SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 81 - March 2004

Revisiting the miners’ strike

This month sees the twentieth anniversary of the start of the great miners’ strike of 1984-85. In an abridged version of an article first carried in the summer 1995 edition of Militant International Review, the forerunner of Socialism Today, KEN SMITH looks back at a struggle which still impacts on political, social and economic developments today.

THE GREAT MINERS’ strike of 1984-85 was the most significant post-war industrial dispute, leaving an indelible mark on virtually every subsequent industrial and political development.

The Tories later admitted that it cost nearly £6bn to win the dispute, which they saw as a political attempt to break the power of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). In the ten years following the end of the strike, the continued war against the miners cost a further £26bn in redundancy and benefit payments, keeping pits mothballed and lost revenue from coal.

Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet were desperate for victory and prepared to go to any lengths. For the first time in a post-war national strike the police were openly used as a political weapon. Agents provocateurs and spies were deployed and the state benefits system used to try and starve the miners back. Former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson subsequently admitted that preparations for the strike were, "just like rearming to face the threat of Hitler in the 1930s". Evidence emerged – after the event – about the role of MI5, MI6, the CIA and ultra-right wingers like David Hart and Tim Bell, who advised Thatcher during the dispute.

Yet despite the extraordinary lengths the Tories went to, by October 1984, six months into the strike, the future of Thatcher’s government hung in the balance. The proposed strike by the pit supervisors’ union, NACODS, threatened to close down all working pits in the Midlands – when there were less than six weeks’ coal stocks.

Former chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), Sir Walter Marshall, spelt out what this meant: "Our predictions showed on paper that Scargill would win certainly before Christmas. Margaret Thatcher got very worried about that… I felt she was wobbly and she was actually inclined to bring the troops in to move coal. All my guys [CEGB workers] would have gone on strike immediately". lan MacGregor, the Thatcher-appointed boss of the National Coal Board (NCB), was summoned to Downing Street. He recalls Thatcher’s comments in his memoirs: "I’m very worried about it. You have to realise that the fate of this government is in your hands Mr MacGregor. You have got to solve this problem".

But, scandalously, the NACODS leaders did not implement their 80%-plus mandate for strike action and accepted a revised pit-closure review procedure, which predictably was never implemented. As a result, despite their heroism, the miners were left isolated and returned to work – defeated.

The miners’ defeat, along with the economic upswing of the late 1980s, set in motion a complex and difficult period in Britain which resulted in a massive shift to the right at the top of the labour movement. Labour and trade union leaders meekly accepted anti-union legislation and generally abandoned any pretence of struggle against industrial run-down and privatisation.

The victors of the miners’ dispute and their apologists in the labour movement attempted to portray the strike as a doomed, futile attempt to preserve a dying industry led by a tactically inept Arthur Scargill. Others on the left said that the strike showed that the Tory government and state forces were too strong to be taken on and defeated. But the evidence reveals a different, more complex picture.

Tories prepare for battle

THE MINING INDUSTRY sharply contracted after world war two. From 800-plus pits and 750,000 miners in 1947, the industry had declined to 190 pits and 240,000 miners by 1983. In the 1960s this decline was partly due to the emergence of gas and nuclear power and also the acceptance of pit closures by miners’ leaders. In the boom years many miners were keen to get out of the pits into the ready supply of new jobs then available.

In the early 1970s this began to change. The then Tory prime minister, Ted Heath, took on the miners, but their 1974 victory brought down his government. The Tories, smarting from defeat, carefully planned their revenge with the Ridley Report, prepared by leading Thatcherite Nicholas Ridley, which came to light in The Economist in 1978. The report proposed a shift from dependence on coal, outlined how coal should be stockpiled for a long strike, and how enhanced police powers and anti-union laws should be introduced to shackle the unions – especially the NUM.

Following the defeat of the steelworkers’ strike in 1980, attempts were made to close a number of pits, including Lewis Merthyr pit in South Wales. The South Wales miners immediately walked out and sent flying pickets to other coalfields. Within a day, a national coal strike was threatened, which the Tories would have certainly lost. Thatcher urged caution on her cabinet and the Tories backed down, but over the next three years they built up coal stocks at the pit heads and power stations.

In November 1983, after a secret closure hit-list of 49 pits was leaked, the miners implemented an overtime ban to reduce coal stocks, to make future industrial action more effective. But battle lines were being drawn in a way which indicated that the Tories would move sooner rather than later.

After their re-election in 1983, the Tories believed the balance of forces was moving in their favour. Two NUM ballots for action against pit closures had been defeated and the TUC failed to mount effective resistance to the anti-union laws during the Stockport Messenger dispute at the end of 1983.

This battle between Eddie Shah and the National Graphical Association (NGA) printers’ union occurred at Shah’s Warrington printworks when he introduced new technology. Big business backed Shah’s attempts to break union power and funded his use of the new anti-union laws to take the NGA to court for organising ‘secondary action’. The TUC had previously taken a congress decision to organise general strike action if any union was threatened with sequestration under the Tory laws. But when this first test came the TUC crumbled. This, probably more than anything else, gave the Tories the green light to attack the miners. As it turned out, the single most decisive factor in the miners’ defeat was their complete abandonment by the Labour and TUC leaders, who refused to organise effective solidarity with the NUM.

Another factor, however, was developments within the NUM. Although Arthur Scargill had been elected as NUM president in 1981, two subsequent ballots for industrial action against pit closures had been defeated. It is an irony of history that until March 1993 there had never been a successful NUM ballot for industrial action against pit closures. All successful ballots had been on pay. One reason for this lay in the NUM’s structure, which gave enormous power to area union officials. On issues like pay there was a national agreement, but pit closures affected some areas more than others. In the 1982 strike ballot over threatened Welsh pits, the Yorkshire area, which came out first in 1984, voted against. This caused some confusion and bitterness among South Wales miners at the start of the 1984-85 strike.

lan Isaac, a member of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party), who was lodge (branch) secretary of St John’s NUM and a member of the South Wales NUM executive from 1983-87, has summed up (in an unpublished article) the unpreparedness of some of the left NUM leaders for struggle. lan notes that when the closure of Cortonwood colliery was announced, which sparked the 1984-85 strike, there "was a hesitancy on the part of South Wales miners to be seen yet again as the ones to come out first. They also remembered the lukewarm reception they had the previous year when attempting to convince Yorkshire and other traditionally militant areas to join them on strike against pit closures".

These ballot defeats and lack of action in the previous year caused some left NUM leaders to lack confidence in organising strike action. The South Wales NUM leadership was traditionally one of the most militant. But lan Isaac remembers that at the start of the strike he attended a meeting of the South Wales area executive where he and another left-winger argued, in the light of all pits and surface lodges now respecting picket lines after a shaky start, that "we should hold further mass meetings to vote on supporting those on strike and consolidate the mandate expressed by miners not crossing picket lines. This was argued against by a number of executive members including the president, Emlyn Williams, general secretary George Rees and vice-president Terry Thomas. They argued that it was too risky and what would happen if they voted against again? This was the expression of the kind of confidence that some leaders had in their members and this type of thinking would surface again over the arguments about a national ballot".

Notwithstanding the courage and determination that was shown by the NUM national leaders, Arthur Scargill and general secretary, Peter Heathfield, the beginning of the strike saw them caught off guard. Peter Heathfield had said only a few months before that he didn’t think young miners would strike over pit closures. Many NUM leaders had the perspective of the overtime ban continuing until the winter of 1984 and then taking strike action.

Although both ballots for industrial action against pit closures had been defeated, there had been an increasing vote for action in all areas on the second ballot. Taking all these factors into consideration, the Tories, through their henchman MacGregor, probably thought that the time was right for a pre-emptive strike in March 1984.

There is some dispute among right-wing commentators about whether the Tories wanted the strike or not. Lawson has said that the cabinet did not think that the miners would strike then, given that it was approaching the end of winter and all the contingency plans the Tories had made. However, whether or not the Tories thought the miners would strike in response to their provocative list of pit closures, they obviously felt they were ready to face them down. Thatcher, unlike some of her ministers, had a clear political perspective about the strike and its implications for the ruling class. For her this was an industrial version of the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war which had to be pursued to the bitter end – no matter what the cost.

The ballot issue

THATCHER MADE A political calculation that if the miners could be beaten it would clear the way for further attacks on the working class. Given what was thrown at them, could the miners have won? Right-wing critics, and some on the left, argue that the NUM’s key mistake was not calling a ballot, which allowed the majority of miners in Nottingham and Leicester to continue working. The NUM had a long tradition of democracy and balloting but it was not always the case that ballots were held for industrial action. Particularly on the issue of pit closures, with some areas more affected than others, there was a genuine feeling among many miners that ‘secure’ areas like Nottingham should not be allowed to vote down strike action in other areas like Wales, Scotland and Yorkshire.

Militant maintained a united front with the miners during this period, since the lack of a ballot was being used by the right-wing to undermine the strike. But after the strike we pointed out that, because of the way the issue was used in the movement to cut across the miners’ struggle, a ballot should have been called, especially after the rule change which allowed a 50% majority for strike action (instead of the previous 55%). A ballot then, six weeks into the strike, would have seen a clear national mandate for strike action.

This would have cut across all the arguments of the right wing and the then Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock. It could have cut off the Tory lifeline of coal supplies from the Midlands which was to prove crucial at a later stage of the strike. Despite this, the lack of a ballot did not defeat the miners. The main reason they lost was the role of the Labour and trade union leaders in not organising effective solidarity action – where the lack of a ballot was used as a ‘get-out’ clause.

A mistake was made by the NUM leadership in 1984 in not calling for a one-day general strike when the funds of the South Wales NUM, and later the national NUM, were sequestrated by the courts. This mistake was unfortunately repeated in October 1992 when the call for a 24-hour general strike to support the miners fight against the Major government’s pit closure programme was left too late.

As the strike progressed other issues were raised about the effectiveness of mass picketing and the question of solidarity action being organised from below with other groups of workers. The miners’ strike in 1972 saw the first use of flying pickets and mass pickets. The mass picket at Saltley Gate coke depot in Birmingham, led by Arthur Scargill, was decisive in winning the strike. At that time, the British ruling class was unprepared for such tactics. But by the 1984-85 strike, the bourgeoisie had prepared thoroughly on how to render the mass picketing tactics of the 1970s ineffective through the use of the police.

This was always a risky strategy. The Guardian in January 1995 reported that police officers felt "betrayed by the Thatcher government and badly led by some senior officers during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, according to an official history of the Police Federation". The report goes on to say that "the Federation leaders and probably the great majority of chief officers would have been shocked had they discovered that there had been secret political collusion between MacGregor, Thatcher and others". It points out that the police National Reporting Centre, which co-ordinated police action during the strike, was set up on the instructions of central government and not at senior officers’ request as was claimed at the time.

On organising solidarity action, the incapacity of the union leaders showed the need to build genuine Broad Lefts capable of transforming the unions. Even in the NUM, many of the left leaders, with a few exceptions, were found wanting. Had there been an open rank-and-file based Broad Left in the NUM before the strike started, especially involving people in Nottingham, then many aspects of the strike would have been markedly different and in the miners’ favour.

Building Broad Lefts in the unions, especially the power workers, would have made solidarity action from below – bypassing the obstruction of the national union leaders – much easier to build. This would have had a crucial effect, as was shown in the few cases where it was achieved, in cutting off coal supplies to power stations and steelworks.

Right to fight

HAD THE MINERS won, then the whole course of history would have changed. Thatcher and her government would have resigned and most likely a Labour government would have come to power. The pit-closure plan would have been dropped and, under pressure from a confident working class, even a Kinnock Labour government would have had to carry through some measures in favour of the working class, perhaps being compelled to abolish the Tory anti-union laws. One of the principal reasons for Kinnock’s attacks on the miners was his fear of a rising tide of militancy in the event of a miners’ victory – he didn’t want to see militancy pay.

That is not to say, however, that pessimistic conclusions should be drawn from the events of the strike. The miners’ defeat was undoubtedly a setback for the whole labour movement but the fact that they fought so valiantly and the subsequent historical vindication of their stand shows they were right to struggle in the way they did.

The miners’ strike politicised a generation of young socialists and produced a massive shift to the left in social attitudes, even if this was not immediately reflected in industrial or political struggle. Had the miners not struggled as they did under Arthur Scargill then the Tory pit-closure programme would have proceeded much more speedily and many other anti-working class measures would have been introduced earlier than they were.

But most importantly, the miners’ strike brought out the willingness of working-class people to struggle to change society. New generations will return to the lessons of the strike to ensure they are better equipped to win their own industrial battles and succeed in the socialist struggle to change society.


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