wanted a fight.

The leaders of the main Areas, therefore, wanted to put on a display of strength sufficient to force the Tories and the Coal Board back to the negotiating table, but they did not see things in terms of a fight to the finish. It was this interaction between the militant, active, mainly young, minority in the pits and the interests of different sets of officials that explains the way the strike developed.

Most of the Area officials would have preferred a strike that was organised in a completely bureaucratic way, with miners stopping work on their orders and then simply sitting back and waiting for the government and the Coal Board to agree to negotiate—Mick McGahey, the president of the Scottish miners, went so far as to tell his members to stay at home and take a rest, and officials like Kim Howells, the South Wales NUM research officer, never hid their distaste for mass picketing—but they soon discovered that the purely bureaucratic strike was a non-starter. Branch ballots in South Wales and Scotland went against action, as did later Area ballots in Lancashire and Nottinghamshire, with Derbyshire and Northumberland splitting 50 50.

It was only when the Area officials, however reluctantly, went along with at least temporary mobilisations of the militant minority that they succeeded in pulling the majority of miners into the strike. This happened very quickly in Yorkshire, where a strike over another issue had already shut the South Yorkshire Panel, and in Durham and Kent. It happened too in Scotland and South Wales, where the officials reacted to the initial rejection of the strike call by organising a very high level of picketing, until all the pits were out. The combination of official support plus mobilisation of the active minority was unstoppable in the North East, Yorkshire, Kent, Scotland, South Wales and Derbyshire, and even the weakest of them, Derbyshire, held firm for nearly eight months.

However, the Nottinghamshire leadership was far from enthusiastic about the strike, which meant the ballot took place under precisely the conditions which had led to the unfavourable votes in Scotland and South Wales. The militant minority in Yorkshire did move across the county border into Nottinghamshire, despite the resistance of their Area officials, and got a good response from substantial numbers of Notts miners, but the Yorkshire Area officials did a deal with the Nottinghamshire leadership to withdraw the pickets while a ballot was held. The outcome is well known: only 26 percent of Nottinghamshire miners voted to support the strike and, by the time the Yorkshire pickets returned, the majority of the Notts miners were so accustomed to scabbing that they did so for the rest of the strike.

By the early summer the national leadership understood it could not win the strike without doing some damage to big business, and the easiest way to do this was to stop steel through a campaign centred on mass picketing. At first the Area leaderships gave dispensations for the steel plants to keep going—partly due to their cosy relations with local ISTC officials. When this brought upon them the wrath of both the national leadership and the active, militant minority in their own Areas, they staged a series of one-off actions which would never either escape their control or stop the steel plants. The Area leaderships then used the failure of the blockade of steel as justification for their claim that mass picketing was an outdated tactic.

This didn’t prevent two massive confrontations between pickets and police outside the Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham in April and May-June 1984. Arthur Scargill backed the picketing, against the wishes of the Yorkshire executive, and the pressure forced the executive to change their orders. There were 5,000 pickets assembled at the coke works by 29 May. The police were vicious: horses, dogs and teams with shields and batons were sent to Orgreave from all over the country.

In scenes which at times resembled a medieval battlefield, 83 miners were arrested and hundreds injured. Nonetheless, with Scargill taking a lead, the pickets almost broke through. Scargill called for “all miners and the whole trade union movement to come here in their thousands”, but the very next day the action was sabotaged by the Yorkshire leaders who turned their backs on the decisive battle of Orgreave, instead sending pickets off to Nottinghamshire once more.

The dead hand of officialdom had its effect again in the long defensive phase that the strike entered in the summer. What was important at this point was the basic job of holding the strike together—providing food, involving the majority of strikers in some degree of activity, however small, preventing outlying miners from getting isolated from the strike and falling under the influence of “return to work” movements, ensuring pickets were large enough to deal with police attacks, and moving pickets from the solid pits to those where cracks were beginning to show.

The officials were lacking when it came to all of these tasks. The Area officials were continually worried about things passing out of their own hands. They worried that petrol money for pickets would deplete their Area funds and tried to stop the most effective way for individual pits to keep their food parcels and kitchens going—”twinning” with other workplaces—because it was not under their control. They refused legal aid to those arrested during police attacks on mining villages and ran down mass picketing just as the drift back to work at outlying pits made it most necessary.

But the ineptness and even treachery of most Area and pit level officials is not, in itself, enough to explain the problems the strike faced. After all, the 1972 strike took place while the national and Yorkshire Area leaderships were still in the hands of right wingers, yet rank and file activists succeeded in taking control of that strike and leading it to victory.

The difference was that in 1972 there existed a network of experienced left activists in the branches. The Yorkshire Area leadership may have wanted to block action in the unofficial strikes of 1969 or 1970, or in the 1972 strike, but it could not do so because the network of left wing activists had strong enough bases of support in their own pits to take action even if the leadership condemned it.

In 1984, by contrast, very many of the experienced left activists had moved on to full-time posts at the pit or Area level. There was no left wing network left, either to exert some control over those who had won full-time posts or to provide some direction for the enthusiasm of young miners thrown into activity by the strike. Only that kind of network could have increased the chances of pulling Nottinghamshire out, built the momentum of the mass picketing of steel, and held the weaker Areas against the “return to work” movements of the winter of 1984-5.

The miners’ strike showed how the Thatcherite offensive could force union leaders into a corner and give them little choice but to stage at least a token fight. It showed that a new, young, militant minority was being created in the working class which could lead to strikes taking on a level of militancy which was anathema to many of the official leaders. But it also pointed to the lack of a network of experienced socialist activists that was independent of the officials but had enough experience to stand up to them and provide direction for the new spontaneous militants.

Nevertheless, defeat for the government was only narrowly averted, mainly through the compromises of the union leaders. Food and other gifts from trade unionists poured into the coalfields. Meanwhile, the miners and their families showed determination and heroism in the face of hunger, police intimidation and attacks from social services. Women Against Pit Closures demonstrated how united the communities were.

The Tories had periods of panic during this time. In July, Norman Tebbit wrote to Thatcher and begged for an early settlement, stating that “we could not afford to go on to the very brink of endurance”. In the autumn of 1984 the Tories’ worst nightmare seemed about to come true. Members of the overseers’ union NACODS were threatened with the sack unless they crossed NUM picket lines and NACODS members voted by 82 percent for a strike. Ian MacGregor was told bluntly that he had to give in: “You have to realise”, Thatcher told him, “that the fate of this government is in your hands.” Thatcher herself nearly fell apart as she realised the significance of this “major error”, which “almost precipitated disaster”.

The majority of miners fought on through the hard winter months. It was then that the suffering of the mining communities became greatest, as they were subjected to paramilitary police occupations, growing material deprivation, the legal sequestration of their union funds and the gradual emergence of a back to work movement. Finally, after the South Wales NUM (heavily influenced by the right wing of the Communist Party), forced the end of the strike, the majority of miners marched back to work on 5 March 1985, defeated but defiant. Although some drew the conclusion that the miners’ defeat meant that other groups of workers couldn’t win, there was also a deep admiration for the way the miners had fought back and a deep hatred of everything Thatcher stood for.

The limits of solidarity

Thatcher was not invincible, as she eventually found out when she tried to impose the poll tax. There were a number of points during the year-long dispute when the miners came within a hair’s breadth of victory, as we now know from the testimony of leading figures in the NCB, the power industry and the Tory Cabinet, including Thatcher herself. As she later recollected in her memoirs: “The coal strike swung unpredictably in one direction then another—suddenly things would move our way, then equally suddenly move against us—and I could never let myself feel confident about the final outcome”.14

The miners’ fierce resistance forced the government to postpone action it had planned against other important sections of workers, in order to isolate the NUM. The refusal of the miners to give in meant that their strike was, unexpectedly, still going on when the annual pay round for the public sector began. The Thatcherites soon showed how “wet” they could be when expediency demanded it: concessions were made not only to powerful groups like the water and power workers, but also to postal workers, who had not taken national action since their defeat in 1971, and rail workers, who had been battered with TUC help only two years before. Thatcher intervened personally to increase the pay offer to rail workers, as, in her words, “it was vital that we keep the rail unions working”.

The risks the government was running became clear in June and July 1984 when its scabbing operations to get coal and iron ore into the steelworks provoked two national strikes on the docks. As the pound fell to a record low, ministers insisted there were no plans to end the National Dock Labour Scheme, although the port employers had been pressing for its scrappage for some time.

MacGregor wrote later of the fears that basic trade union solidarity provoked in the Tories and their allies:

Peter Walker was particularly concerned by the incident; he thought it would mean the end of the whole of our strike as well. It must have confirmed all his fears that we would never win. I was asked to Downing Street to brief the prime minister. She seemed anxious that the dock strike, which had come out of the blue, could have a dangerous effect.15

The same soft approach was applied where other groups of workers took action in solidarity with the miners. British Rail sent home those workers who would not move coal trains, but it was careful not to sack them in case that provoked strike action.

Power station managements were equally cautious. No action was taken against workers in the Yorkshire power stations who blacked new supplies of coal; the policy seems to have been to avoid any confrontation which might lead to action by other power workers.

In line with this general approach both the government and public sector managements refused to bow to Tory backbench pressure to use the anti-union laws against the NUM. This they left to small employers and scab miners comparatively late in the strike.

While the government was taking a softly, softly approach, so too did the major union leaders outside the mines. At the TUC congress in September 1984 even right wing union leaders like Gavin Laird of the AUEW and David Basnett of the General and Municipal Workers Union (GMWU) made resounding promises of support for the miners. These leaders had been sorely offended by Thatcher’s behaviour over GCHQ when she had effectively told them that she did not need them to mediate between capital and labour, and they saw the miners’ strike as an opportunity to make her eat her words.

The union leaders wanted a display of support for the miners, providing it was under their own tight control and could be removed the moment Thatcher recognised their worth. So they offered verbal—and some financial—support, while putting most of their efforts into trying to devise conciliatory formulae for ending the strike. They veered to the left, verbally, at the TUC, yet six months later were delighted when they were invited to Downing Street—for the first time since being shown the door over GCHQ—to put their names to a formula for ending the miners’ strike that even the most rabid right wingers on the NUM executive felt compelled to reject.

Some union leaders felt under more pressure from the Tory offensive than others. There is no doubt, for instance, that the TGWU leadership was upset by any idea of a threat to the National Docks Labour Scheme. It saw a carefully controlled, bureaucratically organised national dock strike as the ideal way to impress on the employing class the need to take the TGWU leadership seriously. But the moment it became clear that such a passive, purely defensive strike would be impossible to sustain at weakly organised ports like Dover which were not affected by the National Dock Labour Scheme, the TGWU leadership ended the strike for a compromise formula which solved nothing—as was proved six weeks later when it was forced into a second, much weaker, dock strike.

The TGWU’s behaviour was matched by that of the rail unions. Looked at superficially, their record of solidarity with the miners was good: they ensured that the movement of coal by rail was reduced to a trickle of its usual figure. However, when spontaneous strikes broke out against British Rail management sending people home for refusing to move coal trains, the rail union leaders rushed to bring them to an end, with the unions themselves paying the minimum basic wage of those who had been sent home. Rail union leaders gladly accepted the small improvements made to their wage offer, even though the government’s intention was clearly to isolate the miners.

Once the miners’ strike had started, the government and the union leaders between them ensured that there was a relatively low level of struggle elsewhere in the public sector. The level of struggle in much of the private sector was already low because of the willingness of many employers to go for the pay and productivity/flexibility strategy.

This was the background against which miners looked for solidarity in other industries. Two things stand out about this: everywhere there was a powerful minority of workers who identified very strongly with the miners’ case, but in very few instances did this minority win the majority of their fellow workers to take industrial action in support of the miners.

There are a number of indications of the size and commitment of this minority. There were large local “day of action” demonstrations in a number of localities in May and June; there was the mushrooming of support committees nearly everywhere during the summer and autumn; and there was the proliferation of twinning arrangements between individual pits and workplaces, union branches and support groups.

All of these activities took place on a wider scale than any other strike in living memory, including the successful miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974. Even the opinion polls reflected the size of the minority, indicating that about 35 percent of the population showed some support for the miners, and around 12 percent expressed uncritical support. This translated to something like five million adults wholeheartedly supporting the strike, with quite a high proportion of these to be found among the ten million trade union members.

Yet the instances of other workers taking industrial action in support of the miners can be counted on the fingers of two hands. There were the rail workers at Coalville, Shirebrook and Tinsely who refused to handle coal trains; the Sun printers who refused to print copies of the paper purporting to show Scargill making a Hitler salute; the Waterloo and Charing Cross rail workers who struck after the police had beaten up two of their officials on a miners’ demonstration; the Sealink ferry workers at Harwich who struck against the arrest of one of their branch officials on a miners’ picket line; the South Wales dockers who blacked a scab lorry firm; the power station workers in Yorkshire and at Didcot near Oxford and West Thurrock who refused to use “new” coal. Even the attempts at token strikes during the local days of action met with a much smaller response than those of the official TUC calls in May 1980, September 1982 and on 28 February 1984.

In the great majority of workplaces the minority who supported the miners were unable to deliver the industrial solidarity which would have brought victory. How are we to explain this? Common to most of the acts of solidarity was that they were in industries—the railways and the print—which themselves had suffered defeats in the previous couple of years, but whose organisation had not been smashed.

A similar pattern appears in the support which came for the day of action demonstrations and the workplace collections for the miners. As well as from the print and the railways this came from sections like local government white-collar workers (who were involved in defensive disputes in a number of localities in 1983-5), hospital workers (defeated in 1982), telecoms workers (defeated in 1983) and teachers (themselves involved in their first serious industrial action for 10 years).

The traditions of solidarity within the working class were having to be rebuilt in the course of the struggle itself. In 1972 it had been relatively easy for miners to gain the support of other sections, in 1984 it was a much more difficult task. A network of militants able to carry the tasks of solidarity did not exist when the strike began. Insofar as there were any networks in the unions, they were provided by the Broad Lefts, whose orientation towards winning positions meant they very easily accepted the same separation of the activists from the shop floor which made it impossible to carry the arguments to each individual worker.

In any case, the Broad Lefts were very weak when it came to numbers and influence in key sections of industry (so that, for example, neither the Broad Left Organising Committee nor the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions conferences had one tenth of the representation from key groups like engineers, car workers or dockers that had been found at the big Liaison Committee conferences of 1970-71).

Yet if the networks did not exist, very large numbers of individual militants did. Some of these were very good indeed in collecting for the miners, raising hundreds of pounds a week from those they worked with. Like those involved in the strike itself, those who identified with it were of two sorts—new, enthusiastic people with little experience of trade union activity, and union activists of some standing, but exactly the same weaknesses that beset the two groupings in the pits affected their supporters. The new people did not have the experience to confront union officials or shop stewards in their own workplaces who were not organising for real solidarity, and who did not understand the stress on workplace activity as opposed to street collections or holding fundraising benefits. And many of the experienced trade unionists had become so absorbed by their own positions within the lower ranks of the official movement that they failed to carry the arguments down to the shop floor.

Although the weakening of workplace organisation from the mid-1970s onwards helps to explain the limits to the solidarity the miners received, this cannot absolve the TUC for their failure to turn their words into deeds, or Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party, for his shameful refusal to support the strike. The official leadership of the labour movement played a decisive role in isolating the NUM and hence securing its defeat.

Results and prospects

The Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 was an epic struggle: the immense courage of the men and women of the mining communities deserves to be long remembered. But the strike ended in defeat. What were the consequences? Chris Harman wrote in the immediate aftermath:

There are two sorts of defeats workers can suffer. There are defeats like that which followed the 1848 revolution, the Paris Commune, the taking of power by Hitler in Germany, or the Pinochet coup in Chile. These set the workers’ movement back years, or even decades, and when it re-emerges it has to start virtually from scratch.

There are other defeats which are best seen as interludes between battles. These are particularly prevalent after a period of working class advance which has lost momentum. Then the employing class goes on to the offensive against one section of the class after another, trying to wrest back what it lost not so long before.16

Seen from the perspective of 2010, the 1984-5 strike falls into neither of these categories. It plainly wasn’t a world-historic defeat comparable to Germany 1933 or Chile 1973. The basic class organisation of British workers wasn’t broken by the NUM’s defeat. But neither was it merely “an interlude between battles”, a prelude to a new and potentially more radical upturn, as we in the Socialist Workers Party expected at the time.

The Thatcher government certainly didn’t emerge all-triumphant from the strike. Despite its re-election in 1987, it stumbled from crisis to crisis until the toxic combination of the failure of monetarism as an economic policy, the social revolt over the poll tax and increasingly vicious internal struggles over Britain’s relationship to the European Community brought Thatcher herself down. These crises spilled over and doomed the administration of her successor John Major to debilitating failure and eventual electoral destruction.

Nevertheless, Thatcher’s victory over the miners gave an enormous fillip to ruling class confidence. This was reflected in the successful attacks on other key groups of workers, notably Fleet Street printers and London dockers, the radical extension of the Tories’ privatisation programme, and the 1986 Big Bang that deregulated the City of London, helping to lay the basis for the financial bubbles of the following decades. It was in the wake of the miners’ defeat that in the late 1980s and early 1990s neoliberalism, invigorated also by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, became a global brand—at once ideological orthodoxy and policy package—embraced by political and business elites around the world.

The strike had a severe impact on the British workers’ movement. Within unions the “new realism” was immensely strengthened, for a generation of trade union leaders, along with many activists, the idea that strike action didn’t work became entrenched orthodoxy. This created a vicious circle in which the relative weakness of rank and file organisation that had been revealed by the strike repeatedly allowed the union bureaucracy to prevent the beginnings of resistance developing into a new upsurge, which further undermined workers’ self-confidence.

Despite his defiant rhetoric, Scargill himself fell victim to this syndrome when, in the autumn of 1992, the Tory government announced the closure of most remaining mines. Rather than tapping the surge of anger that the announcement provoked to press for solidarity action by the entire trade union movement, Scargill fell into line with the TUC’s typically ineffectual response. The resulting destruction of the mining industry reduced the NUM to a pale shadow.

Kinnock, to his eternal shame, refused to support the strike. While the dispute lasted, he had to sit out the surge of enthusiasm for the miners that swept through the Labour Party. However, once the NUM had been defeated, he seized the opportunity to crush or marginalise the hard left—expelling the Militant tendency, breaking or incorporating the leaders of the left-Labour controlled local councils and humiliating Tony Benn in the 1988 leadership election. In all this Kinnock received strong support from the right wing of the Communist Party and its journal Marxism Today.17

This search for electoral respectability was rewarded with two more crushing defeats in the 1987 and 1992 polls. Nonetheless, Kinnock had created the conditions under which Tony Blair could become leader of the Labour Party and, in office, take Thatcher’s neoliberal programme much further than she had ever dared. New Labour is thus the child of the miners’ defeat.

But even a victory for the ruling class on this scale is subject to the remorseless logic of history. Marx wrote defiantly in 1873, after the defeat of the Paris Commune:

The fact that the movement of capitalist society is full of contradictions impresses itself most strikingly on the practical bourgeois in the changes of the periodic cycle through which modern industry passes, the summit of which is the general crisis.18

We are currently experiencing a very severe general crisis that represents the explosion of the contradictions inherent in the neoliberalism that Thatcher pioneered. Remarkably, this crisis has also been marked in Britain by the development of a new militancy among some groups of workers.19 There is a real possibility that rank and file organisation can begin to be rebuilt. Those who rebuild such networks should remember the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-5—to learn, to take inspiration, but also to avenge.


Notes

1: This article was written to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the Great Miners’ Strike and emerged from discussions between the author, Mike Simons, and Chris Harman, just before the latter’s trip to Egypt. It draws heavily on an article written by Chris Harman, for a special edition of International Socialism, issue 29, devoted to the theme “The Class Struggle and the Left in the Aftermath of the Miners’ Strike” that was published in the summer of 1985.

2: Harman, 1985.

3: Taylor, 1984, p88.

4: Darlington and Lyddon, 2001, p60.

5: Darlington and Lyddon, 2001, p60.

6: Beckett and Hencke, 2009, p24.

7: Darlington and Lyddon. 2001. p216.

8: Darlington and Lyddon, 2001, p69.

9: Thatcher, 1993, p340.

10: Darlington and Lyddon, 2001, p1.

11: Harman, 1985.

12: Cliff, 1985.

13: Henriques, Slaughter and Dennis, 1979.

14: Thatcher, 1993, p366.

15: McGregor, 1986, p268.

16: Harman, 1985, pp115-116.

17: For more on Marxism Today, see Callinicos, 1985.

18: Marx, 1976, p103.

19: Bradley and Kimber, 2009.


References

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Beckett, Francis, and David Hencke, 2009, Marching to the Fault Line – The 1984 Miners’ Strike and the Death of Industrial Britain (Constable).

Bradley, Michael, and Charlie Kimber, 2009, “Will the Sparks Flare Up?”, International Socialism 124 (autumn 2009), www.isj.org.uk/?id=579

Callinicos, Alex, 1985, “The Politics of Marxism Today”, International Socialism 29 (summer 1985).

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Marx, Karl, 1976 [1867], Capital, Volume I (Penguin), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1

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