Crisis of leadership

Four months of striking by the miners has had a substantial effect on the Labour movement. As the dispute develops into the most bitter and protracted struggle the NUM has fought since the General Strike, and into the hardest fought struggle against the Thatcher government ever to take place, a number of important lessons have become starkly clear.

Some of the lessons of the miners' strike are ones which will be familiar to regular readers of this magazine. For example, the famous and basic Marxist proposition that it is only in the course of struggle that workers become conscious of their own ability to change the world has been demonstrated in a thousand cases in this dispute.

The miners doing the picketing outside Orgreave and elsewhere are not, by and large, the veterans of 1972 and 1974. Certainly, there are some people who went through the battle at Saltley 12 years ago but the majority of the miners who are fighting with great courage and resource are young. They have learnt in the course of struggle. They were not and are not supermen: simply workers who have started to learn how to change the world.

Those lessons are learnt at an uneven pace, Not all miners learn the same things and not all of them generalise from their immediate experience to society as a whole. Take for example the role of women in the strike. The self-organisation of the women of the mining community has been one of the most impressive developments of the strike. As we show in a later article such actions are part of the traditions of the mining industry.

But at the same time there is present amongst many miners a deep strain of sexism. The Mansfield demonstration was a particularly bitter example. Despite a magnificent demonstration two days before by thousands of women in Barnsley, in Mansfield there was a very high level of abuse directed against women who had come to support the strike. Many miners might have learnt to hate the Sun's reporting of their strike, but they have not yet got round to burning.

Role of politics

Obviously, those attitudes have to be fought and fought hard, not simply because they are objectionable, but also because they have the potential of crippling the struggle itself. Just because miners are ready to fight the police in large numbers, it does not follow that they are automatically transformed into fully-rounded socialists opposed to all aspects of exploitation and oppression. Ideas change in struggle, but not automatically. It needs hard political arguments too.

Nowhere will those arguments be more important, and nowhere will they be more difficult, than over the role of the trade union leadership and in particular the left figures in the NUM.

At the same time as the pickets started to build up around the Orgreave coke works, the NUM and the NCB started secret talks to explore ways of ending the strike. (It is a bitter irony that Solidarnosc - attacked by Scargill and now in no position to stop the flood of coal the Polish regime is pouring in to help Thatcher break the strike - used to broadcast all negotiations over loudspeakers!)

It is important to be quite clear that the talks pose a major threat to the outcome of the battle. The coal board will only concede defeat if British industry has ground to a standstill.

We have seen already in this strike how little value the promises of bureaucrats actually have. Take the example of Ravenscraig. There the leaders of the ISTC in particular and the so-called triple alliance in general promised to control the movement of coal, and promptly allowed their members to shift very large quantities out of Hunterston into the steel works.

That, it can be argued, was the result of the notoriously right wing leadership of the ISTC. But take the case of the allegedly left led rail unions, the NUR and ASLEF. There is no doubt that their members have, in general, been very principled about the movement of coal, and there is no doubt that their anger over pay was one of the by-products of the miners' strike.

Central question

But the leadership of these unions showed no inclination to use this new mood of anger and solidarity amongst their members to mount a serious fight over pay and stop what has been a long retreat by the rail unions. They gave BR long notice of their intention to take action and then jumped at the first miserable deal they were offered. A deal, it is now confirmed, designed by the Tory cabinet itself to head off solidarity action between striking railway workers and miners. What is more, they even had the cheek, these left wing leaders, to try to sell the deal to their members as a major victory.

If many miners will accept that argument for the leaders of other unions, it is not the case that as yet at least, they will accept it for the leaders of their own union.

Therein lies a real danger. Despite all the talk about police states and the like, it is still the case that this strike will be ended by the NUM executive and not by the Association of Chief Constables. And that executive has come under more and more pressure over the last few weeks. The Labour Party, and Neil Kinnock in particular, have been openly denouncing "violent" picketing and privately pushing for a deal.

The right of the NUM leadership must be looking for a compromise solution. Probably the left, or at least Scargill, think that there is still more to be gained by fighting on. But they are powerless as individuals; if the executive agrees to a sell-out deal, Scargill will be trapped by his own past. Because he has no organised base outside of the official machine, he will be forced either to go along with the majority of the executive or try to fight them through the bureaucracy. Whichever way he goes he will be unable to beat them.

Indeed, the sorry tale of the struggle around the Orgreave coke works shows just how little impact one individual bureaucrat has when he is neither willing nor able to break with the bureaucratic machinery and habits which he has been responsible for running and developing.

It is obvious to the ruling class that Orgreave is a vital turning point in the struggle: if the pickets win there then their morale will be lifted and they will go on to other victories. If they are beaten at Orgreave then they will not have the same enthusiasm and determination elsewhere.

The same point is clear to Scargill and it is clear to the militants in the Yorkshire region. But it is apparently not clear to Jack Taylor, the local NUM leadership and the local Labour councillors. They have consistently dragged their feet over turning out masses of pickets, sometimes they have openly sabotaged efforts to build a big picket, and on occasion they have worked damned hard to stop serious picketing taking place.

Incredibly enough, one of the things that weighs on their collective minds is the damage that violent scenes might do to Labour's electoral prospects in, of all things, the EEC elections.

The local leadership who have obstructed this struggle are part of the "left" of the bureaucracy, as are the leadership in Wales and Scotland who have performed similar tricks around their own steelworks.

Arthur Scargill knows about this treachery and betrayal but however much he himself may reject it, and however much he may want to close down Orgreave, the one thing that he will not do is to go over the heads of the bureaucracy, denounce them to the rank and file, and appeal for independent organisation.

That is not the result of personal failings but of political ones: without an organisation no individual, however "left" they might be, can actually alter the course of the strike. The only organisation Scargill has is the very NUM bureaucracy which he has so lovingly perfected and which has, put him where he is now. He is, in the end, the prisoner of that very machine.


That would not matter too much if there was any other force in the union that could act independently of the left bureaucracy, but there is not. The rank and file militants have fought hard, and they have pushed their leaders to the left, but they are not an independently organised force capable of acting against their leaders. They are very dependent upon Scargill and his co-thinkers. If they shift to the right, then it will be very difficult to stop them.

The fact is that the outcome of the miners' strike is still very unpredictable. A great deal hangs on imponderables. Take the battle over the coke works. The great model for that sort of fight was the Saltley struggle. That was won, in the end, by the action of thousands of Birmingham engineers who struck in solidarity. The week-long struggle fought by the NUM was the crucial focus through which wider class action organised.

This time round things do not look quite the same. There is, no doubt, substantial sympathy for the miners, other groups of workers have a new feeling of confidence, and there are a number of other important disputes bubbling away. But as yet there has not been that crucial breakthrough to sustained solidarity action that won in 1972.

That too is something that needs a sustained political argument to change. There can be no doubt that the major lesson of the miners' strike so far is a familiar one but a vital one: there is no substitute for socialist politics in a major class struggle, and there is no chance of socialist politics without an organisation which can fight for the arguments.