The Miners’ Strike
Twenty years ago this month began one of the most disastrous strikes in the history of the working class in Britain. Not only were the aims of the strike not achieved but the strikers’ union was split and reduced to an ineffective rump. It wasn’t even a case of living to fight another day.
It used to be said that workers can learn as much from an unsuccessful strike as from a successful one. So what, then, were the main lessons of the 1984/5 miners’ strike?
That in the end the logic of capitalism will always win out. The declared aim of the strike was to keep open pits which by capitalism’s standards were “uneconomic”, i.e. were not making the going rate of profit (some were not actually unprofitable in the sense of not making a profit, but the profit wasn’t big enough compared with what could have been obtained if the capital had been invested elsewhere). A government can keep an “uneconomic” activity going for strategic reasons that benefit the capitalist class as a whole, such as security of supply, and the coal industry had in fact been maintained at previous levels for this reason while coal was a strategic home energy source for electricity stations to power industry. But, by the 1980s, North Sea oil and gas was being developed as an alternative and cheaper home source of energy and the government had decided that the time had come to stop subsidising the coal industry. In the absence of strategic security-of-supply considerations, no government can afford to tax the capitalist class to pay keep unprofitable production units open, but will be obliged by international competitive pressures to apply the capitalist rule of “no profit, no production” and close them down.
That no strike can stop a government determined to have its way. Both sides the government and the NUM leadership were aware that the issue of keeping the pits open was going to be a trial of strength. We now know that the government had planned for the show-down well before it occurred, so that it took place on their terms and at a time convenient to them. It was no co-incidence that the government, via the notorious hatchet-man MacGregor they had appointed to run the NCB, provoked the strike at the end of winter when stockpiles had been built up and when the demand for coal would be less.
The NUM leadership openly declared that the aim of the strike was to try to force the government to change its policy (to in effect continue subsidising the coal industry). The NUM President, Arthur Scargill, even unwisely suggested that the aim was to bring about a change of government (as if a Labour government would have behaved any differently, in fact had behaved any differently in the mid-60s when they closed more pits than Thatcher and MacGregor were planning). This provided the government with a weapon to use in the propaganda war to win popular support.
But the government had other weapons in its arsenal, particularly its control of the police force, which was used to contain and ultimately break the strike. Once they had realised that the government was not going to change its mind, the best thing for the NUM to have done would have been to taken the government’s superior strength into account and settle on the best terms possible in the circumstances , such as big redundancy payments and perhaps keeping open some of the pits that were making some profit even if less than the going rate.
This would not have been cowardice or betrayal, but a recognition of the harsh fact that under capitalism the workers are a subordinate class with only limited powers to affect the course of events, certainly far less than those of governments, an unequal distribution of power that is at the very basis of capitalism. Trade union activity, including strikes, is necessary as long as capitalism lasts but it can’t work wonders. Strikes are essentially a trial of strength, testing the situation; once it has become clear what the respective strengths of the two sides are as can happen fairly rapidly, though not always then both sides know where they stand and a settlement can be negated on that basis. Once it had become clear in the miners’ strike that the government was not going to concede and was in fact in the far stronger position, there was no point in going on with the strike.
Don’t follow leaders
The leadership of the NUM, and in particular Scargill (a former member of the Communist Party who had only left it because they backed someone else rather than him in an election for a union post) and the Vice-President, Mick McGahey (a member of the Communist Party), held the view that union activity consisted in an active minority “giving a lead” to the normally passive majority in the expectation that they would follow.
In other words, they didn’t trust the membership. This led to another grave mistake in the NUM’s strategy: the refusal to hold a ballot before launching the strike. This was doubly stupid. First, because it provided the government with another propaganda weapon. Second, because a ballot would probably have given a majority for a strike anyway. But consulting the membership and allowing them to have the final say as to whether or not to launch it was not part of the mindset of Scargill and the others: they were leaders and they were going to lead. Ultimately, they led the miners to unnecessary hardship and disaster in a strike that went on for much longer than it need have done.
Calling a national strike without a national strike ballot was contrary to the NUM’s rules. It was therefore at least understandable that some miners and union officials should not feel bound by an unconstitutional decision. Thus in Nottingham the majority of miners continued working. The Scargill leadership’s response was to sent in pickets to, if it came to it, try to coerce the Nottingham miners into striking. Of course to have any chance of being effective a strike has to be a solid as possible, but coercing workers who could argue a democratic case for not striking at that moment was bound to be counter-productive. Maybe the leaders of the Nottingham miners weren’t being sincere and were just using the lack of a ballot as a pretext (most Nottingham pits were profitable), but Scargill’s tactics here ultimately led to the break-up of the NUM.
Socialists, as class-conscious workers ourselves, are on the side of our fellow workers involved in industrial disputes with employers, but this does not mean that this is unconditional. Strikes should not be aimed at other groups of workers and should always be run democratically with control remaining in the hands of those making the sacrifice of going on strike; paid union officials should be their servants not their masters or leaders. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all decisions have to be taken by secret ballot; decisions could also be taken by democratically-mandated delegates. But whatever the decision-making procedure adopted it should be democratic.
Were these lessons learned? Not by Scargill for one, who went on to set up his own party the SLP with the same leadership-based policies and tactics as the former Communist Party. Many miners, and others too, did, however, learn the hard way that the government is a class government, or, as Marx and Engels put it, “the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, and that the function of the police is not to give traffic directions or help old ladies across the road but to enforce the will of the government.
But few drew the conclusion that, if the exploitation and oppression of the working class is to be ended, we need to win control of the machinery of government so as to at least ensure that it is not used against us. In other words, the way forward lies in political action. Industrial action, though necessary from time to time, is essentially only defensive and has severe limitations due to the subordinate position of workers under capitalism. What is needed is political action to usher in a classless society of common ownership and democratic control where production will be for use and not for profit.
The Socialist Party’s analysis of the miners’ strike The Strike Weapon: Lessons of the Miners’ Strike, published in 1985 can be downloaded here from the internet .