Learning from solidarity: the miners' strike 1984-5


Jim Denham

"Support groups are beginning to assume the status of one of the positive lessons of the 1984-85 strike in much the same way that mass picketing was seen as the lesson of the 1972 strike".
Paul Mackney

The great miners' strike of 1984-85 was a historic defeat for the British working class - a defeat that continues to haunt and enervate our movement to this day. But it was not simply a negative experience. Many valuable lessons were learned by the 150,000 miners out on strike for over a year and by the tens of thousands of working class people who actively supported them.

The support committees that emerged throughout Britain have been accurately described as "invol(ving) more people at a greater pitch of activity over a lengthier period than any other campaign in the history of the labour movement. It would not be an exaggeration to say that it represented the biggest civilian mobilisation in Britain since the second world war".

Probably the biggest, most effective and most imaginative support committee was that organised by Birmingham Trades Council. We are fortunate that Paul Mackney, now General Secretary of NATFHE but in 1984-85 the Vice President of Birmingham Trades Council and Chair of the support committee, wrote a detailed account of the Birmingham experience* from which much of the information and all the quotes in the present article have been gleaned.

Birmingham never had any coal mines, but because of the successful 1972 mass picketing of Saltley coke depot it figures prominently in the history of the NUM. When Welsh miners arrived in Birmingham at the onset of the 1984 strike they intended to picket Saltley depot, which had been closed for several years. This in itself indicates the lack of organisation, information and co-ordination that characterised the early days of the strike.

Into this vacuum stepped various activists in and around the Communist Party, then still a formidable force in industry and with a strong presence on the Regional TUC. Given that several of the Welsh NUM lodges (notably Maerdy) were controlled by CP members, it was unsurprising that the early attempts to co-ordinate activity and establish a support network in Birmingham and the Midlands were done largely through the CP and the Regional TUC "left".

Pickets from Kent, Wales and the minority of Midlands strikers descended upon Birmingham as a base of operations for picketing the working ("scabbing") pits in Nottinghamshire and the South Midlands. Accommodation was an immediate problem. The CP/Regional TUC network failed to find sufficient suitable overnight arrangements and pickets often had to sleep in their vehicles or on the floors of union offices and social clubs.

It became increasingly obvious that the CP were directing miners in need of beds and washing facilities to a close circle of their own members and sympathisers, whilst ignoring the many offers of help coming from households suspected of "Trot" affiliations. This situation was made still worse by the bitter feud then raging within the CP, between "Euros" (Eurocommunist social democrats) and "Tankies" (old-style Stalinists).

Geoff Poxon, a NUPE official active on both the West Midlands TUC and the Trades Council, comments: "The CP in Birmingham were closely trying to control the whole situation and that included the accommodation, where miners appeared in the media, who they spoke to and trying to keep it tight and not let in the Trades Council or anybody else. I think at that stage they thought they'd got control of the (Regional) TUC…the whole thing seemed to be stitched up by the Euros…".

It was a classic case of sectarianism: putting the factional interests of a particular group or party before the interests of the class struggle. It could not, and did not, last.

Birmingham Trades Council, made up of rank and file union delegates some of whom were Labour Party members, some in far-left groups and many more simply independent militants set up a Support Committee.

The Committee met for the first time on 19 April at the Trades Council's offices. The attendance was thin and representatives of the Regional TUC, though invited, did not turn up. But it took decisions for future work.

The focus was on encouraging the widest involvement in all aspects of solidarity work. This included supporting picket lines (if requested to do so), advertising the availability of NUM speakers for meetings, encouraging collections, levies and factory gate meetings, and publishing a regular bulletin for the labour movement and the general public.

Initially the committee was delegate-based but by the middle of May, when the weekly meetings moved to a local Labour Club, it was open to anyone involved in practical solidarity work.

Despite the boycott of the Regional TUC, the Trades Council Committee established itself as the real focus of solidarity in Birmingham. This was to a large degree because the visiting miners began to see through the pretensions and inadequacy of the "official" TUC network. The first group to start working with the Trades Council committee was a team from St John's Lodge in south Wales. They were not led by CP members. In fact their Lodge Secretary, Ian Isaacs, supported the Militant Tendency (now Socialist Party).

At first this move was met with hostility from the Maerdy Lodge miners in Birmingham ("You boys are following that Militant bastard Ian Isaacs") and the South Wales NUM office in Pontypridd, who tried to order them back to Wales. To this the St John's men replied: "Tell the South Wales NUM we're here to do a job. As far as we're concerned you can get stuffed!"

St John's discovered that the rank and file supporters of the Birmingham Committee could deliver the goods in terms of workplace meetings, collections, accommodation and so on. Soon even the Maerdy team started attending the Birmingham Committee in preference to the Regional TUC/CP network.

One of the Maerdy leaders, Terry Williams, later explained: "When you go to a strange place and you don't know who you are dealing with you've got to take the advice off the people you think you know. I'm not proud to say we made a lot of mistakes. Who's to know somebody's looking after his own party interests?"

In fact, the very success of the Birmingham committee, and its reputation amongst different visiting groups of miners, eventually became something of a problem: there would sometimes be NUM representatives from as many as twenty Welsh, Midlands or Nottingham pits and many women's support groups, and the discussions about dividing up the proceeds of collections were often heated. Eventually, the NUM members asked the Trades Council President to Chair the meetings because a neutral NUM chair could not be agreed upon.

The internal NUM business like organising picket rotas and distributing food and money took place "upstairs" in the Labour Club, while the other support organisation took place in the main meeting, "downstairs".

The Committee established itself as the authoritative body and central focus for all those who wanted to support the strike. A fairly typical early attendance is given in the minutes for 30 May: "NUM: Birch Coppice, Littleton, St. John's, Ham Heath, Daw Mill, Ansley Workshops, Lady Windsor plus a representative of Midlands Area NUM Executive. Others (mostly delegates): ASTMS City, Sandwell Branch LP, NALGO, TASS, ASLEF, Selly Oak LP, T&GWU, NUPE, West Mids County Council, Birmingham Uni SU, Soho LP, Uni Labour Club, NUT, Banner Theatre, Equity, Erdington LP, SOGAT, Trade Union Resource Centre, SLADE, SWP, Socialist Organiser, Socialist Action, Workers Power, Spartacists".

The above list makes no mention of the significant number of individual activists who also attended, representing no-one but themselves. The committee was unusual (in comparison with most of the other support committees that emerged round Britain) in having overtly political debates on the agenda and not banning the sale of left wing papers.

Paul Mackney notes: "I was surprised in my interviews with the miners to find that the 'political' debate was not as unpopular as I had expected. The more experienced trades unionists liked it least. Thus Eric Lippitt (Midlands NUM Executive) thought 'a lot of political talk downstairs was unproductive', but said Jessie Lippett (his wife) loved it. 'She even thought the Workers' Hammer (paper of the Spartacist League) was a good paper!' Ellen Smith from Ansley Workshops said of Stuart Richardson (a well known and verbose far leftist) 'I could listen to him all night just to hear him talk". She said of the meetings, 'That's when I became political…They taught me a lot'".

It is worth noting that although the SWP is listed as attending the 30 May meeting, the two SWPers present were there on their own initiative and in defiance of the official SWP line, which dismissed the support committees throughout Britain as "left wing Oxfam" and the "baked beans brigade" until late September 1984 - over six months into the strike!

Women began to play an increasingly important role in the strike and in the support work. Miners' wives had organised themselves early in the dispute, usually with little encouragement from the official structures of the NUM. The Trades Council Women's Group made a point of contacting the miners' wives and encouraging them to attend and participate in meetings of the Committee.

Quickly, attitudes began to change. Maureen Douglass from Yorkshire and Vanda Evans from Coventry spoke at Birmingham Trades Council's May Day festival and the discussion that followed was dominated by a large women's contingent from Birch Coppice pit, which in turn led to the first street collections organised by the Trades Council Women's Group. Maerdy Miners' Wives came to Birmingham in July. When the South Wales NUM was fined £50,000 under the anti-union laws in August, the women took part in a daring occupation of sequestrators Price Waterhouse's Birmingham offices.

Something very similar happened as the miners and the Support Committee started to reach out to black and Asian people. Bobby Potts of St. John's described the effect of their first contact:

"Some of the boys going up there (Birmingham) had not been in contact with coloured people. They knew they were going to a coloured community and they were making racist remarks. But after we got that welcome the coloured people gave us, to this day those boys never make any racist remarks… All the boys have changed their attitude".

This process was helped by the amount of financial support from black areas, community organisations and places of worship.

The Indian Workers' Association worked closely with the Birmingham Committee and organised their own highly successful fund raising events in a Handsworth pub. Sikh temples raised an estimated £5,000, in stark contrast to the poor response that an attempt to collect outside a Billy Graham rally received. Street collections on the Soho Road (a very poor black and Asian area) were known to be amongst the best supported in Birmingham and miners squabbled over who should get that "patch".

In turn, the Committee organised NUM support for black and Asian workers on strike at GM Plastics and Kewal Brothers, a sweatshop where Asian women were earning as little as £1 per hour. Cannock miners, with barely enough money to feed their own families, hired coaches to take 150 Lea Hall and Littelton miners to the Kewal picket line.

These experiences made a deep and lasting impression on all those active round the strike. The 27 June Support Committee minutes record: "Brother from Lea Hall reported that… they had a greater understanding of police harassment themselves now and would always support ethnic minority groups coming up against it in future especially as they were supporting the NUM so solidly now".

Yes, the strike ended in defeat. But some defeats are worse than others. This one taught thousands of working class people just what solidarity meant. It changed the entire world view of many miners and many of their supporters. It politicised a generation. Rob James from St John's summed up the gains:

"The Tories attempted to wreck the trade union movement. But… they've formed another generation of trade unionists - in the women, the youngsters, kids who were on the picket lines - leaders of the future…They've made us more aware, politically aware…And by god we'll have 'em one day. Revenge will be sweet. We'll have 'em"
Birmingham and the Miners' Strike, published by Birmingham Trades Council, 1987