The lessons of the 1984-85 miners' strike

This article was written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the commencement of the 1984/5 miners' strike in the United Kingdom. This ferocious confrontation between the organised working class (led by the National Union of Mineworkers) and Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government was a momentous chapter in the history of the class struggle in Britain. The lessons of the miners' strike – and its defeat – are of great significance to the future of the workers' movement, and deserve thorough study.

Twenty years ago on March 5, 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) embarked upon the most important class struggle in Britain since the general strike of 1926. Over the following twelve months of ferocious battles billions of pounds were spent by the ruling class to crush the miners' militancy. More than ten thousand miners were arrested; two were killed on the picket lines and countless others injured. Decades of so-called consensus were obliterated and the real and ugly face of British capitalism was exposed for all to see. The masks of Democracy and the Law, behind which the ruling class try to conceal the rule of capital, were shattered as the veil of so-called independence of the courts, the police and the media was lifted to show the real role of the state in capitalist society.

The courage and determination of the miners and their families, struggling to defend their communities from an unparalleled assault by the ruling class, should serve as an inspiration to a new generation. The strike is rich in lessons, and we would be doing that heroic struggle no favours if we did not also try to understand the mistakes which played an important role in the dispute as well as drawing inspiration from the colossal resolve and sacrifice of the miners' struggle.

Engels once explained that in some periods twenty years can pass as if they were a single day, whilst, at other times, the experience of twenty years can be concentrated into just 24 hours. Between March 1984 and March 1985 there were 365 such days.

The consequences of the strike - and its eventual defeat - for the miners, the coal mining industry, the labour movement and the working class as a whole make it our duty to study its many lessons. The miners were defeated, but contrary to the twenty years of propaganda which has followed declaring the class struggle to be finished, two decades have passed quietly only on the surface. Beneath, wounds have been healed, a new generation has grown up, new experience has been gained, and capitalism has squeezed and pressed the working class to the limits of its patience. Far from the miners' strike representing the end of class struggle, it provides us with a wealth of lessons to prepare for the new battles which have already begun. Twenty years after the miners' strike of 1984-85 new class battles are today being prepared in Britain.

Bosses "invest" in defeating the miners

When Thatcher's Tory Party came to office in 1979 they were still smarting from their humiliation at the hands of the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974. Ted Heath's government was brought down by the militant action of the miners and the Tories were determined to prevent such a humiliation ever happening again. This fact coloured many aspects of the dispute. Revenge, however, was not the principle cause of this orchestrated attack on the miners and their communities. For the ruling class confronting and defeating the miners, widely seen as the vanguard of militant trade unionism, was the vital prerequisite for an all out assault on the working class as a whole. There was no longer any room for consensus, compromise and concessions. Reforms aimed at placating the working class could no longer be afforded. The answer of the ruling class to the decline of British capital was to restore profitability at the expense of the working class, just as they had done in 1926.

This was never solely an economic question, however. For decades billions had been squandered on nuclear power and on oil demonstrating the anxiety felt by the ruling class at the dependence of the British economy on coal, and the power this bestowed upon militant miners.

In 1926 the miners' struggle had led to the general strike and nine days that shook the very foundations of society. In the 1970s their action brought down a Tory government. The militancy of the miners represented a serious threat to the capitalist system. No strike on its own, not even a general strike can overthrow capitalism. That requires political organisation and action as well as industrial muscle. Nevertheless, throughout their history, every national miners' strike has marked a fundamental turning point in the situation in Britain.

Between 1926 and 1972 there was not one official national miners' strike. Where was the miners' renowned militancy during this period? The lack of such national action provided many academics, some even claiming to be Marxists, with 'proof' that the miners had been 'bought off'. Nationalisation, job guarantees, and higher wages, these ladies and gentlemen argued, would ensure that the miners would never fight again. This most thoroughly un-Marxist assertion demonstrates the danger of being seduced by the surface of events, failing to see the molecular process burrowing away beneath.

In reality, it had taken from 1926 until the second world war for the miners to recover from the mortal blow of the 1926 lock-out. In the period roughly from the end of the war to 1970, following the nationalisation of the pits, all serious disputes were resolved through negotiation at national level. Against the background of the world upswing of capitalism, and the introduction of new technology, mechanisation etc, living standards generally improved. Hundreds of pits were closed but there were no compulsory job losses.

Initially, the nationalisation of the pits by the Labour government in 1947 was greeted with jubilation. Many miners felt the pits now belonged to them. They were soon to discover, however, that the old, hated coalowners had been replaced by boards whose task was to manage coal mining as a 'milch cow' for capitalism, by supplying a cheap source of energy to industry.

Throughout this period there was a consensus approach between the union and the National Coal Board (NCB). Disputes were settled through negotiation and therefore there was no need for national strikes. As a result, the union at the top was in the grip of the right wing, although, given the miners' traditions, there was always a left presence, including one or two Communist Party members, in the leadership.

This consensus, however, was only on the surface. In coal mining especially it is necessary to know what is going on underground. Whilst there were no national strikes, disputes in individual pits and areas between 1947 and 1957 constituted 70 percent of all the industrial action in the country. In these struggles a new generation of militant leaders was born and schooled. Some of these struggles saw more miners on strike than in 1984. This was the case in 1955 and again in 1961.

1970s – miners bring down Tories

In 1969 and 1970 these disputes escalated into serious strikes over hours and wages. In 1956 miners had earned 122 percent of average manufacturing workers' wages, but by 1970 this had fallen to 89 percent. Thus falling living standards and the continuing closure programme combined with a new generation of militant activists to prepare the strikes of 1972 and 1974.

The Tory government of Ted Heath had imposed an incomes policy to limit workers' pay increases, but mounting inflation was eating away at the miners' already low wages. Nearly 60 percent of the NUM voted to strike for a 47 percent pay rise.

The tactic of flying pickets and mass picketing played a decisive role in these disputes, most notably the mass picket at Saltley Gate. Pickets were not needed at the pitheads in 1972 because the strike was rock solid, so the mass pickets concentrated on the power stations. Solidarity action was spreading with other sections of workers taking sympathy action. The Tories, running scared, declared a state of emergency. A major confrontation was prepared at the coke depot of the Saltley gasworks in Birmingham. Engineering workers across the region went on strike to support the miners, and 10,000 of them marched on Saltley Gate to join the 2,000 miners already picketing. With only 1000 police officers in attendance, the authorities had no alternative but to close the gates. The miners, with widespread support, and a solid strike, using the militant tactic of flying pickets, scored a tremendous victory. The 21 percent pay rise they secured was only a part of that victory. So too was the growing confidence of the working class.

Two years later in 1974, the threat of a new miners' strike, forced Heath and the Tories to call a general election – which they lost. The miners had secured an historic industrial and political victory. The ruling class were visibly shaken. Something would need to be done to prevent this ever happening again.

Tories plan revenge

In 1978 future Tory cabinet minister Nicholas Ridley prepared his now infamous report for a confrontation with the miners. Ridley's plans included building up coal stocks and increasing coal imports; recruiting non-union lorry firms for coal transport; transforming power stations to enable them to burn oil; cutting the state benefits available to striking workers; and the creation of a national, almost paramilitary, police force.

In the early Thatcher years, between 1979 and 82, there had already been important disputes at British Leyland, British Steel, in the health service, and on the railways. In fact, the Tories almost provoked the miners prematurely in 1981 when they announced their intention to close 50 pits. The South Wales miners walked out and sent flying pickets to other coalfields. Within days the Energy Secretary David Howell was forced to withdraw the plan. They had done exactly the same thing in 1925, delaying, retreating to fight only when they were ready. As Howell explained "Neither the government nor I think society as a whole was in a position to get locked into a coal strike… The stocks weren't so high. I don't think the country was prepared, and the whole NUM and the trade union movement tended to be united all on one side."

An internal Coal Board report published in June 1983 claimed that 141 out of the 198 pits were 'uneconomical', 100,000 jobs would have to go in the space of five years. For years pit closures had proceeded through agreement with the union on the basis of the exhaustion of mineable supplies. Now they wanted to close them for economic reasons. That is, to recognise that the mines existed not to extract coal but to make money. The miners' case was really unanswerable in relation to the needs of industry and the long term supply of energy. Logic and the facts, however, would not be allowed to interfere with the needs of the ruling class in securing their profits and defeating the trade union movement.

Thatcher brought in Ian MacGregor – an American union-buster who had already served his apprenticeship as the butcher of the steel industry – as the new head of the NCB, and moved Peter Walker to the post of Energy Secretary, informing him on his appointment, "we are going to have a coal strike." This statement betrayed not just Thatcher's desire to provoke such a battle, but also a recognition of a process which was already underway.

1981: NUM shifts left

In 1981 the shift to the left at the top of the NUM was confirmed by the election of Arthur Scargill, one of the militant leaders of the 1972 strike, as President of the NUM. At the end of 1982 The Coal Board announced the closure of Kineil colliery in Scotland. The miners occupied their pit over Christmas but no strike was called.

At the beginning of 1983 the closure of Lewis Merthyr colliery in South Wales was announced. The response of the miners was again to occupy the pit and this time their strike spread to other collieries with 3000 miners walking out. The South Wales Area of the union endorsed the strike, and the Yorkshire and Scotland areas both voted for strike action. At the union's National Executive Scargill argued for a Rule 41 strike, but lost. This rule of the union allowed the Areas (South Wales, Yorkshire etc.) to call their members out separately without calling a national ballot. The use of this tactic was soon to have profound consequences in the 1984-85 strike.

On this occasion a national ballot was held, with 61 percent voting against national strike action. A campaign was clearly needed throughout the coalfields explaining the threat to tens of thousands of jobs and the attacks that were being prepared on all sections of the working class. Such a campaign of propaganda and agitation would have played a vital role in preparing the ground in Nottinghamshire, in particular, and in those other pits that had voted against action. This fight was not going to go away.

MacGregor made provocative statements about the need to close 20 pits and destroy 20,000 jobs. The ruling class had been preparing and were now clearly ready for the confrontation. The miners' preparations began in earnest in November 1983 when a national overtime ban was organised to try to run down coal stocks.

The Coal Board announced another pit closure at Polmaise in Scotland. They proceeded to flood neighbouring Bogside colliery, claiming that the overtime ban was to blame, offering a glimpse of the unparalleled black propaganda campaign that was to follow. During the course of the strike, miners and their local and national leaders were subjected to the most appalling campaign of smears, slanders and abuse in the press.

The final provocation

On March 1, 1984, the final provocation came with the announcement of the closure of Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire. Flying pickets were dispatched around the country, immediately bringing Scotland and Wales out. This time however the ruling class had prepared its stocks of coal, its transportation systems, and had created a national police force – all the plans outlined in Ridley's 1978 report - to confront the pickets and place mining communities across the country under a state of siege. The battle lines were drawn. This was to be class war.

Within days 171 pits were at a standstill. Yorkshire, Wales, Kent and Durham were solid and flying pickets were sent into Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and North Derbyshire to spread the dispute.

On this occasion, however, there was to be no national ballot. This decision resulted in a storm of protest in the media, echoed by the right wing Labour and trade union leaders. These 'democrats' are only keen on democracy when it suits them. Back in 1977 a national ballot rejected a new incentives scheme by 55.75 percent. Right wing NUM leader Gormley declared the result of the ballot to be irrelevant. When the matter was taken to the high court, the judges agreed with Gormley, and the democratic decision of a ballot was overturned.

To pose democracy as an abstract question is false and misleading. Those at the top of the labour movement demanding a ballot never offered their own members the same courtesy of democracy by organising a ballot for action in support of the miners. Their demand was not based on 'democracy' but an excuse for not spreading the struggle. For that reason holding a ballot would have completely undermined them.

For the labour movement the vital question is what tactic can secure and maintain the maximum possible unity of the workers in their struggle. In 1984 NUM vice-president Mick McGahey argued – against the need for a ballot - that the miners would not be 'constitutionalised out of their jobs'. This was quite right – in principle. The trade unions should decide upon how they conduct their affairs themselves without the interference of the state. However, this principle far from exhausted the question.

Ballot or no ballot?

Scargill had already lost several national votes over pay, and over closures. This must have been a factor in the decision not to call a new ballot, betraying a certain lack of confidence in the rank and file. Once the vast majority of miners were on strike, and certainly by May when the national demonstration took place in Mansfield, there can be no doubt that a ballot would have been overwhelmingly endorsed.

With the strike underway, and the majority of miners having voted with their feet, the need to build and strengthen unity became clearer than ever. A majority of miners in the Nottinghamshire area continued to work. The continued failure to win them over through picketing illustrated the need for a ballot.

Why should there have been a ballot? The unity of the strike was decisive. A ballot would have assisted the strikers in Nottinghamshire to make their case amongst those miners still working. Could a ballot have created the necessary unity nationally, and isolated those determined to organise scabbing? We will never know for sure, but it would have helped. A majority in a national ballot could have brought the majority of Notts' miners out, and this in turn would have transformed the situation. Above all, it would have completely cut the ground from beneath the leaders of the TUC and the Labour Party who consistently cowered behind the question of the ballot to prevent solidarity action.

In any strike or dispute tactics are vital. In a titanic struggle such as this, with the might of the state lined up against them, the tactics adopted by the miners' leadership were decisive. Not holding a ballot once the dispute was underway proved to be a serious mistake. Not because the Tories or the press said so, but because of the need to build unity and to break the stick that was being used to beat them.

Role of leadership

An essential lesson to draw from the miners’ strike is the vital role of leadership. The miners’ leaders stood head and shoulders above the majority of British trade union leaders. The leaders of the NUM were a source of inspiration. At the same time these leaders were inspired by the courage and determination of the rank and file miners, of their wives and their communities. Unfortunately courage alone is not enough to win such titanic battles. It must be accompanied by correct tactics and strategy.

An essential lesson to draw from the miners' strike is the vital role of leadership. The miners' leaders stood head and shoulders above the majority of British trade union leaders at this time. Arthur Scargill in particular demonstrated an unbending will to struggle in the face of the most appalling personal abuse and character assassination. In this sense the leaders of the union were a source of inspiration for the miners in the areas. At the same time these leaders were inspired by the courage and determination of the rank and file miners, of their wives and their communities. Unfortunately courage alone is not enough to win such titanic battles. It must be accompanied by correct tactics and strategy. Mistakes in these vital areas were made even by the best NUM leaders.

To be clear, however, the responsibility for the eventual defeat of the miners' struggle rests squarely upon the shoulders of the leaders of the labour and trade union movement.

It is possible that the miners could have won even this colossal struggle without widespread solidarity action. The determination and sacrifice of the miners themselves was one necessary factor, and this was available in abundance. What was also needed was the utmost unity, and correct tactics on the part of the leadership.

With solidarity action, spreading the strike to other sectors who would soon be facing the same attacks themselves, the miners could easily have won, more than that they could have brought down the Tories. There would have been no third Thatcher government.

At the very least the dispute needed to spread to the power stations, the steel plants, the railways and the docks. Despite the initiative of workers in each of these sectors to support the miners, the leaders of their unions struggled might and main to prevent solidarity strikes from taking place.

There was the serious possibility of a national docks strike – the dockers themselves were facing renewed attacks. This development would have been a fundamental turning point for the miners. However, the dockers' leaders failed to link up the disputes, and an important opportunity was lost. This was not the only case. The railway workers were in dispute and Thatcher intervened personally in their pay negotiations with management to prevent a second front from opening up. Similarly in November 1984, following a strike at British Leyland, the Transport and General Workers' Union were fined £200,000 under the Tories' anti-union legislation. Instead of organising all out action in defence of their union and in support of the miners, the leaders of the TGWU sat back and did nothing.

It was not just the right wing union leaders who failed to organise action in support of the miners' struggle. The left leaders too echoed the right wing's claims that they 'could not deliver' their members, ie they passed the buck to the rank and file who they claimed would not strike. In reality, if these leaders had raised just their little fingers at any point in the dispute the response would have been massive and decisive.

Instead the miners were left to fight alone, attacked not only by the bourgeois press, the courts and the police, but by the leaders of other unions and by the leaders of the Labour Party, most notably Neil Kinnock. Desperate to prove himself worthy before the ruling class, Kinnock refused to throw the immense authority of the Labour Party fully behind the miners. Instead he made 'statesmanlike' speeches condemning picket line violence, evenly distributing blame between the almost paramilitary police and the miners' pickets.

Orgreave: "the enemy within"!

As in 1972, the mass picket of a coking plant would play a decisive role in the 1984-85 dispute, but this time with a different outcome. The ruling class had clearly learned from their earlier defeat at Saltley Gate.

Between the end of May and the middle of June the events at the Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham led to the most violent confrontations witnessed by the British labour movement since the first world war.

NUM pickets assembled on the Sheffield side of the plant while the police gathered in their thousands at the front of the plant, with mounted brigades lined up in an adjacent field. Police with dogs and thousands in riot gear surrounded the pickets. As soon as the lorries had entered the plant, the riot police launched their offensive. The mounted divisions rode into the surrounded miners, followed by truncheon wielding foot police. This was a military operation. For all the beatings and arrests, the miners were not cowed.

On June 18, 5000 strikers turned up to be met by an even greater number of police and an unprecedented orgy of violence. The forces of law and order ran riot, beating and bludgeoning the miners. From their experiences on the picket lines, and not just the obscenity of Orgreave - the taunts and insults, officers waving their overtime payments in miners' faces - many rank and file miners who before the strike had respect for the law and the police who upheld it, learned a bitter lesson from the end of a truncheon, that the law, the courts and the police are arms of the state for the defence of private property, that is, for the defence of the capitalist system.

The capitalist media portrayed Orgreave as the height of picket line violence… by the miners! Thatcher infamously denounced the strikers as "the enemy within". In the Falklands she said they had fought the enemy without, and now they would fight the miners, this in other words was to be their 'industrial Falklands.'

Kinnock was joined by Willis - the TUC leader, both desperate to prove their respectability - in condemning both sides 'even-handedly', reserving most of their venom for the pickets. Doctored film footage was shown on the BBC – which years later conceded that a 'mistake' had been made – demonstrating that the miners attacked first.

Could the strike have spread to other workers?

There were no more mass pickets at Orgreave after this ferocious battle. Mass pickets were not having the desired effect. The scab operation to move coal by road was stepped up. For the miners to have won on their own would always have been an immense task. As months passed solidarity action from other unions became ever more decisive. Yet it was not forthcoming. Railworkers in Leicestershire blacked coal at great personal risk. The printers at the Sun newspaper – a filthy rag which put itself at the forefront of the propaganda war against the miners – refused to print a front page picture portraying an alleged Hitler salute by Scargill (actually a wave caught at an angle by a photographer) under the despicable heading 'Mine Fuhrer.' But these were only isolated incidents. There could be no doubt that the might of the labour movement brought out in support of the miners would not only have secured the future of their pits and their communities but could have brought down Thatcher and the Tory government.

Was such support available from the rank and file of other unions? There is an argument that the miners strike was taking place against a background of a decline in strikes after the period of 1979-82. Nonetheless in 1984 of the 26.5 million working days lost to strike action, 4.3 million were not the miners. The support of workers across the country was demonstrated by their tremendous donations week after week, support which was matched by workers overseas. But this tremendous solidarity was not matched by the union leaders who timidly cowered behind the law to cover their bare backsides.

A whole separate article would be necessary to deal with the magnificent role played by the miners' support groups and especially by the miners' wives. The collection of money, organising of soup kitchens and social events was only one side of the work of these groups. The wives played a most militant role, including on the picket lines, indeed, it would be hard to imagine how the miners could have endured so long without the immense sacrifice they contributed.

In August a new opportunity raised the miners' spirits. The Coal Board had foolishly torn up an agreement with the pit deputies represented by NACODS. In a ballot a remarkable 82.5 percent of their members voted for strike action. If these workers, responsible for safety in the mines, had walked out then no pit in the country could have worked. Tragically, 24 hours before their strike was due to begin, the NACODS leaders shamefully called it off, preferring to sign a separate deal with the coal bosses, an agreement which the NCB bosses were quick to renege upon. The miners were on their own again.

In September the TUC passed a mealy mouthed resolution supporting the miners but offering no concrete action. One would search in vain in the archives of the TUC for leaflets supporting the miners' struggle. They did not even organise a national demonstration. Had they done so the response would have been immense. This in turn would have put the TUC leaders under enormous pressure to organise solidarity action, and this they were not prepared to do.

TUC leader Willis addressed a mass rally in November at the Afan Lido in Aberavon, South Wales. Thousands were packed inside, and thousands more lined the streets outside. The mood was electric. But Willis chose this venue, for the sake of the watching press, to once again condemn violence by pickets. During his speech a noose was lowered in front of him carrying a placard reading 'where is Ramsay McKinnock'. This is just one example of the humour of the strike, illustrating the contempt in which these leaders of the working class were increasingly held by the miners they would not support.

When the NUM's funds were to be sequestrated - the courts and the law again being used to try to crush the miners - the TUC had one last opportunity to organise solidarity action. A one-day general strike would have shaken the ground beneath the judges, the NCB and the Tories. But no such action was forthcoming. As in 1926, the leaders of the TUC had abandoned the miners to their fate.

War weariness

As the likelihood of serious support diminished, so too did any realistic chance of victory. Early in 1985 Energy Secretary Peter Walker publicly guaranteed that there would be no power cuts. On the surface it appeared that the Tories long prepared plans of stockpiling coal and organising scab lorry firms had worked. The import of coal from 'socialist' Poland played its part too in maintaining coal supplies, casting shame on this Stalinist regime more concerned with trade than with supporting the struggles of the working class.

The reality at the power stations, however, was somewhat different. After the strike it emerged that there had indeed been power cuts – rationed out in the middle of the night, or spread out in the countryside, with heavy industry contributing by cutting back on its use of power. Consistent action to black coal and prevent its movement by the TUC, and not just the brave attempts of individual groups of workers, would have crippled the supplies to power stations, steel plants etc.

Instead, the apparent lack of power cuts, combined with the tremendous propaganda pouring out of every paper and TV station must have begun to demoralise some miners.

Ironically the industrial vandalism of the British ruling class now ensures new power cuts like the one that gripped London in September 2003. Britain increasingly relies for its power on imported oil and gas. Despite the huge reserves of coal which remain beneath British soil, electricity generation will soon be dependent on gas piped from such stable countries as Iran and Azerbaijan. This dispute was never simply about economics. It was certainly not about the economic viability of coal mining, which could be demonstrated at will. For the miners this was a defensive struggle to save their jobs and their communities. For the ruling class this was not about coal mining but about defeating the unions and preparing the ground for an all out attack on the rights and living standards of the working class.

At the beginning of 1985 there was a drift back to work. The miners and their families had fought valiantly for a whole year against everything the state could throw at them, from the constant barrage of propaganda, to the siege of their communities and the violent confrontations on the picket lines. Their solidarity and sacrifice remains to this day an inspiration. They could have done no more.

Inspiration for future generations

At a special conference on March 3, 1985 delegates voted by 98 – 91 to return to work. On March 5, the day the strike ended there were still 27,000 miners out. Everywhere miners returned behind colliery bands and banners, heads held high, proud of the tremendous struggle they had been engaged in.

The struggle had cost the ruling class over £5 billion. From their point of view this was money well spent. New anti –union legislation was pushed through. The counter-revolution on the shopfloor to drive down workers' wages and conditions across industry went full speed ahead.

In the Autumn of 1985 the so-called Union of Democratic Mineworkers was formed in attempt to break up the NUM. From the beginning the scabs who led this attempted breakaway, Roy Lynk and David Prendergast, had the full backing of Thatcher, MacGregor and the right wing press. They also had the support of the so-called 'moderate' – read right wing – leaders of the labour movement, especially the leaders of the EETPU (the electricians' union), who were soon to play an equally despicable role in the printers' strike. The devastation of the mining industry however proceeded apace, and did not differentiate between working Nottinghamshire pits and those who had supported the strike. At its height one third of Notts miners were on strike. The Notts miners were not inherently right wing as some argued, the majority of Notts miners could have been won over. After the strike whether they had worked or not they lost their jobs. Even Roy Lynk had to admit, "I am bloody disgusted, senior Coal Board managers and Ministers who urged us on for months on end have now conspired to finish us off." To have saved their jobs and their pits the majority of Notts miners would have had to have supported their brothers striking in Notts and the rest of the country.

The leaders of the UDM meanwhile have earned more than a few pieces of silver for their role. Neal Greatrex, today the leader of the rump of the UDM is one of the highest paid union officials in the country despite having a minuscule membership. His £150,000 a year comes not simply from union members' dues, but from the compensation claims of those many miners suffering from lung disease, vibration white finger and other consequences of this very dangerous business of coal mining. They achieve this deft act of pickpocketing through the use of a private company – Vendside – set up by the UDM, to handle miners' compensation claims. Their cut is then channelled back into the UDM in Notts and on to the bank balance of Greatrex and co. This new revelation will come as a great shock to many miners who have made such compensation claims unaware that they were helping to finance the UDM and the lifestyles of individuals like Greatrex.

Better to go down fighting

Was it worth all the sacrifice? Many men lost their jobs, others were jailed. Thousands more were forced into heavy debts that took years to pay off. It is clear that without a struggle the pits would have still been closed and the bosses would have launched their attacks not only on mining but on all sections of the working class. Those attacks could not have been defeated by the TUC's 'new realism' – in reality class collaboration. The consequence of that policy, as we have seen over the last twenty years, has been the destruction of thousands of jobs and the decimation of whole industries.

Despite the immense cost to the miners and their communities to go down fighting has left behind a proud and inspiring tradition. Lessons were learned during this strike that will never be forgotten. They are burned into the consciousness of a whole layer of workers.

The consequences of the miners' defeat for the working class as a whole were profound. As attack after attack was launched, the mood of workers became "if the miners can't win no-one can." The right wing consolidated its grip on the labour movement, leading eventually to the low point of 'social partnership' in the TUC, and the triumph of Blair inside Labour.

The right wing always rests upon defeat and inactivity. Their triumph however, was only temporary. Eventually the working class recovers from defeat, and is forced by the conditions imposed upon them by capitalism to return to struggle once more.

We have a duty to uphold the proud memory and tradition of the miners' struggle, and not just for sentiment's sake. A new generation is now preparing to enter the road of struggle.

The recent broadcasting of two primetime television documentaries on the miners' strike demonstrates that the ruling class is aware of this fact. The tawdry rubbish aired on Channel Four, and the slightly more sober-minded BBC programme were clearly designed not as histories but as a warning to a new generation of workers. The miners lost and so will you if you try to fight. You will be beaten – in both senses of the word. The ruling class is preparing through its media, and through new legislation designed to further curtail workers' rights, for new battles. We must prepare too.

In the titanic struggles of the working class to come in Britain, a thorough study and understanding of past struggles is of decisive importance. Alongside the general strike of 1926 today's new generation must also study the great miners' strike of 1984-85.

March 5, 2004

Read more about the miners' strike and the struggles of the British working class in Rob Sewell's History of British Trade Unionism. You can buy a copy from Wellred Books Online Bookshop.

See also:

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.