This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the great miners' strike. A new book by Workers’ Liberty, out this week, tells the story of how working-class communities fought a Tory ruling-class government. But how did the left conduct itself?
The Labour Party, led then by the former "soft left" Neil Kinnock, refused to indict the government and brand its activities for the vicious class war they were.
Many thousands of rank and file Labour Party activists were, however, active organisers of the miners’ support groups. If the organised revolutionary socialist left had worked together seriously — for example in the Mineworkers’ Defence Committee — even our small forces could, perhaps, have tipped the balance.
Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty) threw everything it had into backing the miners.
We helped the rank and file strike committee in Nottinghamshire, the area where the strike faced most difficulties. We worked in the miners’ support groups and helped launch the national Mineworkers’ Defence Committee. We helped organise rank and file solidarity action among rail workers in the central Notts and South Yorkshire area.
From the beginning we supported and publicised the importance of the militant self-organisation and action by women in the pit communities (Women Against Pit Closures). Our supporters moved the main resolution supporting the miners at the 1984 Labour Party Conference (a resolution which was ignored by the Labour leaders). We argued in the labour movement for solidarity and a general strike, and for socialist politics.
The bigger battalions of the revolutionary left were disoriented, too self-absorbed and self-obsessed, organisationally and politically, to be other than a negative factor. The SWP had spent the previous five years preaching woe and defeat, magnifying and exaggerating the real setbacks and defeats of the working-class movement.
They believed nothing much could be done, and at first seemed to have difficulty simply taking in the fact that the biggest industrial class war since the 1926 General Strike had broken out.
Tony Cliff, wrote that “the miners’ strike is an extreme example of what we in the Socialist Workers Party have called the “downturn” in the movement” (Socialist Worker, 14 April 1984). They stuck to that view throughout the strike, even after they, very late, in October 1984, joined the miners’ support groups.
Week after week, SW told readers how much it regretted the lack of militancy in the miners’ strike and the probability of its defeat. Naturally the SWP deplored calls for a general strike — that is, it deplored educational work in the labour movement for effective action to stop the Tory offensive against the working class, of which the miners’ strike was the front line.
Only three or so years after the miners had been defeated did the SWP begin to revise the downturn theory and talk vaguely about new “volatility”. By 1992, after seven years of further grinding defeats, it was putting up posters with demands that the TUC call a general strike “now” — not to assist a serious battle in the labour movement to get a general strike, but to advertise the SWP as “militant”. It has remained in that mode, with many detailed variations, ever since.
Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal) then had the leadership of the labour movement in Liverpool and of Liverpool’s Labour council. They conducted the council’s conflict with the government over cuts as if they lived in a parallel universe to the world of industrial conflict in which the miners lives and fought.
When, in July 1984, the Tories offered Liverpool council a deal to postpone the budget issues, they accepted and demobilised the labour movement in Merseyside, which did want to fight, and which they could and should have led into a common fight with the miners.
That didn’t even save Militant’s own position. The deal with the Tories last a year and then, with the miners defeated, the Tories came after them. The Labour Party leaders came in the wake of the Tories to destroy Militant's position in the Labour Party.
Militant also led a trade-union grouping, the Broad Lefts Organising Committee. BLOC was small; but with the gales of the miners’ struggle filling its sails, it could have done much to increase solidarity and put pressure on union leaders to meet their responsibilities and fulfill their promises. It did nothing beyond one or two perfunctory lobbies of the TUC General Council.
Militant never joined the miners’ support groups. While almost everyone else on the left was out with collecting tins to raise funds for the miners, in that year Militant always had collecting tins for the expansion of its own press.
Sometimes it got money from people thinking the collection must be for the miners; frequently it got righteous irritation.