Understanding the miners’ strike

The great miners’ strike of 1984-85 changed the political landscape in Britain, and its defeat had a devastating effect on the coalfield areas and the generations who grew up afterwards. But, as DAVE GORTON argues, those seeking answers from Robert Gildea’s new book as to why it was defeated will be very much disappointed.

Backbone of the Nation: Mining Communities and the Great Strike of 1984-85

By Robert Gildea

Published by Yale University Press, 2023, £25

The 1984-85 miners’ strike was a political watershed in twentieth century Britain. Not for nothing was the Socialist Party’s book on the strike, written on the twentieth anniversary by Ken Smith, called A Civil War Without Guns. The strike was deliberately instigated by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government as a way of breaking the strength of the trade union movement.

Just a few years previously, the mass strike wave against the then Labour government’s attempt to hold down wages way below inflation – with the agreement of union leaders – had shaken capitalism to its bones. Culminating in the Winter of Discontent of 1978-79, ordinary workers had fought tooth and nail for their own livelihoods, and in so doing had signalled the end of the Labour government, which had sought to do the ruling class’s dirty work for them.

The blame for the resulting election of Thatcher’s Tory government was wholly on the shoulders of the majority of the trade union leaders, although they tried to shift it onto ‘militants’ in the unions. The right-wing leaders demonstrated very clearly that – like the ruling class – their view was ‘never again’.

Ironically, the target of Thatcher and the Tories – the miners – didn’t play a crucial role in the strike action at the end of the 1970s. There was some leftover business for many Tories seeking revenge for the miners bringing down Ted Heath’s Conservative administration in 1974. But, in reality, targeting the miners and their union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), was not just about payback for one occasion. Curbing the potential power of the trade unions, amongst which the NUM was considered a ‘big-battalion’, was part of a much more orchestrated plan – ‘launched’ in the US under Ronald Reagan and in Britain under Thatcher – to restore profitability to capitalism through increased exploitation of the working-class following the end of the post-war boom.

The first of the Tory anti-union laws led to a new layer of right-wing union general secretaries, now being elected by individual secret ballot in homes, rather than after discussion in the workplaces. In reality, they were being elected by the right-wing press, whose representatives spent thousands of words seeking – and often succeeding – in galvanising votes against the left. Although one failure of the gutter press was the NUM’s Peter Heathfield, who beat off a right-wing challenge and took up office as the union’s general secretary just five days before the start of the strike.

Preparing to take on the miners

The Tories had already seen off the steel workers who had entered a bitter dispute at the beginning of 1980. Nominally about pay, it was really about jobs and the future of the nationalised steel industry. The right-wing leaders of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC) however proved both unwilling to and incapable of calling for solidarity action from other sections of the union movement. Within months of the settlement that ended the strike, the future of the publicly owned British Steel Corporation was in doubt. Thousands of job losses and production moved overseas pre-empting full privatisation in 1988.

But Thatcher wasn’t quite ready to take on the miners. In February 1981, she backed down from a major confrontation by withdrawing plans to close 23 pits, and invested a further £300 million into the industry. The deal, though, was not unanimously welcomed. The NUM national executive only voted by 15 to 8 to accept it, recognising it was just storing up further trouble for the future. As Militant (the predecessor of the Socialist Party) warned at the time, humiliating climbdown it might be, but it was only a temporary, tactical retreat. The miners were certainly not “cock-a-hoop” as claimed by Robert Gildea.

But the ‘peace’ lasted for three further years, although miners and many other workers had taken solidarity strike action alongside nurses and other NHS workers in the 1982 dispute, which even garnered support and threats of ‘secondary action’ from some of the new right-wing union leaders. Thatcher was not going to open a second front just yet. Indeed, as part of the original, secret plan to defeat the NUM, the Tories were also ensuring coal stocks were at the highest possible point before provoking a strike. They knew the dispute would be long, drawn out, and ‘dirty’. Coal stocks standing at 37.7 million tonnes in 1980 had grown to 58 million tonnes by 1983.

Ignoring the strike’s politics

The background to any dispute, and certainly one as long and historically important as the miners’ strike, is crucial to be able to understand the tactics of the ruling class and the responses of workers and their elected leaders. But it is almost skipped over in Backbone of the Nation, whose author then compounds the error by making virtually no mention of the scurrilous actions of some union leaders and the complete abandonment of the struggle by the Labour Party leadership.

It is almost inconceivable that a book documenting any aspects of the miners’ strike has no mention in its index of the Labour Party leader at the time, Neil Kinnock; Norman Willis, the Trades Union Congress general secretary during the strike; or such renegade individual union leaders as the electricians’ Eric Hammond or Alistair Graham of the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA) – but you will hunt in vain!

In fact, the index is a good place to start in this book as you try and work out the angle it has been written from and where the author gained his contacts. There is only one mention of the ‘Militant Tendency’ in the book, no reference to the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) who provided solid support throughout the strike, and yet some small left-wing organisations I had forgotten existed crop up many times! Ian Isaac and Phil White, Militant miners in South Wales, get a brief namecheck but as ‘Broad Left miners’.

The author will claim the intention of the book is to concentrate on the effects the strike had on the mining areas both at the time and in the 40 years since, not in covering the wider politics. But, sadly, the book is also extremely lacking on this front.

Even the commentary on the decline of the once vibrant working-class communities in the coalfields underplays the devastating effects of the defeat. Almost without exception, these areas are now low-paid communities, with higher-than-average unemployment and much higher underemployment. They have been riddled with drug epidemics as each successive youth generation has felt itself to be further removed from mainstream society. The book ignores why all of these areas returned very high votes to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, and why many returned Tory MPs at the 2017 and 2019 general elections – unthinkable forty years ago. Thousands in the coalfields and former industrial areas of Britain have been left feeling totally isolated, abandoned to their fate. This was a direct outcome of the defeat of the miners’ strike.

Failing to add any commentary can be dangerous. He quotes an ex-Welsh miner saying “Well it’s not that I’m racist but what I can see of it, to be honest with you, I think I’m wrong religion, wrong-coloured skin. If you’ve just come into the country, they’ll tell you everything you can claim for and they give you advice… They should treat everyone the same”.  Every member of the Socialist Party will have heard ordinary working people say similar things. It is one thing recognising that all such comments don’t originate from paid-up members of fascist organisations – as some on the left believe – but it is entirely different not to challenge them. Failure to do that will indeed push some towards the far right. Maybe Gildea’s failure to comment is that he expects his audience to be the middle-class intelligentsia who will ‘automatically understand’ where he stands. On every page of the book, you would never miscalculate you were reading the writings of a working-class activist rather than an emeritus professor at Oxford University!

Getting it wrong

When Gildea does briefly delve into some of these issues he gets it wrong or – as most of the book is not a commentary but a series of partially linked quotes from individual miners and their wives and families – fails to draw any conclusions. In the introduction, Gildea writes “the organised working class, defeated by Mrs Thatcher, is largely a thing of the past, replaced as it has been by individual workers in the global gig economy”. The book came out in August 2023. You’d have to have been asleep for over a year not to have noticed the global upsurge in organised working-class fightback, especially in Britain. In the year to that same month, almost four million strike days were lost in Britain, the largest number at any time since the 1980s.

To miss the re-emergence of the organised working class is doubly annoying given that so much effort is spent towards the end of the book in not calling the strike a defeat. He quotes former Labour MP Hywel Francis as saying, “it didn’t feel like a defeat because there wasn’t a defeat here”. Conflating the valiant attempts to hold together working-class communities with failing to recognise a strike’s defeat was not confined to Francis.

When Gildea occasionally makes a comment himself it can get embarrassing or even very distasteful. The group that inspired the film Pride, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, and one of its founders, Mark Ashton, gets some mention in the book, and rightly so. Alongside Miners’ Wives Support Groups, they gave unqualified support to the miners’ struggle while, at the same time, challenging the chauvinism and homophobia which was all too prevalent in many working-class communities at the time. How can Gildea then reconcile himself to reporting on a miner’s wife who commenced a lesbian relationship with the words “…but then, it seems, Jayne was visited by the ghost of Mark Ashton”?!

On the book jacket, journalist Paul Mason, who at one stage would have considered himself a Trotskyist, says “I’ve been waiting for the definitive oral history of the miners’ strike. This is it: the voices of people I spent a year fighting alongside condensed and preserved with rigour and accuracy”. No it isn’t! My bookshelves contain several volumes of similar ‘oral histories’ produced not long after the strike ended, all of which are better at dealing with the issues surrounding the strike, from the role of women in the coalfields, to state repression, through the development of a national police force and using the benefits system to break the resolve of strikers. All convey a better class analysis of the miners’ strike itself too.

The strike was a huge defeat. But it didn’t bring to an abrupt end trade union struggle. In the following three years, printers, telecoms and postal workers undertook national strike action with varying degrees of success. But the lack of confidence workers had in their leaders mounting successful defences of their pay and working conditions meant a downturn in struggle was inevitable. Even the nature of capitalism itself that had been laid bare in the mining communities during that year had to be relearnt by successive generations following the huge ideological impact of the collapse of Stalinism just a few years after the strike.

But the tide is turning and the crises in the capitalism system are accelerating the rate at which many sections of the working class are, firstly, questioning both its viability and its usefulness to them and then, secondly, seeking alternatives and their role in bringing change. Polls suggest that vastly increased numbers of younger workers consider themselves to be ‘socialist’ even if they’re not exactly sure what socialism fully means. Many of these workers – in education, Royal Mail, the NHS and transport services – have already participated in strike action and picket lines in the recent period. They will be thirsty for knowledge of previous trade union struggles as they get more involved with their own unions. They won’t sate it however, by reading this poor book.