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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 170 Contents

Socialist Review, December 1993

Mike Simons

A battle undermined

From Socialist Review, No. 170, December 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

A new wave of pit closures is hitting even those the Tories claimed were safe a few months ago. How did a movement as big as the protest against closures last year end in failure? Mike Simons looks at the weaknesses on the union side

How have the Tories managed to ride out the pits crisis? Why, a year after the biggest trade union movement demonstration in decades, are coal mines shutting and coal privatisation featuring in the Queen’s Speech of government business?

The Tories were confident there would be no resistance to their pit closure plans announced in October last year. The miners’ union had been gutted by its defeat in the 1984–85 strike. But resistance, when it came, was not centred on the pits and mining communities. It erupted across the working class, with millions of workers looking for a focus to channel their bitterness.

This situation presented both enormous opportunities and enormous problems for the TUC and NUM leaders. The TUC leaders wanted to use the anger to force the government to take them seriously again. But the ‘new realist’ agenda of class collaboration created amidst the defeats of the 1980s prevented them from taking advantage of the militant mood among workers.

The miners’ leaders had different problems. The mood among the working class generally was far more angry and combative than it was among their own members.

The problems in the industry were shown starkly at the NUM conference held to discuss the closures. Scargill and other left wing delegates had to battle hard to overcome defeatism and get the campaign started. Despite this inauspicious start, the conference decided to call a lobby of parliament the day the pit closures were discussed.

Initially some NUM leaders had visions of thousands of protesters arriving at London stations and simply holding impromptu marches on parliament. Thousands battering on the gates of parliament would have forced the government into total capitulation, not the body swerve Michael Heseltine announced on the day.

The police, however, had other ideas and got the miners’ union to agree to a march round Hyde Park with a separate, ticket only, rally in Central Hall, Westminster.

Although the police had forced the NUM to accept a harmless route through some of London’s poshest shopping streets, Arthur Scargill still had an opportunity to send the miners and their 100,000 supporters to Westminster.

He didn’t take it. Instead he chose to defend his long time adversary Bill Jordan, leader of the AEEU, from the spontaneous heckling that swept the crowd.

Significantly, in his own speech Scargill failed to call for industrial action, though in subsequent speeches he did call for a day of action ‘if necessary’.

Scargill wanted industrial action against the Tories but, at the decisive moment, he was not prepared to issue the call himself, fearing the press would turn against him and shatter the miners’ support.

Twenty years as a full time trade union official, a political training that emphasised the importance of official rather then unofficial action, and the miners’ experience throughout the 1980s, left Scargill looking to what was going on at the top of the movement, not the sea change among rank and file workers.

If the first miners’ demonstration marked a missed opportunity, it still provided a marvellous springboard for the 350,000 strong TUC demonstration the following Sunday.

The determination of the enormous crowd in the face of appalling weather again showed the anger that could have been turned into action. But the day also showed just how treacherous the TUC was going to be.

From the start the TUC set out to hijack the anger unleashed by the pit closure announcement. A Jobs and Recovery campaign was launched.

Officially, its aim was to broaden and deepen the movement against the government. In reality it was about providing an alternative focus to the miners.

Arthur Scargill, not believing industrial action was possible and sticking rigidly to his mandate from the demoralised NUM special conference, went along with the TUC strategy.

As millions of workers were talking about general strikes, the miners’ campaign settled into a never ending series of small marches and rallies.

The frustration this caused in the mining communities led activists in Yorkshire and the Midlands to resurrect the idea of pit occupations.

In the aftermath of a solo occupation attempt by one frustrated Yorkshire miner at Armthorpe colliery near Doncaster, hundreds of miners and their supporters held a packed public meeting in the miners’ welfare.

In the meeting miners complained bitterly that the TUC not the NUM were controlling the campaign. Arthur Scargill, however, insisted the NUM was calling the tune.

He also denounced people who were calling for a general strike, saying ‘two weeks ago they didn’t know we existed’.

This barely disguised attack on the Socialist Workers Party was not well received, but the message was clear. Any effort to escalate the campaign, any effort to go beyond the remit of the NUM special conference decision would be vigorously opposed by Scargill.

Scargill wanted industrial action, but he wanted it officially organised and he wanted it delayed until the government’s review of pit closures was complete in January.

The folly of waiting for the TUC was soon obvious. The TUC set up an emergency committee dominated by left wing officials.

A series of regional days of action were announced, but then quickly forgotten or called off while Norman Willis responded to pressure to ‘do something’ by announcing a day of collaboration with the employers – a ‘National Day of Recovery’ – on 9 December.

When the TUC met in Doncaster at the end of November, Scargill decided to try and get its backing for a day of action, but he got short shrift.

Solidarity action, said Norman Willis, is illegal. ‘There is no way the TUC puts its head in a legal noose,’ declared the TUC leader, once again turning his back on the massive anger that still existed across the working class.

Women Against Pit Closures responded to the TUC snub with a weekend occupation of Armthorpe colliery while, with Xmas looming, Arthur Scargill announced a national ‘stayaway protest’ on 19 January.

He called on miners and railworkers to take action together and promised to fight for TUC backing. For activists the call was belated but welcome.

It was hoped to mark the first working day of the new year with sit-ins at up to eight pits. It was felt this could spark occupations at other pits and create a momentum that would turn Scargill’s call for a stayaway into a massive strike across industry.

These hopes crumbled at a meeting to finalise the action when miners from different areas reported different messages from the NUM leaders.

Yorkshire miners believed they had been told ‘anything goes’. North East miners insisted that the NUM line was that any action should be limited to the 10 most threatened pits and that perhaps the timing was not yet right.

It seemed that once again the NUM leaders had wanted to raise the stakes but were scared of the consequences. They wanted stunts to pressurise the TUC, not the all-out effort to break the government proposed by militant miners.

Seizing on a court ruling which, for once, seemed to favour the miners, the TUC general council put out a statement two days before Xmas saying ‘the timing of a major trade union demonstration on 19 January does not seem appropriate.’

Then in the new year the TUC Emergency Committee rejected both the miners’ call for action on 19 January and Scargill’s alternative date – 15 February.

By dropping the stayaway call for 19 January the miners’ leaders lost another opportunity to increase pressure on the government, but it was not to be the last.

The TUC leaders could not sell their betrayal of the miners without offering something in its place. They formally backed a Women Against Pit Closures march in London.

They also called a jobs Action Day on 18 February which Arthur Scargill demanded should be turned into a national ‘stayaway’.

Once again Norman Willis and the TUC right began frantic manoeuvring to scupper any industrial action. Rail union leader Jimmy Knapp put across the message.

One insider described an appalling meeting between rail and mining unions at the end of January 1993 when ‘Jimmy Knapp waded in with warnings about how the TUC would view any industrial action on 18 February.’

The NUM leaders, fearing they would be left isolated, dropped their call for action in return for a commitment for a joint NUM/rail union ballot against privatisation and redundancies on 5 March.

Tragically, even as the miners’ union leaders were climbing down, the leaders of NALGO, the council white collar union which is now part of Unison, were throwing their weight behind action on 18 February.

Predictably, with Arthur Scargill once again naming a day and then pulling back, the NALGO leadership dropped their agitation while the TUC did nothing to organise for 18 February.

Thousands of workers did demonstrate on the day, showing that millions would have struck if the TUC had called industrial action instead of denouncing it. But another chance to beat the Tories – this time on the day unemployment officially topped three million – had been squandered.

Six months after the great revolt over pit closures miners found themselves balloting for strikes. They knew the Tories were still scared – Michael Heseltine’s new coal White Paper was being continually delayed.

They knew anger was erupting elsewhere-among rail workers who were balloting with them and in car plants, shipyards, engineering works, hospitals schools and councils.

But they also knew Norman Willis and the TUC general council had done their utmost to prevent a generalised fightback.

Nevertheless; miners and rail workers voted for industrial action on 2 April and once again Arthur Scargill called on other workers to take action on the day.

Jimmy Knapp, however, had other ideas. Instead of celebrating the result and proclaiming his members’ unity with the miners, Knapp emphasised the two disputes were ‘separate’. Other union leaders denounced Scargill’s call and the incessant delays and prevarication since October meant rank and file workers did not have the confidence to take action.

The writing was on the wall for the miners, but they had one last chance. The Tories finally announced their revised pit closure plans at the end of March. It amounted to rapid closure of 10 pits and a temporary reprieve for a handful of others.

The TUC kept up their sabotage to the last. Willis called a protest march in London at two days notice, to coincide with the parliamentary vote on pit closures instead of backing the miners’ and rail workers’ strike due four days later.

The march was poor but the strike was effective and popular.

Miners and rail workers held a second joint strike before Jimmy Knapp announced he had secured a deal with British Rail and called off the action.

This final act of betrayal gave the Tories and British Coal the green light to rush through a wave of pit closures.

The brave stand by a few individual miners who refused to take redundancy, the pit camps and some increasingly desperate occupations by Women Against Pit Closures supporters could not turn the tide.

Union leaders and media pundits claimed the miners lost when they moved from marching and lobbying to striking. But that simply stood the truth on its head.

The problem was not the militancy of Arthur Scargill and the NUM leadership, precisely the opposite. If Scargill had called a general strike in October 1992 it would have been massive.

After October each call for action Scargill made and then retracted simply threw him deeper into the arms of his fellow union leaders – the people who betrayed the miners in 1984.

Scargill failed because he played by the TUC rules. The result was missed opportunities in October 1992 and a series of zig-zags in subsequent months that left the miners and their supporters bewildered and bitter.

Things could have been different, despite the TUC’s sabotage and the miners’ leaders’ mistakes. A handful more organised socialists in the pits and pit villages could have ensured the occupations took place and taken the struggle to a higher level.

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