The Enemy Within: 40 years since the Miners’ Strike

Mark Perryman digs deep to find an enduring significance for the 40th anniversary of the start of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike.

Published in 1995 amidst the eruption of the Miners’ strike, activist-sociologist Huw Benyon’s introduction to Digging Deeper, a collection of reports and analyses from the coalfields’ frontline, captures the mood of living through this significant time very well:

“The miners’ strike of 1984-85 is a landmark in the political and economic development of post-war Britain. In the breadth of the issues involved, and in the drama of its action, it stands out – even to the casual observer – as a major social and political event. In its compass it is quite staggering. Initiated by a threat to cut capacity and jobs in the coal industry it is the first major strike of any duration to be fought over the question of employment. Viewed in the context of the near calamitous decline of jobs in manufacturing industry, and the sharp rise in unemployment, the strike stands like a beacon. In the sincerity of the people involved – women and men – as they talk about the threat to mining villages, to ‘whole communities’ and to the futures of their children, the strike evokes a deeply human response. Since March 1984 this response has been forthcoming from supporters, in groups and as individuals, throughout Britain and Europe.  The yellow stickers of the NUM: Dig Deep for the Miners, Coal not Dole, have spread far beyond the coalfields.”

Huw’s collection consisted of observational and participative writing rooted in the experience of the events described. Instant too, written as those events unfolded. Contributors ranged across academics, left-wing journalists, National Union of Miners (NUM) officials as well as rank and file members and activists in the various miners’ support campaigns. There is a currency about the writing that still rings true today. It is too easy, lazy, to adopt a position haughtily dismissing the contributors’ collective rush to judgement. But the sad fact remains the 1984-85 strike did prove a landmark but in all the wrong ways. A major social and political defeat for a trade union, communities, an entire body of ideas, and one arguably we are still living with the consequences of four decades on. 

Does this decry what was achieved in those 12 months? No, not a bit of it, but only if what made this strike such a special event is properly understood. The spectacular revival of support and solidarity as a key element of Labour’s, and well beyond, organisational culture. 

Of course, for some this had never gone away but 1984-85 was of a type and scale that deserves to be thought of more of as a reinvention than a revival. Doreen Massey and Hilary Wainwright contributed to the book ‘Beyond the Coalfields: The Work of the Miners’ Support Groups’: a brilliant account of this phenomenon. The opening paragraph was a dig (sic) which was pretty obviously aimed at Beatrix Campbell, Eric Hobsbawm, Stuart Hall, writers and thinkers closely identified with the magazine Marxism Today:

“The miners’ strike seems to epitomise those aspects of the labour movement and class politics that certain interpreters have found ‘old fashioned’, sectional, and by implication, bankrupt. Male manual workers, the old working class with a vengeance, fighting to save jobs in what is officially described as a declining industry, state-owned and located in isolated declining regions.”  

Doreen and Hilary expertly tracked the reasons for, and lessons of, the  Miners Support Groups that sprang up all over the country and went well beyond the limitations of the traditional versions of campaigning the Left too often produces: “The strike could easily be seen as an old politics, slogging away in its own redoubts, far away from where the ‘rest of us’ live.”   

They described a response entirely different to this, and located this geographically, in the ‘big cities’ that share a socio-economic and commonality accelerated by the impact of Thatcherism. “A great mix of industries, including services, and a variety of jobs. Many of those in work are on low pay, in casual occupations, working in small firms, and in many areas levels of unionisation are low.”

And what this in part produces as a city’s population is significant too. “An enormously diverse population: in many cities ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian communities, women’s groups and ‘alternative’ networks of many kinds form an important element. The trade union movement is also different from that in the coalfields. Here its very industrial variety has been the basis for a tradition of local links and networks. Public sector and white-collar unions are especially important.”   

Ironically in a chapter celebrating the politics of solidarity Doreen and Hilary were charting the politics of difference and they were quite clear that this difference had strengthened rather than weakened the support for what they called in contrast ‘Coalfield Labourism’: “It is often anarchistic, socially adventurous, with a commitment to politics outside the workplace as well as within.”

This was their critical, yet nuanced, response, to Eric Hobsbawm, in particular his Forward March of Labour Halted? Where he identified’ sectionalism’ as a core failing of the post-war labour movement. In essence they shared his critique but had more faith in the fact that on the ground there were those who in practice had broken with such a failing and the metropolitan support for the miners proved it. In London, Merseyside, Southampton, Cardiff, Manchester, York, Glasgow, Edinburgh, basically everywhere, something stirred in the course of these twelve months that both broke with this failed model of sectionalism and put something better in its place. Nor was this limited solely to these ‘big cities’- it stretched also to what Doreen and Hilary dubbed ‘Thatcherland’: the kind of places where the main opposition to the Tories wasn’t Labour but the SDP-Liberal Alliance. Cambridge, St Albans, Milton Keynes and Somerset for starters.  

What was it that caused this surge that had been so absent in Labour’s General Election campaign of ’83? Resonance, a common cause, finding allies, the forms of organisation adopted, local initiatives as part of a loose yet national response, the practical focus of collecting food, the emotional impact of delivering that food. Via these many ways all of this created what Doreen and Hilary rather neatly named a politics of ‘preaching to the unconverted’.

Perhaps understandably caught in the moment they concluded with what proved to be more than a degree or two of over-confidence in what would follow: “Labour movement politics will never be the same again.”  

Their optimism was rooted in a fervent belief that something new and different was emerging that would serve as a challenge to a version of Left politics they argued was a retreat from class: “Something radically different has emerged out of a movement in support of what was seen as an ‘old’ struggle. Many thought this impossible. They have argued that the Left must move with the times – that ‘old-fashioned class struggles’ are doomed to isolation without resonance or relevance to present-day socialist politics.”

Despite this critique of Hobsbawm and Marxism Today Doreen and Hilary shared with him a recognition of labourism’s deeply embedded resistance to change and a trade union sectionalism that denied industrial action the breadth of support needed to win. While at the same time arguing more confidently than Eric that both could, and would, be overcome by what they characterised as an enduring commitment to ‘class politics.’  And in the process this would be the means towards a fusion of the ’old’ and the ‘new’. The past 40 years are testament to how difficult a process this is. But their summation helps us understand why it remains worth trying. 

“It is not a question of either industrial action or the new social movements, nor is it one of just adding the two together. What is important is a recognition of a mutual dependence and a new openness to influence, of the one upon the other.”

True then, and true today. That is what makes for being an ‘Enemy Within.’ Then and now.

Mark Perryman was a member of the Marxism Today Editorial Board 1984-1990 

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