From militancy to catastrophe

Mike Phipps reviews The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain, by Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson, published by Verso.

Boris Johnson’s recent jibe that Margaret Thatcher’s closing of coal mines was an early attempt to tackle climate change reveals the undiluted contempt that his class and party still feel towards Britain’s miners. Former miner John Dunn, who was beaten by the police at the Orgreave mass picket of 1984, retorted drily that he would have seen things differently had he realised at the time that he was being attacked by environmental activists.

This is a book about those days, as well as what came before and after. Its purpose, say the authors, is “to explain why Britain’s coalfields, once significant centres of industrial production and political influence, became marginalised, and to explore the ways in which the state has played a central role in their declining fortunes.”

They go on:

“These concerns were brought into sharp relief at the time of the 2016 Brexit referendum, when Durham and South Wales both voted strongly in favour of leaving the European Union. In the days and weeks that followed, the referendum’s outcome was greeted with incredulity, and often presented as the mutiny of the old and the uneducated – a Peasant’s Revolt – or an outburst of nostalgia for a time when Britain was Great. It seemed to us, on the other hand, that in the coalfields at least, the Leave vote was a case of a forgotten people striking back. Coalfield politics came back into the spotlight in the General Election of 2019, Brexit once more at issue, as large numbers of Labour seats in old industrial and mining areas, including in Durham, turned to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. It was a cataclysmic event.”

It certainly was. The 1970s miners strikes shifted the balance of power in Britain and led to a change of government. The 1980s strike lasted a year and ended in defeat. This defeat affected the entire workers movement and changed the balance of class forces for decades. In former mining communities, the feeling was of abandonment and betrayal. The 18 year wait for a Labour government – Blair’s – changed little. Jobs in the old coalfields remained scarce, underpaid and temporary.

The book focuses on the coalfields of Durham and South Wales. From the 1960s on, as oil began to replace coal as a major source of fuel, mines began to close at an accelerating rate and the workforce nearly halved by the end of that decade.

But the strike called in December 1971 for higher wages – the first national stoppage by miners since 1926 – demonstrated the collective strength of the working class, as car plants struck and workers joined the picket line to close the strategic Saltley Gates coking depot. The Heath government was rattled enough to set up an instant court of inquiry into the merits of the miners’ claim, which found largely in their favour. But the miners’ leaders pressed home their advantage and took the negotiations to No 10 Downing Street, winning, in the words of NUM General Secretary Lawrence Daly, “more in the last twenty-four hours than we have won in the last twenty-four years.”

Despite pit closures, the National Coal Board was struggling to retain its workforce. The union called for another substantial wage increase and imposed an overtime ban in November 1973, which ran down coal stocks, followed by another strike in February 1974. Heath called an election and lost: the Tories would forgive neither him nor the miners.

Long before Thatcher came to power in 1979, her lieutenant Nicholas Ridley was charged with producing a plan on how to defeat the miners in a future confrontation. This included recruiting non-union lorry drivers to transport coal, cutting off benefits to strikers and building up a large mobile police force – all steps that were put in place before the mid-1980s. Mass unemployment and a ban on solidarity action would also weaken any militancy. But before that, there were further skirmishes with the union where the Thatcher government had to cave in, because the balance of forces remained adverse.

The 1984-5 strike against job losses and pit closures was the decisive turning point. Over 20,000 miners were arrested or hospitalised. Mining villages were cut off by the police. Despite denials at the time, recently released Cabinet papers reveal how closely the government was involved in coordinating strikebreaking measures. Nottinghamshire Area which had decided to keep working throughout the strike was surrounded by police roadblocks to prevent pickets from getting near the strikebreakers. At the picket of Orgreave coking plant, the police funnelled miners into a closed valley and then attacked them on horseback.

“In the autumn, therefore, the miners’ union was pinned back, its funds frozen, its picketing strength weakened by court orders and demoralised by the police violence,” report the authors.  Industrial action in solidarity was not forthcoming: other sectors which went on strike, like the dockers, were quickly settled with and the opportunity for opening an effective second front was lost.  There were huge amounts of fundraising and outside support in which millions of people participated, but in the end the strike ended without a settlement. It was an historic defeat.

And the management knew it. They drove through a far more ruthless closure programme than had been signalled a year earlier. “By 1991 mining employment in South Wales had been virtually wiped out.” When the industry was privatised in 1993, there were only 16 pits left, none in South Wales or Durham. Very little help was available to workers who lost their jobs and those who needed it most were helped least: “Rather than subsidise the retraining of ex-miners, it gave a leg-up into starting a small business to individuals whose qualifications, previous experience and family backgrounds had already equipped them for such a career.”

Alternative work was low-paid, low-status, demeaning and temporary. By the mid-1990s, Durham and South Wales were suffering an employment crisis. But this was just part of the loss. One miner said,” It wasn’t a job to me, it was my way of life, it was my whole being.”

The Coalfields Task Force established by the Blair government placed all its hopes for regeneration in foreign investment from multinational corporations.  The North East’s unelected regional development agency made clear that coalfield regeneration was not a priority: here and in South Wales, the story was of further manufacturing closures rather than new developments. The financial crash intensified this process.

Deindustrialisation, decline and depopulation set in. Housing quality deteriorated, partly a result of Thatcher’s Right To Buy policy, where privately owned houses had plummeted in value and been abandoned.  Unemployment and deep poverty fuelled other social problems, never experienced when the mines were thriving. Former coalfields also had some of the highest levels of ill health in the UK, including among people who had never worked in the mines. In one area, the suicide rate of former miners was three times the national average.

None of this fully explains the high vote for Brexit in many former mining areas. Benyon and Hudson compare it to the Borstal boy in Alan Sillitoe’s short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, who refuses to win the long distance race for ‘them’.  He got nothing out of it for himself except the satisfaction that they hadn’t won either. “Talking with people in Blaenau Gwent,” they write, “it became clear that few who voted Leave did so with any expectation of significant gain for them or their town.”

But more shocking was the loss in the 2019 general election of three former Labour strongholds in Durham to the Conservatives. Laura Pidcock, one of those who lost her seat, wrote to her constituents: “What was acutely obvious throughout my time as the MP, was that there was a hard core of people who were bitterly angry with me before I had even opened my mouth: angry at the political establishment; angry at the expenses scandal; angry at being left behind, angry that their life was not as good now as it was; angry that their communities had not been invested in.”

This book provides a solid account of the history of the coalfields in Durham and South Wales and the impact of deindustrialisation and closure upon them. But I was left wondering whether it had fully grasped the nature of the Brexit vote. The problem with characterising the Leave vote principally as a rejection of the political elite is that it overlooks the inconvenient fact that Brexit was itself championed by a significant part of that elite. We can all agree that New Labour neglect contributed to a sense that ‘they are all the same’, but this becomes more difficult to sustain under Corbyn’s leadership of the Party.

A bit more on the rise of English nationalism, and the demographic changes in these areas over the last twenty years would be useful: age was a key determinant in Party allegiance at the last election. As Brexit moves into the past tense, it will be interesting to see how loyal to the Tories – and on what basis – their new voting cohort remains. Meanwhile Labour faces a huge challenge to identify the values and policies that will allow them to rebuild in these former heartlands – and that won’t be achieved by offering a pale imitation of the Tory package.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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