September 28, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Miners Strike 1984/85 – how it ended

11 min read
The 1984/85 miners strike ended with defeat for organised labour and a victory for neo-liberalism as TV historian Tony McMahon explains
miners strike ended

In my last year at university, two things happened to me. I got elected Deputy President of the university student union and within weeks, the UK’s miners went on strike. The 1984/85 Miners Strike lasted an entire year and in its aftermath, British politics and culture were changed fundamentally. The defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) heralded Thatcherism at its most triumphant and the breaking of organised labour. To understand who and what Britain is today, you have to examine how the Miners Strike of 1984/85 ended.

In January 1985, as the miners strike entered its last three months, the Tories and their supporters in the media sensed victory. Crushing the NUM, as the vanguard of organised labour, had long been the stuff of Conservative dreams. And now it was within their grasp. Their elation was barely masked.

The Daily Telegraph crowed that two concepts could be ditched the moment the miners were forced back to work: “We can say farewell to nationalisation and planning agreements as viable policies”. This was neo-liberalism secure in the saddle at last. It seems odd now to think that even by 1985, Thatcherites worried that their ideology could be unwound.

Thatcher was still looking over her shoulder…

Could there still be a return to the post-war state managed consensus or – God forbid – a pendulum swing towards more full-blooded socialist policies as advocated by prominent Labour politicians in local government (Derek Hatton, Ted Knight, Ken Livingstone), where the party remained strong in urban and industrial areas?

While Thatcher dominated parliament and national elections, cities like London, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, etc – were avowedly Labour. South Yorkshire was even dubbed a ‘People’s Republic’. These were socialist islands in a Tory sea.

The post-war consensus had to end

The miners strike brought to a head the question of what kind of Britain we were going to live in. Would we return to the post-war consensus where government, bosses, and unions sat round a table and planned the economy? Or, would we march towards a socialist future where workers owned the means of production, distribution, and exchange? Conversely, and increasingly more likely, were the neo-liberals finally going to realise their vision of an unrestrained capitalism with no place for powerful trades unions?

One thing that Thatcherites and Marxists agreed on at the start of the 1980s was that the post-war political and economic consensus was over. Under both Conservative and Labour governments since 1945, there had been a form of state capitalism. A large part of British industry and services were run by civil servants while most of the economy was privately owned.

Government departments directly owned and managed not just the utilities and telecoms but North Sea oil, the coal mines, the car and steel industries, docks, and even what would become British Airways. The mining industry was run by the National Coal Board (NCB).

The NCB boss was an acerbic American businessman, Ian MacGregor (1912-1998). In the early 1980s the Tories put him in charge of the nationalised steel industry with the aim of steering it to profitability and eventual privatisation. He obligingly reduced the workforce from 166,000 to 71,000 in three years. Thatcher hoped he would repeat that performance when she agreed to him heading up the NCB. Instead he provoked the mother of all strikes.

Pro-privatisation Tories hated what they saw as a situation where miners were conditioned to working for the state-run National Coal Board believing that if sufficient pressure was applied through strike action, the Exchequer would always foot the bill. These neo-liberals groaned when the government issued documents like the 1974 Plan for Coal , restating the nation’s commitment to coal and reversing the 1960s ‘retreat from coal’ with a move to gas and nuclear power.

On the ‘hard’ Left, as it was termed, Marxists and left-wing socialists wanted a new way to run industry that directly involved workers and not civil servants. If you walked into many Labour meetings in those days, the room was essentially divided between reformists who wanted the top 20 ‘monopolies’ nationalised and revolutionaries who wanted the top 200 monopolies taken over. A factor of ten determined whether you were ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Left.

They hoped the outcome of an NUM victory would not simply be the fall of the Thatcher government but the trigger to build a socialist society in Britain. The stakes in the 1984/85 strike could not have been higher!

Revolutionary optimism at the start of the decade

In the early 80s, despite the victory of Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the United States, the political Left – of which I was very much a part – still believed there was a battle to be fought. The Tories could be beaten. Labour might once more form a government. The miners would stop Thatcher in her tracks. This was ‘alternative’ Britain with its own politics, music, and even comedy.

Not everybody on the Left was optimistic…

The older Boomers of 1968 were still shell-shocked having lost the battles of that year of revolt across Europe and the United States. But the younger punk Boomers of the late 1970s and early 1980s believed they had a more bread-and-butter, working-class focussed, less dreamy version of socialist struggle that stood a greater chance of transforming society.

Supporting the miners was key to that.

Students supporting the 1984/85 Miners Strike

Through 1984 and early 1985, radical students like myself took coaches down to local collieries and joined picket lines. We marched. Collected money and clothes for miners’ families. And helped organise rallies to build support for the NUM.

Peter Heathfield (1929-2010), General Secretary of the NUM, came to speak at our student union. I interviewed a young miner called Gary with a spiky, goth haircut. He certainly challenged my D.H. Lawrence stereotype of what a miner was supposed to look like! And in the corner of my office was a big pile of second hand donated clothes festering and waiting to be collected for families. I believe it may have been thrown away by the cleaners eventually.

As a student union, we made a financial donation to the NUM, which was challenged by a government minister, who took the trouble to write to us, claiming this had broken the ‘ultra vires’ rules. As a student union with charitable status we could not donate to organisations with non-educational aims. The student union got round the rule in a way that was ingenious but way too technical to bore you with here.

On March 1, 1985, ITV ran a three-hour special programme at peak time looking back at a turbulent year of class struggle. It was presented by Brian Walden and Jonathan Dimbleby with reporters in six mining centres. The last thirty minutes were a debate between government minister Norman Tebbit, Labour party leader Neil Kinnock, and another senior politician, David Owen – none of whom wanted the strike to continue. Kinnock by early 1985 was not popular with NUM members.

FIND OUT MORE: The miners strike and my student union year

The 1984/85 miners strike ends

Then the 1984/85 miners strike came to an end. A prolonged death agony in the last few months that witnessed sections of the Left and the Labour Party leadership distancing themselves from the NUM. They were looking ahead to the next general election and lined up behind Kinnock, increasingly taking the view that extra-parliamentary strikes and protest were a ‘distraction’ or even an embarrassment.

Soft Left publications like Tribune wailed that “old-style industrial action” was finished. Urging the labour movement to support the party leader Neil Kinnock, it condemned the NUM for believing it could bring down Thatcher in the same way the miners had brought down the Tory government of Edward Heath in 1974. And it echoed the refrain common among the NUM’s left-wing critics that its failure to ballot miners on strike action had weakened its case.

There was a growing defeatism on the Left pioneered by the Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his 1981 tome: The Forward March of Labour Halted. Trade union power as it had been known in the 1960s and 1970s was broken. As Tribune put it, “if the most militant, best organised section of the working class cannot win an industrial dispute then what chance do, say, the teachers have?”

Leading lights in the Labour Party and trades unions spent much of the rest of 1985 trying to salvage something from the miners strike. Writing in The Guardian on May 20, 1985, Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council (GLC) which Thatcher was about to abolish, believed the experience of struggle had radicalised mining communities uniting them with women’s groups, gays and lesbians and black activists. He was moving rapidly from being ‘hard’ to softer Left.

Livingstone argued that “skilled white male workers” had for too long excluded women, LGBT, and black people because of their “workerist definition” of what it was to be working class. He lashed out at the “Trotskyist Left” as being “privately misogynist”. Livingstone’s answer was for a rainbow coalition to align behind Neil Kinnock and counterbalance the influence of right-wingers at the top of the Labour Party.

But on the hard Left, very different conclusions were being drawn. Kinnock was not a left-winger imprisoned by the right-wing of the Labour Party. He had become one of them. Evidenced by his refusal to even consider an amnesty under a future Labour government to those miners tried and convicted during the 1984/85 strike.

Both Livingstone and the hard Left wanted to believe that miners, who had gone through such a long experience of struggle, had become determined socialist cadres capable of transforming society and unlikely to back down in the face of Tory attacks. But there was another scenario. That when rebels are beaten, this doesn’t make them more revolutionary – it saps their will to fight.

Towards the end of the decade, the very existence of the ‘working class’ was being questioned on the Left. Again, this wasn’t new. It had been debated among left-wing academics since the defeats of 1968. But it now surfaced as the new conventional wisdom. The proletariat was no more. Instead ‘progressive’ coalitions had to be built. This was the language of the American Democrat Party.

How were miners going to make a living?

And so what were the hundreds of miners sacked during the strike and not rehired going to do? Or for that matter their children…and grandchildren…

One very popular movie in 1997 now revived as a TV series was The Fully Monty. The heart-warming tale of six unemployed steel workers becoming male strippers. Looking back at newspaper reports on the end of the strike, I discovered an article reporting a boom in strip shows in mining areas after March, 1985.

“Demand at workmen’s clubs has shot up so much that a Gateshead agency is advertising through the Employment department for strippers. Mrs Anne Robertson, who runs the agency, said the Department’s agreement to display her vacancies confirms that exotic dancing was at last accepted as a proper job.”

While this might be viewed as amusing, for me it signalled an end to a fought-for tradition of secure, industrial employment to be replaced by casual and deeply insecure labour (article continues after this image below).

The state responds to the 1984/85 miners strike

Thatcher and the Tories had won what felt like a war punctuated by battles. One big bust up on June 18, 1984 between South Yorkshire police and miners was referred to as the Battle of Orgreave. Whereas today, you have semi-militarised police who can easily overwhelm the average demonstration – in the 1984/85 miners strike you still had bobbies in standard uniform with easy-to-knock-off helmets and men who worked underground in tough conditions and could give as good as they got. This was a recipe for ultra-violence.

But things were tilting in favour of the state…

Already, riot police with more sophisticated gear and a willingness to use much greater force had made their presence felt on many picket lines. An infamous poster during the strike showed a kneeling woman about to be struck by a truncheon wielded by a mounted riot police officer. I saw for myself the changing state response to protest. A group of us went down to the picket line at the Stockport Messenger newspaper in 1984 and in the early hours of the morning, I witnessed scenes that gave me a taste of what had occurred at certain collieries.

There were the regular police from the local area but behind them, in a square formation, were riot police drafted from other parts of the country. And they were up for a fight. I’ll freely confess – it was one of the most terrifying nights of my life.

After the defeat of the miners in March 1985, the government set about toughening up the law on public order. There was the usual blather about the protecting the right to protest and our society being democratic and not totalitarian – but the screws were being tightened on freedom of assembly. The preamble to the new legislation in May of that year mentioned the 1984/85 miners strike alongside racist National Front marches and football hooliganism as if they were equivalent.

As was often the case in the Thatcher era, the courts prepared the ground for Tory legislation. They rejected complaints from the NUM about the police stopping pickets travelling to support miners. And they introduced a new tort aimed at the NUM called ‘unreasonable harassment’. This was all then enshrined on the statute books. To us it seemed as if judges and Tory leaders were marching in lockstep to smash organised labour.

Aftermath of the 1984/85 Miners Strike

The early 1980s had seen Britain polarised. Geographically between a Labour dominant north and a Tory south (with the big exception of London). Socially, with blue-collar, unionised, industrial workers supporting organised labour and the Labour Party while the emerging ‘yuppies’ of the City were resolutely pro-Thatcher. Intellectually, we had big socialist thinkers and historians but the neo-liberal Right also had its economists and philosophers. We seemed to live in parallel universes.

In her first term between 1979 and 1983, Thatcher’s position was by no means assured. Many thought Labour would be back in power soon and her policies ditched. The Left, socialists and Marxists, relished the battles ahead. Thatcher had removed the velvet glove to reveal the mailed fist of naked capitalism and Marxists responded: bring it on!

But Thatcher prevailed. The Left – Labour Party and trades unions – licked their wounds and indulged in acrimonious finger pointing as to who was to blame. A process of de-politicisation began on university and college campuses. Gen-X and then Millennials turned their back on big ideology for a generation. The level of industrial action subsided massively and trade union membership declined. Labour would not win in 1987 but set itself on a course towards ‘third way’ Blairism and victory in 1997.

When the 1984/85 miners strike ended, the Left termed it a ‘setback’. But as I watched the returning miners led by brass bands, it looked like a miserable and calamitous defeat. It signalled the end of industrialised, unionised Britain and began the process of creating the ‘flexible’ (non-union, less rights) labour market that endured ever since.

Neo-liberalism would now ride triumphant until the 2008 economic crisis and the impact of the Covid pandemic and rise of the populist, interventionist Right. Thatcher turbo-charged the drive towards privatisation and deregulation

The Poll Tax rebellion at the end of the 1980s and Thatcher’s resignation gave the Left a glimmer of hope but failed to reverse underlying trends. The Soviet Union collapsed at the same time, discrediting the notion of state control and the word ‘communism’. Even as we all complained loudly that we had eschewed the bureaucratic, Stalinist model – nobody understood or cared much about the nuances of our argument.

For me, the defeat of the miners was the end of a political dream. Socialist Britain was nowhere near. Big ideology on the Left would go into a long hibernation. And key to all of this was the defeat of the miners.

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