Miners' Strike: Politics the key

Socialist Review July/August 1984

The miners' strike has developed into a war of attrition. Miners talk quite openly about lasting out to the winter or new year in order to have an impact, and government ministers put a brave face on things and claim that they will be able to survive even the winter. Hardly anyone still says that the battle will be won or lost in the next few days.

The long and bitter slog of the miners' strike is not natural or inevitable. Every week throws up chances of transforming the dispute from a long slog in which the determination of each side is tested to breaking point, into a battle that could be lost or won in one decisive morning of struggle.

The first week of the strike showed how things could be. The strength and initiative of the rank and file miners from a small number of Yorkshire pits surprised everybody by walking out, and by pulling behind them the rest of the Yorkshire coalfield. They also pulled out the other major coal producing areas with the exception of Nottinghamshire. But it is worth remembering that in the
first week they did manage to stop the Notts pits, even if only pending the result of the area ballot.

But it was very much a sign of the shape of things to come that by the end of the first week the officials were back in control, and that the Yorkshire miners who had fought independently even of the local leadership, and against the wishes of the area executive on a number of key issues in the first few days, were willing, if not happy, to accept that control.

The ruling class, which had been as surprised as anyone else at the explosion, was also able to regroup and organise the massive police intervention in week two which has been a contributory factor in making the struggle so difficult.

The first grand fact of the strike was that a large number of miners were prepared to take action against closures. The second grand fact was that not all miners were prepared to go along with that, and that the strikers were not able to picket them out. Those two realities combined to shape the early course of the dispute, and still provide the cutting edge of many arguments in the labour movement about the question of support.

One of the reasons for the very widespread support for the miners is that they are seen to be doing what every activist in the movement has wanted to do for a long time:; fight back against the Tories and fight back hard. The Notts scabs, of course, have also provided a magic excuse for every potential scab up and down the country to deny solidarity or support.

The next decisive turning point was the battle to stop the steel plants, This began in Scotland, with a brief flurry around Ravenscraig, moved to the battle around Orgreave in Yorkshire, and then concentrated on the Llanwern steelworks in South Wales.

An important and obvious lesson follows immediately from just that chronicle: at no time was the fight to stop steel conducted as an organised national campaign coordinated across all of the steelworks. That had two conclusions. Most obviously, it allowed the ruling class to concentrate its forces, in particular its police forces, on whichever area it happened to be fighting in at a particular time.

Although miners, too, travelled, particularly to Orgreave for the major confrontation, the ability to concentrate on one place helped the state and the bosses much more than it did the miners.

But that purely tactical question is secondary. Throughout the left there has been a tendency to overplay such purely military matters. They were not and are not decisive. Much the most important consequence of the “staggered” struggle around steel was political.

The key argument that has been used by Bill Sirs and every Iocal union official in the country to justify their members working with coal and iron ore that has been driven through miners' picket lines has been the need to keep this or that steelworks open. There is no doubt that this argument has been enough to make workers who might listen to appeals to solidarity forget any prospect of class consciousness and to carry out the most open scabbing we have seen for a long time.

The argument in Scotland runs that if we refuse to handle scab material then the people in South Wales will and it will be us who suffer from the threatened closure. Of course, the argument in South Wales has been just the reverse.

Now, there is no doubt whatsoever that the BSC want to close down some capacity. Obviously, what is needed is a united and organised fightback. That is not likely to come from Sirs and the ISTC executive. The only way that those divisions could be overcome would be if a group of workers who were already fighting back were to generalise to a national struggle. But the NUM decision to fight each works on its own has played right into the hands of the local leaderships who have been looking for a way to avoid a fight.

There is nothing to be gained, however, from simply bewailing the fact that large-scale scabbing is going on. For socialists the important thing to do is to understand why this is happening and to use that understanding to map out a strategy that can win.

That strategy must start off from recognising that, while the ruling class is determined to win, and has acted fairly shrewdly, it is not unbeatable. It is true that the ruling class wishes to inflict a major defeat on the miners, and through them on all of the working class; they retain the desire to drive down real wages. That, one of the objectives of their policy since the end of the boom, is one of the things that Thatcher has so far not delivered.

The intransigence which follows from this desire is what led to a breakdown of the attempted compromise in mid-June. Everybody, even Scargill, on the union side seemed to be convinced that a deal was on, but then MacGregor upped the stakes in an interview with the Times and the bureaucrats were left without the possibility of the compromise they so desperately wanted.

But even though the ruling class are determined to win, they have still been forced to tread relatively cautiously. They have not, for instance, so far made any attempt to use the formidable battery of anti-union legislation they have at their disposal against either the NUM or other trade unionists.

That is not to say that they will not use the law, or that they may not get away with it. On their part it is a matter of calculation. Sometimes, like with the NGA at Warrington, the calculations of the most hawkish of the ruling class proved correct and they have got away with it. Sometimes, as with GCHQ, the ruling class made a minor miscaluclation and, although they won their immediate objective, they did so at the price of giving their opponent, who managed to pull a surprising amount of strike action against them, a powerful fillip.

With the miners' strike, it is clear that initially they made a fairly major miscalculation: they did not expect a battle in the pits, and they did not expect that to coincide with a hardening of the mood amongst public sector employees over pay. If they made a fairly serious mistake that time, they may do so again and alter the whole terms on which the strike is being fought.

But if they miscalculated over the strike itself, and found themselves faced not only with the miners but also with large numbers of other groups of public sector workers pursuing pay claims with unexpected vigour it is also the case that they have, so far, not paid any substantial price for that mistake.

The reason for their immunity brings us to the second major element in the socialist analysis of the strike so far. The decisive factor in preventing the generalisation of the strike has been sectionalism.

Both the divisions inside the NUM and the divisions between different groups of workers have been classic examples of the ways in which the downturn in the class struggle has led to the development of ideas of local particular issues being the province of this or that group of workers and the atrophy of the idea of class wide organisation and struggle. Yorkshire against Nottinghamshire in the NUM, Llanwern against Ravenscraig in BSC, steelworker against miner in general — those have been the decisive limitations of the strike.

It is important to repeat yet again that this is a political and organisational failing in the heart of our movement, and that it Is this which is decisive. The activities of the police, which occupy the attention of many trade union officials and Labour Party members, are important but they are a secondary and contributing factor. They only work because we are weak and divided.

A minority fighting can stretch their resources but not defeat them. And if, once they manage to force scab material through a picket line, it was then blacked, then their military prowess would be wasted. The key weaknesses lie within our movement. Overcoming those weaknesses is the problem. It is the answer to the question of what to do that is decisive.

The strike has illustrated quite decisively that the bureaucracy, no matter how left its rhetoric, is quite unable to overcome that sectionalist weakness. The whole of the bureaucracy, from Sirs on the extreme scabby right to Scargill on the extreme militant left, have proved unable to overcome the difficulties.

No doubt there are many in the movement who will agree with us about Sirs, but will start to hesitate when we include Jimmy Knapp, and be screaming dissent once the sacred name of Arthur Scargill is taken in vain.

The temptation on the left is to try to draw a line of demarcation inside the bureaucracy between left and right. It is a distinction which then permits a concentration on winning positions inside the bureaucracy for the left.

It is important to recognise that there are big differences within the bureaucracy: Bill Sirs is very far to the right of Arthur Scargill and this has a real effect on the class struggle. Arthur Scargill is very much to the left of Jack Taylor and this has an important effect on the class struggle. But they all remain bounded by that fundamental reliance on the official apparatus which is both the expertise and the weakness of the bureaucrat.

Take Orgreave as an example. Sirs, of course, has been encouraging scabbing. Scargill has been trying with substantial determination to stop the delivery of coke from Orgreave to Scunthorpe. That is certainly an important difference. Scargill also saw from very early on the importance of stopping steel and saw the need to concentrate his forces on that. Taylor and Co were much more reluctant and tried almost every trick in the book to avoid a confrontation. That also is an important difference.

But take the events leading up to the “Bloody Monday” at Orgreave. For some two weeks Scargill had been trying, against the indifference or sabotage of the local executive, to mount mass pickets. But he had also, along with the rest of the bureaucracy, been closeted in secret talks with the NUM which he stated were going very well indeed. By the Friday before the big battle it looked as though the deal was on. On the Saturday there was the Yorkshire Miners' Gala. Orgreave was not mentioned.

At the same time the talks broke down. The Taylors were denied an opportunity to sell out by the intransigence of the ruling class. The events of the Monday were organised by the Yorkshire bureaucracy, and more generally by the bureaucracy as a whole, on the Sunday itself.

Now the size and the determination of the picket on that Monday was, in itself, a tribute to the organisational ability of the bureaucracy and to the spirit of the rank and file. But it was also very much the work of a bureaucracy mobilising a stage army. The very next day there was no picketing, and once the coke started to move after a brief break there was no resumption of mass picketing. Instead, the battle shifted to South Wales and took a radically different form. Instead of mass picketing, the miners were now relying on symbolic pickets to stop train drivers.

To their credit, the train drivers have mostly respected the token pickets and refused to deliver ore. They have taken the suspensions in a very principled way. But they have not used the suspensions as a reason for a more general walk-out — after all Knapp and the rest of their leadership have been arguing that a levy can provide the money needed to pay the suspended men full wages for the duration.

No doubt, financially, this is possible. Politically it is disastrous. Not only does it ensure the isolation of those workers sent home, but it fails to take the opportunity to broaden the dispute and to take advantage of management blunders. It fits with the low key post-Orgreave approach.

There is an important and obvious conclusion to draw from all of this. Bloody Monday at Orgreave represented a shift to the left by Taylor and Co — after all they had been prevented from staging a sell-out by the class enemy. But that shift to the left was a bureaucratic one. Just as Scargill was unable to bypass the Taylors and the like, so he has gone along with the new strategy in practice.

The obvious missing factor, the force that could overcome all these weaknesses and sectionalism, is the rank and file. It has certainly been visible during the strike — it was they who fought the police with great courage and determination in a host of battles as well as the big confrontation. But they have not been able to act as an independent force.

Go back to Orgreave again, and you can see that very clearly. The procedure for picketing in Yorkshire is that you turn up at the welfare and get an envelope with instructions of where to picket, plus your expenses for the day: That form of organisation, in itself, makes sure that only a minority, those who take the initiative of coming to the welfare, actually get involved in the action. And it also means that the bureaucracy decide who is going where. The initiative that had rested with the rank and file in the first few days of the strike is now firmly back in the hands of the officials.

There are no meetings at which rank and file miners can thrash out what are the most important targets that day or week, where they can organise to go round and motivate some of the strikers who are just digging their allotments.

What that meant at Orgreave was that miners who could see the need to be there turned up but got instructions, and the money, to go to Nottinghamshire. They went: simple loyalty, plus the consciousness that they had been given scarce resources to do a job, ensured that they tried to get to Nottinghamshire. They were either turned back by the cops or failed to stop scab miners. Then, and only then, the most determined headed for Orgreave. It was a system designed to make sure the pickets at Orgreave were small.

In order to break with such stupidity it would require a very high level of political awareness and an organisation independent of the bureaucracy. Although many miners could see the need to go to Orgreave, they went under the prodding of Scargili. Even the most determined miners had no organisational independence, and for the majority, to go was not to break with the bureaucracy, only to respond to the call of one section.

The sad fact is that there are only a tiny number of miners who can see the need to organise independently of the bureaucracy. They are far too few to achieve any actual organisational impact. The reason why there are so few is that it needs a fairly high degree of political awareness to see the need for such organisation irrespective of the rhetoric of the bureaucrats. Particularly when Scargill is showing his left face, it is a very persuasive one. It needs a clear political understanding of the role of the bureaucracy to see the need for independent organisation. The first task for socialists is to increase that number of miners who are aware of the need for independent organisation.

That is not simply a task for those inside the mining industry. The miners are, quite rightly, active outside of the mining areas, seeking support and blacking from other groups of workers. There is also very substantial sympathy for the miners among quite wide layers of workers, and a commitment to organise at least collections amongst the bulk of union activists.

It is however true that many of the people who are today active in support of the miners are themselves unclear about the role of the bureaucracy.

Indeed, it is often worse than that. If the vice that afflicts many miners is the belief that Scargill walks on water, then the vice that afflicts many who genuinely want to help the miners is the belief that miners walk on water.

That sort of attitude is of little use. The crying need in the strike is political clarity, and the best assistance any socialist can give to any miner is to convince him of the need for independent rank and file organisation. That means argument, often very hard arguments, with miners. It also means arguments, often very hard arguments, with many of the people who support the miners. It particularly means arguments with those committed to one or other version of the Labour Party left.

They are, since the EEC elections ended, without a canvass to call their own and are putting their energies into supporting the miners. This is a good thing, and we welcome it, but they are also grinding their own axe. From Tribune to the Militant they are all committed, very committed, to the idea that it is left bureaucrats that count. They are probably more committed to this even than the miners who look to Scargill. So any attempt to argue the politics of the strike will be met by the organised hostility of the sectarian left as well as by the suspicion of less compromised miners and their supporters.

Winning those arguments will not be easy under the best of circumstances. Political clarity on our part is one of the first requirements for making headway. The other primary criterion is that we, the socialists, are seen to be the people who are the most active fighters for the miners' cause.

That means beginning with the little things like making sure that collections are taken for the miners wherever we have any influence. It also means that it is necessary to try to step up the level of solidarity.

If the current mood amongst the most conscious layer of the labour movement is one of sympathy for the miners, then we need to try to firm up that sympathy and turn it into real solidarity. So the collection needs to become the regular collection. The collection needs to become the levy. The levy needs to become the organising force for the token support of one of the regional days of action. And that token action needs to become the basis for real solidarity, for blacking the lorry firms that deliver scab coal, for instance.

It is the determination to lead the struggle forward at the same time as being very very clear about the overall politics of the strike that can begin to make some sort of headway, not only in the industry but also amongst those people who support the miners.

There is no point in muttering about general strikes in the abstract: if Scargill were locked up that might connect with the mood in the class. As it stands today, it does not. But the sympathy that is there can be hardened and developed into solidarity with careful work.

And the political generalisation that is implicit both in the strike and in the support for it can also be the beginning of a clearer political understanding not only of the strike but also of the need to overthrow capitalism

Socialists face a difficult task: the temptations of mindless and uncritical activism in support of the miners are great And the dangers of sitting on the sideline pointing out the correct strategy are equally great. We have to combine both the activism and the analysis.