The miners' strike has developed into the most serious class confrontation for ten years. Not since the last major national miners' strike, back in 1974, have the stakes been so high.
A victory for the miners in 1974 meant the fall of the Tory government. Now, of course, the result is unlikely to be that dramatic. It is most unlikely that Thatcher will fall, whatever the outcome.
Short of that, however, a lot can happen, not primarily to the government but to the terrain upon which the class struggle is fought out. A victory for the Tories will mean that it is more difficult to develop those tiny bursts of confidence that have been noticeable amongst some militants in the last few months. A defeat for the government will mean that such confidence can flower and prosper.
One of the characteristics of the miners' strike has been the speed with which events have developed. That makes any attempt at short term prediction in an editorial statement a pointless exercise. The best that we can do is to try to draw out what we can learn from the development of the strike. Overall, the strike has settled down to something of a slog with the majority of miners out and with both sides trying to outlast the economic misery inflicted by the other.
Within that, however, there are two important issues which remain to be settled. The first is the question of strike action by the Notts miners. The NUM leadership, and in particular Scargill, seem at last to be prepared to try to mobilise for strike action in the scabbing pits. They have, at last started to organise rallies in the area in an attempt to win the political battle.
This shift is to be welcomed but it must be quite clear to everyone involved that it would have been much easier to get solidarity action if the same sort of political will had been shown six weeks ago. Scabbing, like many other bad habits, is something that is best nipped in the bud, not left to flourish under the benevolent care of the press for over a month before it is tackled.
The reason for the reluctance on the part of the NUM leadership has little to do with their personal failings. Rather their slowness to react and now the fact that they have finally reacted, is the result of the pressures they have been under. Left and right, the leaders of the NUM are trade union bureaucrats without any organic links with the rank and file. Their first instinct, because they are subject to the pressures of the union machine, is to stick very closely to the letter of the rule book and not to interfere in another bureaucrats' patch.
But they are also under pressure from their own members. Therefore they have to deliver at least some sort of action on what every militant can see is one of the burning scandals of the strike. This double pressure under which the leadership acts is illustrated very clearly by the other major issue of the strike: the stopping of coal supplies to the steel works.
Stopping the steel works is an obvious target for the miners. There are, after all, only four of them so they are a much more concentrated target than the large number of coal-burning power stations. They are also far more dependent on regular supplies of coal.
The struggle to stop coal shipments to Ravenscraig in particular illustrates the problem of the strike. There is no doubt amongst the most militant of the miners in Scotland there is a clear realisation that the stopping of coal to Ravenscraig is the key to the advance of the strike. But this layer of militants is only a minority of the Scottish
NUM membership and if it is to win it needs to mobilise the whole of that membership, or at least a significant part of it. The only force currently able to deliver that sort of mobilisation is the Scottish NUM bureaucracy, and Mick McGahey in particular. The problem for the militants then, is how to put enough pressure on McGahey to get him to act.
It is necessary to put pressure on McGahey to act because he is under contradictory pressures from other groups of people. Obviously, he wants to win the strike, but the employers, and their press, and the leadership of the steel unions, and even many of the local convenors, are all screaming at him to be reasonable and to let Ravenscraig stay open.
It is the impact of these two different pressures that lead to the oscillation and vacillations of McGahey and the Scottish NUM bureaucracy. One day they stop coal being unloaded from a Liberian registered ship and the next they allow it to be unloaded from a British registered one. They are unable to pursue any consistent policy.
In order to pursue the sort of policy that could stop coal movements and thus start hurting the capitalist class a lot more than at present it is necessary to have quite a sophisticated political position.
Many workers at Ravenscraig, and other places which will be closed down if coal supplies are cut off, have very real worries that their employers will seize the opportunity to shut the place altogether and throw them on to the dole queue. That argument needs to be met and answered.
One of the obstacles to McGahey and Co providing that answer is that they have for years talked in nationalistic terms about `Scotland's industry' and so they have built up a whole mythology around what is essentially the idea of class collaboration. If you have spent the last few years talking about the need to `save' this or that `Scottish industry' then you are very vulnerable when the press, or even other workers, turn around and accuse you of endangering that self-same industry.
The fact is that the arguments about cutting off coal supplies to Ravenscraig or anywhere else cannot be answered on these nationalistic grounds. They can only be answered on class grounds: if the miners win, then management will be on the defensive and that much less likely to close down Ravenscraig or anywhere else, for fear of facing another big battle.
That argument, of course, is very clear to rank and file miners. That is why they are on strike rather than bowing to NCB arguments that any action will make pit closures more likely. But the fact that the argument has been won amongst miners does not mean that it has been won amongst other groups of workers. If there is to be a successful stoppage, then steelworkers have to be won to that argument too. It is for that reason that large pickets and a massive mobilisation of miners is needed. A bureaucratic agreement between a couple of officials will fall to pieces at the first hint of opposition.
All of these arguments point to the crying need for political arguments in the strike. The officials can act if they are pressed hard enough by the rank and file - after all, even Joe Gormley was forced to lead official miners' strikes.
It is the organising of that sort of political intervention which distinguishes a revolutionary organisation from other currents inside the Labour movement. After all, even the Labour Party NEC can call for collections for miners, although it still remains an open question as to how much they can actually deliver. But collecting money, while it is vital work, is not enough. It has to be part of struggle to influence the outcome of the strike or it is nothing other than charity.
It is to that task that the efforts of the tiny number of revolutionary socialists must be directed. Our problem is that we are so few that the effect we can have is minimal. And that problem is made particularly acute by the fact that the ruling class are already wavering as McGregor's offer of talks made clear. The miners' strike can be won; we haw to do our best to make sure it is.
Socialist Review May 1984