Thirty years ago the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) faced a brutal assault from a Tory government. As recent cabinet papers reveal, Margaret Thatcher secretly prepared to wage war against “the enemy within”. Thatcher was far from being an innocent bystander. She intervened in the conflict to the point of obsession, and while the government eventually succeeded in defeating the miners it did so only by using the biggest policing operation ever in any industrial dispute in this country and paying out astronomical sums to enable the electricity industry to run on oil rather than coal.
Politicians, academics and media pundits regularly use the defeat of the strike as a benchmark to argue that the working class has little left of the power it once had. They see it as the decisive political moment in the confrontation between governments and militant trade unionism. The defeat marked the rapid escalation of “new realism” where the trade union bureaucracy looked for partnership rather than confrontation with employers. Those ideas still act today as a brake on the level of resistance against the brutal austerity attacks from the coalition government.
Although the defeat of the strike cast a deep shadow over working class struggle, there were critical moments where the outcome could have been different. Even Thatcher and her ministers admit they bordered on the verge of defeat twice. However, the trade union leadership did not match the bravery and determination of the miners. Bringing about the downfall of NUM president Arthur Scargill and the politics of class struggle was not the sole preserve of the Tory party.
Trade union leaders failed to deliver the action necessary to shut down steel, to turn the dockers’ walkouts in July into a battle alongside the miners. Even the pit deputies’ union, NACODS, had an opportunity to sink Thatcher. But in November 1984 the leadership refused to call strike action after a massive yes vote. Although isolated, the miners fought on with the support of hundreds of thousands of rank and file trade unionists, both in Britain and internationally. The hatred the miners and their families felt for Thatcher has never abated, as the celebrations on her death provide ample testimony.
Moreover, the immense disruption to society caused by the strike has manifested itself in significant cultural references. Films such as Billy Elliot play out amid the turmoil of one of the darkest times in modern British history. Numerous reviewers commended Val McDermid’s novel A Darker Domain for exploring the social and emotional repercussions of the strike, while a British children’s book, The Coal House, uses it as an important aspect of the story.
The conflict was much more than just a strike. It highlighted the degree of hardship working people are prepared to endure for higher principles of solidarity. In the course of the bitter battle ideas and attitudes changed dramatically, none more so than towards women—an aspect of the strike that this article will detail later. Importantly, the strike revealed the extent to which revolutionaries can make a difference. If they were unable to turn the tide nationally, individual socialists in the pits were able to organise initiatives that gave a glimpse of what could have been different to the tactics (or lack of them) put forward by many area NUM officials.
In the wider movement, socialists formed miners’ support groups, twinned their workplaces and unions with pits and helped maintain the morale within mining communities for almost a year. The networks they forged strengthened their own industrial and political bases. As Tony Cliff, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), argued in April 1984: “In the coming months every SWP member and supporter cannot just help the miners by raising solidarity and arguing politics around the strike. In the process they can educate, train and organise the next generation of militants”.1 Today, in the midst of the most acute crisis of the system in more than 80 years, this remains an essential task for any revolutionary.
In any struggle, all organisations are put to the test. Over the 12 months of the strike the SWP had to navigate a course through an ever changing and at times complicated struggle. No one, including Thatcher, expected the conflict to last as long as it did. Although the confrontation witnessed the party at its interventionist best, the sheer magnitude of the strike meant that the right decisions were not always made. The key question is not whether mistakes are made—they always are; it is how quickly are they rectified?
The claim at the time by Tory politician John Redwood that the extreme left was mounting an extra-parliamentary challenge, with a “revolutionary strategy” was, unfortunately, far from the truth. Politically, the 12 months did witness a struggle between revolutionary socialist and reformist ideas, even when SWP members engaged in united activity with members of the Labour Party. There were some miners in SWP branches in Yorkshire, and branches such as Edinburgh had set up Socialist Worker sales in some of the Midlothian miners’ clubs in the years before the strike. However, overall the SWP, the biggest far-left organisation in Britain, had very few members in the pits in 1984. The SWP held a position that the industrial terrain in what the party termed the “downturn” was not favourable for the miners. The confidence of workers had reached an all-time high in the early 1970s following a succession of historic victories over Ted Heath’s Tory government. However, by the late 1970s, and following a subsequent procession of setbacks at the hands of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government, this had waned.
Nevertheless, the organisation threw itself into the confrontation. Members arranged regular visits to picket lines and welfare clubs, organised for men and women from the pit communities to speak at meetings and, although they raised arguments which at times may have seemed unpopular, very few would leave the battlefield. Indeed the comradeship and ties that developed between SWP members and miners’ families still remain as strong today as they were then. Arguments abounded within the party and movement over the 12 months. It was out of these arguments that the party was able to maintain a constant assessment of the strike, the balance between agitation and propaganda, and the concrete application of demands at any one time that may affect the direction of battle. That the party was able to gain influence among activists inside and outside the pit communities and recruit tens of miners is testimony to its committed and considerable intervention.
Some 30 years on it is important for a new generation of activists to understand the historical context in which the year-long struggle took place and how its bitter legacy still shapes the political and social landscape in Britain today, and how a party of organised socialists can have an impact, even in a limited way, no matter how challenging the circumstances.
A haunting power
Only a decade before the “Great Strike” the trade union movement seemed at the height of its powers. In 1974 the Tory prime minister, Ted Heath, had called an election on the slogan: “Who governs?” It was arguably the most dramatic year in modern British politics. The government had declared a state of emergency and imposed a three-day working week in order to isolate and defeat the actions of workers. However, it backfired alarmingly for the Tories, with Heath losing the election.
The preceding years 1970-4 had witnessed an extraordinary upsurge of industrial militancy involving key sections of the working class and inflicting a series of significant defeats on the employing class. The event that most horrified the Tories was the 1972 miners’ victory at the Saltley Coke Works in the West Midlands. Up to 3,000 miners had failed in their attempt to shut down the plant until Birmingham engineers en masse voted to strike in solidarity with the miners and 20,000 marched down to join a mass picket so that the workers were able to successfully to close down the plant.
The stunning victory haunted the British ruling class. Arguments proliferated within the Tory party, and eventually a resentful Thatcher replaced Heath as leader, determined to extract revenge for the humiliation. In her authorised biography Thatcher remembered Heath stating that Saltley was “the most vivid, direct and terrifying challenge to the rule of law that I could ever recall emerging from within our own country”.2 Her government would mobilise the entire apparatus of the state to crush the NUM.
However, in the intervening years between the victories of the 1970s and the outbreak of the 1984 strike, the balance of class struggle had swung back in favour of the employing class. The Labour Party was the electoral beneficiary of the conflict between workers and the ruling class of the early 1970s. Labour entered government intent on bringing militant confrontations to an end. To do this, it needed the cooperation of the trade union bureaucracy. The agreement between the Labour government and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) weakened a militant rank and file organisation. The impact was severe. The deal depressed the level of militant action and broke the bonds of solidarity that had arisen out of the struggles of the early 1970s. The resultant retreat from militancy had its political and ideological consequences with the main political beneficiary of the disillusionment with Labour in office being the Tories when Thatcher was elected in 1979.
By the early 1980s the political and industrial landscape was very different to that of the preceding 15 years. The changing circumstances within British capitalism and the employers’ offensive shattered political expectations and left many socialists floundering. Many former revolutionaries, disillusioned, gave up on the Leninist model of organisation, either to join the Labour Party or to abandon politics altogether. The new political and industrial landscape demanded a reappraisal.
Debating the “downturn”
In 1979 a serious rupture developed in the SWP leadership over the nature of the period. Tony Cliff argued that a change had taken place in the balance of class forces in the period of the Labour government 1974-9, leading to a crisis of confidence, leadership and organisation inside the working class. With the onset of the severe economic crisis of the mid-1970s, Labour attacked workers’ living standards. This, combined with incomes policy, productivity deals, so-called workers’ participation in industry and the move to the right by “left trade union leaders”, impacted on the independence of rank and file organisation. Shop stewards no longer had the same capacity to act independently of the officials that they’d had in the 1960s and early 1970s. By a narrow margin, the SWP annual conference in 1979 voted for Cliff’s position.
This had major implications for how revolutionaries organised, their political influence inside the working class and how they should approach any future struggles. Debates surfaced over the party’s industrial strategy and the move away from union rank and file groups to a more systematic intervention in workplaces with generalised revolutionary ideas. The party also re-examined the Marxist position on oppression, leading to the recognition that intervention among oppressed groups with separate papers (Women’s Voice and Flame) was no longer acting as a bridge to revolutionary ideas.3 The party decided that a more general political strategy using Socialist Worker and advancing our wider theoretical positions was more useful in winning women and black workers to revolutionary ideas and organisation.
The conditions demanded a restructuring of party organisation from smaller, often workplace-based units into bigger geographical branches. This required a focus in the branches on theoretical and political questions, followed by shorter sessions on Socialist Worker sales and campaigning activity. Some comrades argued that this was an unnecessary retreat. Fortunately, this was a position confined to a small minority of members, although it did resurface briefly in the first few weeks of the strike, as we will see below. There was a danger that SWP members would begin to measure success based on socialist propaganda alone without any connection to working class struggles. However, the new perspectives helped prepare party members for the many challenges that lay ahead.
The SWP had also faced persistent criticism from other sections of the left. We were assumed to have retreated from intervening in the class struggle in favour of a form of abstract socialist propaganda. The reverse was the case. The SWP had reassessed the state of the working class movement and adjusted how it argued for revolutionary ideas inside the working class and among young people, especially in the universities. It retained its position that the class struggle is the motor of change. Critics of the party had misunderstood the “downturn theory”.
Countdown to confrontation
In the early 1980s the Tories sought to make the working class pay for the economic crisis. Destroying workers’ organisation lay at the heart of the Ridley Plan.4 The plan would see the Thatcher government avoid a general assault on the unions and duck out of any battle for which it was not prepared. Instead it set out a strategy of defeating one group of organised workers after another in a series of set-piece confrontations. It succeeded. It had received a helping hand on the way as the TUC stood aside or instructed unions to surrender. However, the big prize still awaited the Tories—defeating the NUM.
The first salvo fired against the miners had backfired alarmingly for the Tories. In February 1981 the National Coal Board (NCB) announced a rapid pit closure plan. However, militant flying pickets from South Wales soon brought out other areas, forcing the government into a full-scale retreat. For the Tories, it was a tactical withdrawal. Their preparations—building up coal stocks, organising a large group of non-union lorry drivers and training the police for smashing miners’ actions—were still incomplete. It was a confrontation postponed. The showdown with the NUM had to await Thatcher’s second term following her 1983 general election victory. The Thatcherites staged a deliberately provocative action by announcing the closure of Cortonwood in South Yorkshire and four other pits at the beginning of March 1984.
In late February 17,000 miners in the South Yorkshire pits had been striking in defence of the national overtime ban. Now the entire Yorkshire coalfield responded by coming out in support of Cortonwood miners. Flying pickets quickly brought out the Scottish and Durham pits. Other areas responded more slowly, including the South Wales area, who initially voted to stay in but respect picket lines. Picketing successfully brought Wales to a standstill. However, the initial forward thrust of the strike rested on whether Nottinghamshire would join the strike call.5
At first, some on the SWP Central Committee (CC) were very concerned because the miners were being drawn into a battle on terms dictated by the government. Although the 1984 strike had the potential to break out of the “downturn” in working class struggle, the fear was that a defeat for the miners would be yet another major setback for the working class generally and inevitably demoralising for party activists. The government’s confidence was soaring. Print workers had been badly defeated at the Stockport Messenger newspaper only a few months before, while at GCHQ the government had imposed a ban on trade union organisation. It was now approaching spring, the worst time to launch a serious fight in the pits; the NCB had been able to close pits without a fight in Scotland and South Wales. Moreover, with coal stocks extremely high and the right wing areas of the NUM having no stomach for a fight, it was clear the Tories had the upper hand.6
Faced with a battle set up in circumstances that favoured the Tories, every socialist was faced with a decision—whose side are you on? The SWP threw itself into the resistance, directing its membership to stand alongside miners on the picket lines and from the outset raised the need for solidarity action. Any apprehension over the possibilities of the strike floundering was quickly discarded. As the SWP’s weekly bulletin Party Notes stated:
What happens in the pits over the next week is critical… This will mean a dramatic change in the way the party operates… Students need to move a bit quicker because they are near the end of term…call an emergency union meeting if possible…argue for union facilities to help miners picket, financial support for them and for other forms of solidarity.7
From the very beginning of the strike in Yorkshire SWP members were out on the picket lines daily with copies of Socialist Worker. The first issue of the paper published once the strike had started led on the key tactics that were necessary for the miners to win. It also argued how crucial solidarity from other workers would be to ensure victory. Members intervened in the mass meetings that were being held around the pits. At some pits nearly every miner was turning out to hear the argument and debates from their union representatives.
In the first week of April the party printed 250,000 leaflets and 50,000 posters and organised “Victory to the Miners” rallies in most cities and towns. In Manchester 500 turned out to listen to Paul Foot and a Yorkshire miner. SWP students were some of the most enthusiastic around the pit communities, providing physical and financial support as well as selling many copies of the newspaper. SWP students in Kent collected £156 from students in occupation. It was more than a one-way process; young student members were themselves educated in the arguments surrounding the strike.
In the first few weeks the euphoria of the strike, especially among younger miners, acted as a block to the difficulties that the strike would have to overcome. Even when the atmosphere was frosty from NUM officials and pickets, party members persevered with their support. After the first three weeks of the strike Edinburgh SWP had collected so much money and delivered it to the strike centres that they were welcomed with open arms by officials who had been very hostile only weeks before. The party produced what would become an iconic placard seen on every demonstration and picket line—”Victory to the Miners”. In the first few months the Socialist Worker header was usually torn off the placards, especially as Yorkshire NUM officials had attempted to ban the placard from appearing on the early demonstrations. As the strike wore on, and as the miners warmed to the party’s political arguments and delivery of active solidarity, the header remained firmly in place.
The national organisation also brought all its miners together for a series of meetings designed to agree a common political approach. Most SWP miners had seen The Collier, the rank and file industrial newspaper, as their main weapon rather than Socialist Worker. Although The Collier had been closed down in the early 1980s, the SWP miners had gained respect and influence within their respective pits over the previous ten years; none more so than in Armthorpe near Doncaster. In the months leading up to the strike a process of adjustment and discussion had been initiated with SWP miners over the need to be more politically integrated into the party with a stronger emphasis placed on selling Socialist Worker and acting as political activists rather than just industrial militants.
Party members at Silverwood pit in South Yorkshire had begun to coordinate their agitational and political activities with the local SWP organiser and the Rotherham branch during the Rotherham area strike. This was to pay rich dividends as the year-long battle progressed. Silverwood was to have its own bundle of weekly Socialist Worker delivered to the picket line each Wednesday and 60 copies would be sold within minutes of the bundle being unwrapped.
The rank and file mobilise
Armthorpe, a key pit in the Doncaster panel area, had a long tradition of militant rank and filism. Once it was clear that the Yorkshire pits were shut down and solidly behind the strike, Armthorpe NUM called a mass meeting to discuss sending pickets to convince miners in Nottinghamshire to join in the battle. In the pit were a number of SWP militants and sympathisers, some of whom had taken part in the victories of the early 1970s. They led the argument in the mass meeting. A group of organised socialists had carried the day. It was time to go on the offensive.
Hatfield and Rossington miners added their numbers to the picketing. Miners from all three pits mobilised and headed for Haworth in North Nottinghamshire. Later, left wing officials of the Yorkshire Area Executive attempted to pressurise the Armthorpe miners against picketing in Nottinghamshire. The Yorkshire NUM called another mass meeting at Armthorpe. Once more SWP miners and supporters intervened and won the meeting against the left wing area official. Armthorpe’s refusal to back down now became an example for other militants to follow. As Ian, a Silverwood miner, remarked:
What Armthorpe did enabled us to organise the most militant guys to put pressure on our branch officials at Silverwood. We went into Nottinghamshire to picket Cresswell. What’s more, the vast majority of Notts miners respected our picket lines. We held that for the next ten days until the area officials ordered us back into Yorkshire. We threw it away.8
Through connections with the SWP, a number of Scottish miners travelled down to the Nottinghamshire area. Members of Sheffield SWP met them in the city and directed them into Nottinghamshire to join the other pickets. They would be at Ollerton on the night Davy Jones, a young Yorkshire picket, would be tragically killed. This kind of growing activist network would be vital in Scotland around the arguments over shutting down steel production.
At this point it is worth restating that the overwhelming majority of Nottinghamshire miners had respected picket lines in the first weeks of the strike. They were beginning to harden their attitude in favour of joining the strike movement until Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire NUM officials connived to have the Yorkshire pickets withdrawn until Nottinghamshire had a ballot. This killed off any rank and file momentum, allowed the police time to seal off the county, and for the right wing media to put out misinformation against the strike. It is a key reason why the SWP opposed the demand for a national ballot. The ballot call was a veto to undermine the strike. The party was the only serious left current to hold that position.
The extent of the Yorkshire area executive’s fear of independent action became clear when Frank Cave, a left wing official, arrived at a meeting organised by the SWP in Doncaster in April. It was the first of a series of regular meetings arranged by the party to equip its members and supporters politically in dealing with the complexities and challenges that the strike threw up. Up to 50 miners would attend. Although Cave whipped up a red scare against the SWP that led to some activists being frightened off, they were working closely with the party again within a few months as the demands of the strike became more vital. The miners paid dearly for the damage wrought by the officials against militant rank and file activities.
However, 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.
The successes of the early 1970s lay primarily with the Barnsley Miners’ Forum. Scargill was one of its main initiators. Set up in 1967, it brought together hundreds of rank and file militants from across the coalfield in opposition to the right wing leadership of Yorkshire. The forum attracted hundreds of young miners new to union politics and eventually it linked up with the militants in Doncaster. Although the forum was concerned with replacing the right wing officials with left candidates, it was crucial in organising the mass rank and file picketing and winning the battle of Saltley Gate.
Scargill was unquestionably one of the most outstanding leaders of the working class movement. However, his political standpoint was flawed in one crucial way: he believed in “socialism from above”—that with the correct leadership, the industrial power of workers could be used for political change. Therefore electing left wingers to union positions at all levels outweighed the actions of the rank and file, even if the lessons from the huge victories of the early 1970s highlighted how militant rank and file activity was crucial. As he moved up in the hierarchy of the NUM bureaucracy the greater was the opposition from the union officialdom. Nevertheless, the SWP gave unconditional support to Scargill’s attempts to overcome the conservatism of the NUM area leaderships during the strike, even if the party could be critical of his main political views. The SWP would be the only serious left force in Britain that would stand alongside him when the British state instigated a “dirty tricks” campaign against him in 1990.
Unlike most left political currents in Britain, the SWP views the trade union bureaucracy as a distinct, conservative, social formation that balances between the employers and the workers. Trade union officials are neither employers nor workers. A division of labour emerges between the mass of workers and the individual who spends their time bargaining with the employers. Although a difference exists between right wing and left wing officials, fundamentally they are both part of a conservative social stratum that seeks to negotiate between capital and labour rather than bring about the destruction of the entire capitalist system through workers’ self-activity.9
In South Wales and Scotland the Communist Party (CP) had a strong influence within the NUM. The CP along with the Labour left held that the critical division inside the movement was between right and left, rather than between the rank and file and the bureaucracy. By 1984 very many of the past rank and file militants who had emerged in the NUM in the 1970s had moved on to full-time posts at the pit or area level rather than continue building at the grassroots. This “broad leftism” was the dominant political force within the working class movement including the NUM, and in the end failed the test of the year-long struggle.10
By 1984 there was no left wing network remaining to carry an independent tradition, to exert control over those who had moved into 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 winning Nottinghamshire miners to the strike call, 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 credibility and impact of the SWP and its miners are demonstrations of what might have been possible if we had been able to fill that vacuum, and point to the urgency of building revolutionary organisation prior to the onset of major battles.
Steel and Orgreave
After the first six weeks of the strike it was now necessary to assess its strengths and weaknesses. Chris Harman, a member of the SWP CC, argued at the party’s Easter rally at Skegness:
In the current struggle we have to get involved in servicing the strike; we can’t stand on the sidelines but we must not forget the central question of how the strike is to be won. We have to look reality in the face. The truth is painful, but telling lies can lead to death. The truth about this strike is that it has been going on for six weeks and still the picketing isn’t being effectively organised. Many of those weeks have been wasted weeks. In terms of hitting the capitalist class much more could have been done. We have to be honest.11
The police tactics in Nottinghamshire had made the county a no-go area for Yorkshire pickets. The need for an offensive strategy that turned off steel supplies to the rest of industry was obvious. But area NUM officials in Scotland, South Wales and Yorkshire fell over themselves to agree “dispensations deals” with their local steelworks to keep the furnaces ticking over. In reality, the dispensations led to more steel being produced rather than less.
Mick McGahey, the Communist Party NUM vice-president who had a reputation as a fighter, did not think that “Scottish steel” should be targeted, so in April the NUM, the rail unions and the main steel union, the ISTC, agreed that Ravenscraig in Motherwell would receive a trainload of coal a day to keep it ticking over. In early May, British Steel went on the offensive, reneged on the deal and transported coal by road from Hunterston dock in Ayrshire. The ISTC agreed to accept the scab coal. Striking miners were fuming at the betrayal.
In response, Edinburgh SWP drafted an open letter calling for mass picketing of Ravenscraig. Initially, the CC were reluctant to give support to the idea, fearing that in moving from propaganda to direct agitation the party would take on a plan of action it would not be able to deliver. However, the local comrades held to their position. Their assessment of the possibilities to agitate and change the course of the struggle proved correct.
The SWP was never a monolithic organisation. Tactical and strategic changes happen because of the interaction between all party members, organically linked to working class struggles. Now, after approaching other miners in the Militant Tendency with the idea, Edinburgh SWP managed to get 13 names of its own members and supporters in various strike centres across Scotland to call for mass picketing of Ravenscraig.12 As Rab, a miner from Newbattle near Edinburgh, remarked, “Mick McGahey and the other officials were spitting teeth about the open letter. Not just because we had gone over their heads but also because we were actually right and they hated to admit it”.13 Mass picketing of Ravenscraig began.
After the sharp argument with its Scottish comrades the CC proposed that the open letter be circulated around other NUM areas. Now the party in Yorkshire took up the initiative. Ian and Steve from Silverwood pit carried the letter everywhere. Soon other miners agitated for action over steel. The knowledge that dispensations were now undermining the strike further accelerated the demand for action. Over 250 miners signed the statement, and by late May, South Yorkshire miners began unofficial picketing of the Orgreave coking plant, forcing the Yorkshire NUM officials to back their action. However, the support given by the Yorkshire NUM was half-hearted and lukewarm at best. Nevertheless, the militants felt momentum was on their side. Over the next three weeks Orgreave witnessed major clashes between pickets and police. Harman would later describe the inertia of the area NUM officials:
They were forced by pressure from activists in the branches to call two mass pickets at Orgreave. But these were one-off affairs. There was no attempt to build up momentum of picketing, no serious attempt to involve other workers—although Orgreave is bang in the middle of the industrial belt that stretches from Sheffield to Rotherham.14
The lack of organisation at Orgreave led to high levels of frustration among miners including some of the best militants. Many started to see individual acts of defiance as their only option. Some took to throwing large tins of paint at the scab lorries from road bridges or rolling burning logs down the hill near the plant. Miners in the party were not immune to the despondency.
It is sometimes easier to analyse and identify problems from the outside than when directly involved. It took a strong argument from non-miners in the party, including the SWP industrial organiser, to persuade party miners that the answer was not to collapse into individual tactics, but to continue a concerted political campaign to restart the argument for continuous mass picketing at Orgreave. The reorientation paid dividends. SWP miners and supporters at Yorkshire pits applied further pressure on the officials to bring greater numbers back to the coke works.
On 18 June over 6,000 pickets were met by a police orgy of violence at Orgreave. Nonetheless, on the day 1,000 South Yorkshire miners took the police completely by surprise and broke into the plant from the back. Astonishingly, NUM officials called for calm from the rest of the mass of pickets and the opportunity to gain the upper hand was lost once more. The dead hand of officialdom had its effect once more as the strike entered its long defensive phase.
The issue of steel also raised a serious tactical question outside the pits for the SWP. The party had one member at the Scunthorpe steelworks, which relied on coke from Orgreave. Initially the SWP member refused to cross the picket line set up by the miners. However, lacking confidence and leadership, the overwhelming majority of steel workers voted to continue working as normal. After some discussion the party directed their lone comrade to abide by the majority decision, but continue arguing for and organising solidarity. The NUM pickets endorsed this position. The SWP steel worker blew the whistle on the increased output of steel, which finally tipped the balance in favour of those rank and file miners arguing for a showdown at the Orgreave plant.
In 1972 it had taken strike action by Birmingham engineering workers who then joined the 3,000 miners picketing Saltley Gate, finally to shut the plant and defeat the government. Neither the Yorkshire NUM nor the Sheffield Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) remotely considered that scenario 12 years later, even though the Communist Party was the dominant force within the AUEW. Arthur Scargill, a key rank and file militant figure in 1972, was unable to deliver a campaign around Sheffield and Rotherham over the heads of the local NUM officials. The Sheffield SWP did attempt to organise delegation work around local factories, but it was brief and ran out of steam very quickly. Local NUM officials lacked conviction in the idea and even the party miners found it difficult to persuade others to join in. As Harman noted:
Two things stand out about the solidarity shown with the miners during the 12 months of the strike: the fact that everywhere there was a powerful minority of workers who identified very strongly with the miners’ case, and the fact that in very few instances did this minority win the majority of their fellow workers to take industrial action in support of the miners.15
A new stage
It took a while before the party realised the changed circumstances in the wake of the defeat at Orgreave. While the party was still agitating around offensive demands for more picketing and shutting down steel, other sections of the labour movement were beginning to deliver food parcels to the pit communities. This led to a debate among party members, centred on a cartoon that appeared in the 21 July edition of Socialist Worker, of a picket throwing a tin of beans at a police officer.16 The debate hid the real underlying issue—that of the actual state of the strike and the need for a tactical shift by the SWP.
Tony Cliff over the years had always stressed: “First on the battlefield, last to leave it.” Now collecting money for aggressive picketing, favoured by many party members and the more militant miners, seemed a more radical action than supplying food and other essentials. The heated arguments were not limited to the party membership. Some of the best activists had difficulty facing up to the new reality.
The transformation of the fight from an offensive one to one of attrition would always be difficult and the realisation that the pendulum was swinging in favour of the Tories proved to be a bitter pill to swallow. After all, the victories of the miners in the early 1970s had lifted their status within the whole of the working class. If the party was to measure up as a force to be taken seriously, it would have to overcome the mood of disappointment. It wasn’t easy.
There is a big difference between recognition of changed circumstances and the need to make speedy tactical turns while in the heat of battle. On the one hand senior Coal Board figures and ministers clearly vacillated over the failure of their expectations that the strike would collapse. On the other hand, the miners faced the machinations of the right wing inside the NUM bureaucracy and the reluctance of the wider trade union leadership to deliver meaningful solidarity. This created significant difficulties for the party leadership. The thrust of Socialist Worker throughout the summer months was still one of raising offensive demands for strike action from other groups of workers, although the union bureaucracies continued to stymie any attempt by miners to win solidarity action from other groups of workers, including those sections newly radicalised by witnessing the brutal police behaviour towards the miners at Orgreave. As Harman remarked at the November SWP national conference:
In the summer, however, we made a serious mistake… We partially recognised the change in the situation from the offensive to the defensive, by calling for increased collections for miners, for blacking of scab firms, for solidarity resolutions from union branches and stewards committees. But we wasted several important weeks before recognising that in the new situation we had to go out of the way to work with and help organise the active minority through the support committees.17
It is important to learn from mistakes as quickly as possible. Younger members of the SWP needed to learn in practice how revolutionaries could involve other workers in joint struggles and, in the process, draw some of them closer to the party’s ideas.
Nevertheless, the party did understand that delivering sustained solidarity was now indispensable if the miners were to maintain their battle. An urgent circular was sent out to members. It outlined the essential tasks for all members. They included:
- Approaching every workplace and union branch for regular collections and twinning.
- Establishing Miners’ Support Groups in every workplace.
- Mass leafleting of workplaces with factory gate or pub meetings to follow up.
- Getting miners or key union activists to speak at meetings.
Even in the first few weeks of the strike during its offensive period, party members had been hard at work delivering financial support to striking miners. The 7 April 1984 edition of Socialist Worker carried an appeal from a group of union activists, including members of the party:
Eighty NUPE [National Union of Public Employees, later merged into Unison] union members on the boiler section in Camden council received a delegation of Kent miners last week. We agreed to donate £1,000 out of our £1,500 strike fund. The miners’ strike is giving a lead to everyone. We urge other trade unionists to give maximum support by organising delegations, doing collections and supporting picket lines.18
The party had to overcome two tricky problems. Sections of NUM officials politically hostile to the SWP resorted to entirely false allegations that party members were siphoning off money rather than sending the funds to the NUM. Associated with this, NUM officials were demanding that all money went into the bank accounts of the union rather than to local pits. The former was disingenuous to say the least and the government resolved the latter by threatening and later seizing the NUM bank accounts under the anti-union laws.
Another problem had to do with the miners themselves. Most expected the strike to win quickly if all miners respected the strike call. The main slogan, “The miners united will never be defeated”, underlined the prevailing attitude. In the first few weeks it was difficult to get the local pit committees even to accept financial support, never mind go out and campaign for funds.
However, individuals can and do make a difference. At Silverwood pit SWP miners were able to argue for a different strategy. They knew that large workplaces such as Shardlow Engineering, Tinsley Rolling Mills and others were raising financial support. Their arguments were backed up when Mick, a union rep and SWP member from Stocksbridge steelworks, brought a sizable collection down to the welfare club. Attitudes changed rapidly with the first-hand experience of solidarity. Now party miners organised with other miners to go out and campaign. From then on the party network in Manchester and the East Midlands arranged systematic delegation work for the Silverwood miners.
Large local “day of action” demonstrations in a number of localities in May and June demonstrated an upsurge in support for the miners. A growing body of opinion was horrified at the actions of the police and the lengths to which Thatcher would go to destroy the pit communities. Support committees mushroomed everywhere during the summer months. By late summer a proliferation of twinning arrangements took place between individual pits and workplaces, union branches and support groups.
A key watchword of the party is “Every member is a leader.” The relationship between party centre and membership is dialectical; both can and should be learning from each other. Neither should comrades wait for directives from the national organisation. In Sheffield, Laura, an SWP civil servant, was instrumental along with other activists in launching a civil servants miners’ support group relatively early on in the strike. The group twinned with Grimethorpe near Barnsley and was a textbook example of how socialists should deliver solidarity to fighting workers and simultaneously build their own union network and political influence. The group organised:
- Weekly collections inside and outside most civil service workplaces.
- A twinning operation.
- Regular visits to the welfare club.
- Production of a bulletin that they distributed into civil service offices arguing for support for the strike.
- Open meetings with speakers from the pit communities.
- Coordinated joint support when necessary with other trade union activists.
- As the argument developed within the party as to whether the strike remained offensive or defensive, a Sheffield comrade, Ann, who worked at the time in a library, had organised a workplace support group. The group had twinned with Cadeby pit near Doncaster. Ann was also selling six copies of Socialist Worker to her work colleagues and up to 20 at Cadeby. Near the end of a party branch meeting Ann mentioned that the Sheffield Trades Council had arranged for double-decker buses to take around 300 trade unionists into Nottinghamshire with food parcels and other solidarity gifts for the minority of miners and their families on strike.
Most party members had little knowledge of what was taking place in the official trade union movement. This highlighted the danger for a party like the SWP. Becoming entrenched within the confines of ossified official union structures had created political problems in the early 1980s and the party had had to orient its comrades away from those forums. However, the official structures still had the capacity to mobilise many thousands of activists at critical times. The Tory assault on the miners was now one of those occasions.
Ann’s example led to an immediate change in tactics for the Sheffield district and informed the national debate within the party. Now comrades made immediate overtures to other activists, and especially Labour Party members, in the movement. Working class people were rallying even harder to the miners’ struggle. The Guardian newspaper estimated that around
£60 million (£163 million in today’s money) was collected during the strike.
Although the SWP was the first organisation to raise financial support for the miners, the party did not have sole rights over solidarity. In many workplaces and branches members were staggered by the extent of support for the miners from workmates, many of whom they had traditionally regarded as hostile to any idea of strike action. In the miners’ support groups some of the best activists were ordinary Labour Party members who simply defied their own leadership’s hostility to the strike.
Printers closed down the Sun newspaper several times to stop it from spreading its vile lies about the miners. The best example of this was on 16 May, when the Sun tried to print a picture of Scargill with his arm raised under the headline “Mine Führer”. The print workers refused to produce the page. However, most support came in the form of money and food, much of it from working class organisations across London.
Roger Cox, then a rail worker in the capital, summed up the fantastic level of support: “I remember we got about £100 every week from engineers and drivers. A lot of rail workers stopped coal moving too. There was this coal train that was stopped off Acton Lane—it didn’t move for the whole strike”.19
Women enter the battle
The strike was now having an impact inside and outside the mining areas. Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) was launched in May 1984 to defend the miners. In the early weeks of the strike the NCB, with the help of the media, had attempted to instigate a “back to work” movement by using wives and partners hostile to the strike. WAPC stopped them in their tracks. Many other women in WAPC did not have any mining connections, but still felt strongly enough about the strike to give their active support.
A multitude of local support groups were now launched, with many SWP women actively involved. Some 5,000 women assembled at a rally in Barnsley at the end of May. A conference in June followed and then a large protest march in London in August which attracted tens of thousands of working class women from all parts of the country. As the hardship bit deeper, the women’s resolve became stronger. They began to march with the men and attend rallies and meetings, learning all the time. Women, many of whom had not been involved in politics before the strike, emerged as some of the most gifted orators and organisers.
Miners’ wives were now centrally involved in sustaining the strike. Joyce Sheppard recalled in the strike’s 20th anniversary special edition of Socialist Worker:
I really wanted to get involved. I hated Thatcher and the Tories with a vengeance and I still do… During the strike I went to places I had never been before. I went to York collecting for the strike… Some of the women just wanted to stick to doing the kitchen stuff. But we wanted to go picketing.20
Whereas by the end of May striking miners had been prevented from gaining access to Nottinghamshire by police blockades, Joyce and others overcame those same roadblocks to picket Calverton colliery. However, 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, preventing miners in outlying areas from getting isolated from the strike and falling under the influence of “return to work” movements.
There was change all about. People were changing. In the strength of their collective action, they felt a new confidence in themselves and the people around them. Old ideas and prejudices were transformed. Suddenly, in the most unlikely areas, the ideas of women’s liberation became reality. Women suddenly ran whole communities. The strongest, most energetic and most forceful of the support groups were made up, almost exclusively, of women. This led to new relationships in the community and in the home. The kitchens became a hive of activity for cooking and eating, but also for discussing what was necessary for the strike. Marie Collins recalled:
For the first time the women had some control over their own lives. They weren’t just appendages of men—their views mattered. You could see women’s confidence growing. They began to challenge the men, to go picketing themselves… I went on speaking tours around Kent and Scotland and even Germany.21
Racist attitudes among some miners began to break down as they fanned out on delegation work. As Rob from South London remarked:
I remember taking delegations of miners around workplaces in Brixton, not least the mainly black, manual council depot, where hundreds of pounds were raised in one collection. I remember one miner turning to me and saying: “Rob, when we heard we were going to Brixton our hearts sank; we had the picture of the riots of 1981 and thought it would be really heavy. We’ve been brainwashed by the media too. They faced the police just like we did. We’re just like them”.22
The strike changed attitudes sharply towards gay people. Lesbian and gay workers had come together with miners against Thatcher. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) fundraised in gay pubs and clubs. The experience broke down massive amounts of homophobic prejudice in the coalfields and increased understanding of the miners’ struggle in the gay community. Miners returned the solidarity by marching with their union banners on the 1985 Lesbian and Gay Pride demonstration in London.
Thatcher stares into the abyss
As long as the miners were fighting, the tide could still be turned. There was always a possibility that the government could miscalculate. In July they did just that, provoking a national dock strike. Moreover, it happened just as Marxism 84, the SWP’s week-long festival, was in full swing in London. As part of the festival, people listened to SWP speakers, miners and women from the pit communities thrash out the lessons of the strike, and explain how solidarity was vital if they were to win. Within hours thousands of dockers were out on strike.
Even though Marxism is an important event in extending the size of the SWP, intervening in the class struggle was absolutely critical for the party’s tradition. The atmosphere at Marxism was giving way to one of excitement at the prospect of two big groups of workers fighting together against Thatcher. By the Tuesday evening all the SWP miners and many comrades from areas that had docks or pits were asked to leave the event and build on the possibilities for a generalised struggle. By Wednesday evening all comrades from affected areas had left London. It was the right thing to do even if in the end we were not able to overcome the sell-out by the TGWU (Transport and General Workers’ Union) officials.
The dockers’ strike could have been decisive in defeating the Tories. However, TGWU officials threw the opportunity away. When dockers at the registered and unregistered ports struck across Britain, the Tories tottered on the brink. The recently released cabinet papers exposed the panic as Tory ministers “stared into the abyss” and glimpsed the possibility of defeat.
The critical battle was the port of Dover. Dockers there were out, but the Dock Labour Scheme did not cover them.23 TGWU leaders could have called for the scheme to be extended to all dockers. However, they refused. Instead they called the strike off after ten days in a messy compromise. The outcome was by no means certain at the beginning; it was possible that rank and file dockers would take inspiration from the miners and join with them in defeating Tory plans.
Added to this, the Liverpool Labour left controlled council had the opportunity to open up a second front against the Tories over rate-capping.24 The council had mobilised thousands of workers from the community to resist the Tory plans. Unfortunately, the Liverpool councillors accepted a Tory bribe of extra money rather than stand united with the miners to defeat Thatcher. After the strike all Labour councils caved in over rate-capping.
The government now sniffed the weakness of the trade union and Labour bureaucracies. The pendulum swung in favour of the Tories with a vengeance. The government and the Coal Board sensed they could prepare the ground for an assault on the main strongholds of the strike. It would be challenging for any organisation to understand quickly the grim significance for the miners of the failure of the TGWU leadership to lead a fight over the docks, and the collapse of the Labour councils resistance to the Tory rate-capping plans. So it proved for the SWP.
Fighting for survival
Over the first months of the strike the Coal Board and the Tories’ strategy rested on trying to separate the passive majority of strikers from the active minority. They used two main weapons to do so: by attempting to exploit the financial hardship many miners and their families were facing and by mounting a massive policing operation. By the autumn over 7,000 miners had been arrested for picketing offences and given draconian bail conditions, including facing prison if they went anywhere near NCB property.
A few weeks after the betrayal of the dockers, the Tories and the NCB prepared the ground for an assault on the heartlands of the strike. Up until then the Coal Board had concentrated their efforts on trying to break the strike in the weaker areas. They saw pits like Shirebrook in Derbyshire, Manton, Shireoaks and Denby Grange in the Yorkshire coalfield and Bilston Glen in Scotland as vital bridgeheads into the heartlands of the strike.
In early August key areas came under sustained assault by the police. They surrounded local communities such as Easington in Durham, Rossington, Armthorpe and Fitzwilliam in Yorkshire, as well as re-inforcing the numbers of police stationed outside other pits. Tory friends in the media systematically carried newspaper articles inciting miners to scab and spread smears and misinformation about the miners and their left wing union leadership. They were creating the conditions for scabbing operations around the stronger pits.
The third week of August is indelibly burnt into the minds of Yorkshire miners. It was the week the Coal Board and police fired their first salvo in an effort to initiate a “return to work” for scabs at pit strongholds. Although it was a failure measured by the tiny number of scabs, the NCB had compelled a further tactical retreat on the strike’s militant minority. As Ian from Silverwood remarked, “The Coal Board threw us onto the back foot; they forced our attention away from winning support from other trade unionists to worrying about our own pit”.25 The Coal Board and police would intensify their actions over the coming months.
It took a while before the party understood the full implications of the new situation. In the heat of battle, it is always a challenge for revolutionaries to correctly gauge the impact of any change in the character of the battle correctly and to draw the necessary conclusions for party agitation, propaganda and action. For any revolutionary organisation, it is not enough to proclaim leadership of the workers’ movement; a party has to earn the right to be taken seriously.
For the SWP, it meant sober discussion with its miners as to how to counteract the Coal Board strategy. Alex Callinicos from the CC led off a discussion at a national meeting of SWP miners in early September. Callinicos stressed how the defeat at Orgreave had become a significant turning point. He argued against the focus remaining on steel, stating, “The talk about picketing steel in this situation is abstract…now we must become those who have a clear strategy for beating the scabbing”.26
SWP miners at Silverwood became the example for others to follow. Together with those sympathetic to the party they organised extensive leafleting and car convoys with megaphones to tour the surrounding estates. Eleven miners managed to visit and talk to 800 strikers in just five days. Every house received a leaflet on the state of the strike but, more importantly, those miners were able to discover what was necessary to keep miners solid to the strike. It was not only food that was needed to sustain families. Donations of items such as nappies and toys for young children were able to stop some miners being forced back to work. Silverwood had few scabs breaking the strike by the early days of 1985.
By the end of October, with the failure of the NACODS leadership to call a strike, it was apparent that the very survival of the NUM was at stake. The state apparatus, the police, the law, the judges, the civil service and the media bore down on the striking miners. At the end of September the High Court ruled that the strikes in Yorkshire and North Derbyshire were unlawful. During October the judiciary imposed hefty fines on the NUM, and by the end of the month all the union’s assets had been seized.
No matter how limited the influence of the SWP, the party attempted to arm activists with the tactics that could hold the strike together through the winter months. In November the party issued a call to all its members to redouble their efforts to extend miners’ support groups and, by the end of November, had rushed out a pamphlet, How to Turn the Tide.27 The pamphlet contained six sections:
- Fighting for survival.
- The truth about the “return to work”.
- Finance and force—the Coal Board’s strategy.
- Kinnock and Willis28—what are they playing at?
- Problems of leadership 1) national 2) local.
- The key steps to victory.
- The pamphlet began: “The miners’ strike is at a turning point. It can still go forward to victory. But there is also the grave danger of defeat”.29 The authors, echoing the statements made by Scargill and the NUM, demolished the Coal Board’s claims that the strike was collapsing. Over 144,000 miners were still on strike after nine months. In the final section the authors highlighted what needed to be done:
- Take urgent steps to overcome the isolation of many of the strikers.
- Get those sitting at home actively involved in doing something, however minimal.
- Go to local workplaces to build the collections needed to finance the food kitchens.
- Establish personal contact through twinning.
- The pamphlet also raised the need for further mass picketing at pits where the danger of extensive scabbing existed. Hundreds of copies of the pamphlet were sold and circulated through the coalfields. Against all odds, the strike held together. Secret Central Electricity Generating Board statistics in the possession of Socialist Worker highlighted the growing danger for the government if the strike continued without further haemorrhaging and if the government could not move coal stocks around the country.30
The need for a united support movement was now critical. The 20 October edition of Socialist Worker carried an open letter signed by then editor Chris Harman appealing to the editorial boards of Labour left organisations Tribune, Militant and Labour Herald and the Labour Co-ordinating Committee to come together in a joint campaign to raise solidarity for the miners.31 A national miners’ support conference was organised for early December which brought hundreds of activists together. As Christmas approached, trade unionists, students and supporters from every town and city flocked into the coalfield bringing with them money, food, clothing and gifts. That vital support enabled the strike to hold until the end of the year.
A fine balance
By January 1985 it was becoming clear that the strike was in serious trouble. The drift back to work was now accelerating. Sections of the NUM bureaucracy were conspiring to isolate Scargill and end the strike. However, tens of thousands of miners and their families refused to bow down. This presented major challenges for the SWP. Every member was intrinsically intertwined with the strike. The main issue was one of how to argue that the strike was in trouble and yet still stand alongside those miners refusing to be crushed.
Two big meetings organised by the SWP highlighted the immense task the party faced. Some 300 miners and their supporters packed the first in Rotherham Arts Centre to listen to Paul Foot and Sheila McGregor, while a similar number attended a rally at the Bentley Miners Welfare a week later to hear Paul Foot and Tony Cliff. At Rotherham the emphasis was placed on the need to face the reality of defeat, while the Bentley meeting emphasised fighting trench by trench, pit by pit, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
Both meetings reflected the challenge for every miner and their supporters—how to face up to the expected defeat without capitulating totally. The terms on which such an important and historic battle would end would always place immense pressures on the party as well as the most militant sections of the NUM. Having to face the stark reality of the strike crumbling and yet recognise that many miners and women wanted to fight on, the party needed to get the political balance right.
An NUM special conference voted narrowly on 3 March 1985 to go back to work, even though no agreement had been reached with the Coal Board. For thousands of miners it was a bitter pill to swallow. At every pit the miners marched back to work together behind their lodge banners. Nonetheless, the NUM was now badly wounded.
The party now needed to draw out the significance of a Tory victory and its likely impact on the working class movement. The strike had confirmed all the key elements of the “downturn”. Duncan Hallas from the CC outlined the new perspective for the party membership.32 It involved a systematic campaign inside every trade union branch, shop stewards committee and trades council, alongside other trade union activists and Labour Party members, to hold trade union organisation together in the aftermath of the miners’ defeat. As well as confronting the crisis of organisation and confidence, the party needed to address the crisis of leadership within the working class. The trade union bureaucracy and the Labour Party had failed the test abysmally. The need for a network of revolutionary militants rooted in the working class, of which miners would be an important part, was now of paramount importance. The struggle for a better world would continue, so the party published a Socialist Worker pamphlet aimed at recruiting miners to the party. Within weeks the party had members in more than 40 pits; a figure that could have made a significant difference in the direction of the strike if that had been the number of members in the pits at the outset.
For 12 months the British state had attempted to crush the miners. The confrontation revealed the lengths the ruling class would go to in order to defend its interests. The Tories spent £6 billion to defeat the NUM. The full might of the police, MI5 and even the CIA was mobilised against the miners. Paul Symonds, an SWP miner at Frickley, expressed the feeling of many towards the Tories, media and police: “One lesson is this: they were much better organised than we were. Don’t trust them is the lesson. Don’t trust anything that they say”.33
Individuals outside the mining communities who had worked alongside SWP members now joined the organisation. Many regular readers of Socialist Worker drew the conclusion that socialists needed to be organised if they were to be effective. The strike had demonstrated the need to be symmetrical to the state. Together a network of political militants could be enough to make the difference in terms of offering an alternative leadership to that of the labour bureaucracy. In the immediate aftermath of the strike the party grew significantly with new recruits including women and black workers. Over the next few years the party trained a new cadre inside the pits, able to act as political militants by selling Socialist Worker and taking up the wider political questions inside the working class.
Thatcher’s victory over the miners gave an enormous fillip to ruling class confidence. However, back at work the miners conducted guerrilla warfare. There were many local pit stoppages in opposition to provocative actions by local managers. One stood out as a potential marker for the future. At the end of the strike the core of Doncaster communities remained unbroken. By 1987 the party had a substantial political base at Frickley colliery. Miners there went on strike over the suspension of three colleagues. The dispute quickly spread across the whole of South Yorkshire, picketing out 14,000 miners at 16 pits. It worked well until the Area NUM said no to the strike because they wanted a ballot. It demonstrated the resistance miners could still mount and the Tories hated it.
In 1990 the British state initiated a smear campaign against Scargill. According to Seamus Milne, the attack: “was the product of the single most ambitious ‘counter-subversion’ operation ever mounted in Britain”.34 Robert Maxwell’s Daily Mirror and Central Television’s Cook Report led the attack. Both alleged that Scargill had used Libyan hardship funds to pay off his mortgage during the year-long strike. Over the following six months the rest of the media, politicians of the right and many on the left joined the bandwagon to discredit Scargill, but more importantly, to destroy the notion of class-struggle trade unionism. Kim Howells, a one-time member of the CP and NUM official and now a Labour MP, demanded the fraud squad investigate the union.
For all its political differences with Scargill, the SWP stood alongside him in combating the allegations. Every other group on the left said it was down to Scargill to prove his innocence, but the front page of Socialist Worker declared: “Don’t let Them Get Scargill”. The newspaper opened its pages to Scargill to refute the charges one by one.35 The party also responded quickly, by producing a Socialist Worker special which systematically discredited all the accusations.
SWP members were central to the launching of an open letter to all trade unionists: “Defend Scargill—Defend the NUM”. Hundreds of union reps added their names and defence rallies and meetings were organised. In Sheffield 700 people turned out to hear Scargill, Dennis Skinner MP and SWP member Paul Foot at a rally. The campaign finally succeeded in exposing the smears as outright lies spawned by the intelligence services. As Mike Simons, a journalist on Socialist Worker, wrote:
Everything we published in the special edition of Socialist Worker we produced has held up, while everything the Mirror wrote has been proven to be a tissue of lies. The labour movement should learn the lessons, that you have to stand up for those who stand up for the working class. It is all about class solidarity.36
The failure of Thatcher to break the NUM, and the revelations of a dirty tricks campaign now provoked widespread anger towards the Tories when they announced further pit closures in 1992. A mid-week protest initiated by the NUM attracted 150,000 made up of large groups of workers including postal workers, firefighters, rail workers and council workers. Over 400,000 supported a call by the TUC to demonstrate the following week. The SWP and others called for a general strike—a realistic demand given the mood in the country. The Tories were in deep trouble. A class-wide response could have sunk the government. However, trade union officialdom and the Labour leadership failed the miners again. The NUM as a union was now finally broken.
In the 30 years since the strike most working class resistance to attacks from the employers has been confined to limited forms of action. It is hard in recent experience for many young activists to understand the power that workers possess. The crises inherent in the capitalist system will always force working class people to make a choice between capitulation and defiance. The miners’ strike may have ended in defeat, but the battle politicised wide layers of the class. Revolutionaries were able to win the case for revolutionary organisation among an important number of activists, only because the SWP was able to pass the test of a sustained struggle, including the ability to reflect and learn from mistakes and shift quickly in difficult circumstances.
Every socialist can use this year to celebrate an important chapter in the history of working class struggle, but at the same time draw inspiration from the capacity of workers to resist. The festivities that will mark the anniversary of the strike underline the continuing hatred towards the Tories and their class. Leon Trotsky wrote: “To direct all our energies into a collective struggle against this system—that is the direction in which the burning desire for revenge can find its highest moral satisfaction”.37
However, to prepare for future battles ahead, we need to draw on the lesson that the strike revealed to thousands of activists, the complete ineptitude of the Labour Party and trade union officialdom. We need to forge a new leadership that relies on the idea first formulated by Karl Marx that only workers can liberate themselves, and in the process overcome the crisis of confidence and rebuild workers’ organisation. The actions of organised socialists do make a difference.
A key lesson from the battle is that organised socialists need to be more numerous than they were then, and with real influence within the working class. That will require a revolutionary party interacting with those fighting the system, developing collective organisation. But importantly, it will inevitably lead to critical debates and arguments on how we can overcome and successfully challenge the strategies and tactics of the ruling class.
1: Cliff, 1984, p10.
2: Moore, 2013, p232.
3: The party had launched both magazines in the mid-1970s as a means of relating its ideas to women and black workers.
4: The Ridley Plan, named after Tory MP Nicholas Ridley.
5: See Callinicos and Simons, 1985, chapters 1 and 3.
6: Harman, 1984a.
7: Party Notes, March 1984.
8: Personal communication, November 2013.
9: See Cliff and Gluckstein, 1986, pp21-35, and Ralph Darlington’s article in this issue for a fuller explanation.
10: For detailed analysis, see Robertson, 2010.
11: Harman, 1984b.
12: Militant was a Trotskyist grouping within the Labour Party.
13: Email to author, January 2014.
14: Harman, 1985a, p12.
15: Harman, 1985b, p108.
16: Socialist Worker, 21 July 1984, p2.
17: Harman, 1984d.
18: Socialist Worker, 7 April 1984, p7.
19: Socialist Worker special, 6 March 2004, p5.
20: Socialist Worker special, 6 March 2004, p8.
21: Socialist Worker special, 6 March 2004, p8.
22: Personal communication, January 2014.
23: The Dock Labour Scheme protected dockers’ jobs and working conditions.
24: The Tory agenda for cutting services by tightening the amount of money councils would receive from government.
25: Personal conversation, February 2014.
26: Socialist Worker, 15 September 1984, p4.
27: Harman and Simons, 1984.
28: Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party, and Norman Willis, general secretary of the TUC in 1984.
29: Harman and Simons, 1984, p3.
30: Socialist Worker, 10 November 1984, p3.
31: Harman, 1984c, p10.
32: Hallas, 1985, p10.
33: Mason, 2014.
34: Milne, 2004, p5.
35: Socialist Worker, 28 July 1990.
36: Socialist Worker, 8 June 2002, p8.
37: Trotsky, 1911.
Callinicos, Alex, and Mike Simons, 1985, The Great Strike: The Miners’ Strike of 1984–5 and Its Lessons, (Socialist Worker).
Cliff, Tony, 1984, “Neither Side has Broken Through”, Socialist Worker (14 April).
Cliff, Tony, and Donny Gluckstein, 1986, Marxism and Trade Union Struggle: The General Strike of 1926 (Bookmarks).
Darlington, Ralph, 2014, “The Rank and File and the Trade Union Bureaucracy”, International Socialism 142 (spring).
Hallas, Duncan, 1985, “Which Way Now for Socialists?” Socialist Worker (2 February).
Harman, Chris, 1984a, “The Balance of Class Forces”, Socialist Review (February),
Harman, Chris, 1984b, “Class Struggle Hots up”, Socialist Review (May), www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1984/05/struggle.htm
Harman, Chris, 1984c, “Lets Build United Support”, Socialist Worker (20 October).
Harman, Chris, 1984d, “Socialist Workers Party Conference: a New Stage in the Class Struggle”, Socialist Worker (3 November).
Harman, Chris, 1985a, The Miners’ Strike and the Struggle for Socialism (Socialist Worker).
Harman, Chris, 1985b, “The Class Struggle and the Miners’ Strike of 1984”, International Socialism 29 (summer).
Harman, Chris, and Mike Simons, 1984, How to Turn the Tide (Socialist Worker).
Mason, Paul, 2014, “Thatcher vs the Miners: Official Papers Confirm the Strikers’ Worst Suspicions” (3 January), http://blogs.channel4.com/paul-mason-blog/thatcher-miners-official-papers-confirm-strikers-worst-suspicions/265
Milne, Seamus, 2004, The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners (Verso).
Moore, Charles, 2013, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume One: Not For Turning (Penguin).
Robertson, Jack, 2010, “25 Years after the Miners’ Strike”, International Socialism 126 (spring) www.isj.org.uk/?id=640
Trotsky, Leon, 1911, Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism,www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1911/11/tia09.htm