England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

The story of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike

By Cormac Kelly, Socialist Alternative West Yorkshire

40 years ago, on 1 March 1984, the National Coal Board made the shocking announcement that Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire would close. Six days later the bosses provocatively gave notice of the closure of a further 20 pits and 20,000 redundancies. This triggered the greatest industrial struggle of the second half of the 20th century. It was not just a calculated attack by a Tory government on miners, their families and communities but also on the entire trade union movement.

This action was met with fierce resistance and a bitter year-long strike across the industry, led by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) one of Britain’s most militant and determined unions, led by Arthur Scargill. The strike unleashed the creative forces of working class solidarity on a national and international scale and the raising of £millions in support.

Women Against Pit Closures played a crucial role, Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners emerged, school students walked out and the Labour Party Young Socialists, which had embraced the revolutionary ideas of Socialist Alternative’s predecessor organisation, the Militant Tendency, supported pits across the country. The strike spread rapidly from Yorkshire across the coalfields with only a section of miners in Nottinghamshire working.

The state prepares

The Tories had suffered humiliating defeats in two recent strikes, in 1972 and 1974, leading to the fall of their government. The new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was desperate to crush the unions, in order to undermine resistance to wage cuts and worsening conditions.

In 1977 the Ridley Plan was devised by a right wing Tory MP with the strategic aim of breaking the miners and their union. Stocks of coal would be built up at power stations, if necessary using imported coal to prevent electricity blackouts, and employing non-union lorry drivers. The NUM would be provoked into a strike, with the government relying on a huge police deployment, the intelligence services and the courts to intimidate miners and destroy the finances of the union.

The state acts

When the strike broke out, the capitalist state was ready. MI5 and Special Branch had been careful to place spies and agent provocateurs in the NUM. There was extensive surveillance and wiretaps. The judiciary and legislature could be relied upon to assiduously pursue every opportunity to undermine the union. Rights of assembly, and freedom of movement and speech were curtailed. Arbitrary arrests were common. The police were reformed as a national police force, verging on a paramilitary army, trained in brutality, bussed around the country or housed in disused airfields.

One of many demos in support of miners

Mining villages were ringed with officers, and Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire at times resembled police states as the movement of ‘flying pickets’ (groups of workers travelling to picket different workplaces) in cars was stopped. The front line was the Dartford Tunnel, east of London, controlled to stop miners travelling to and from the Kent coalfield. Social security benefits and tax refunds were denied to miners’ families to starve them.

During the strike, 20,000 strikers were injured or hospitalised. 11,300 miners and supporters were arrested, and 200 imprisoned or in police custody. Two miners were killed on picket lines, three died digging for coal for fuel and 966 sacked. Rail workers were victimised and seafarers fired for taking action in support of the strike.

No lie was big enough for the press and TV media as they vomited out their bile against the NUM and its leaders, accusing miners of violence and being aided by hostile states.

Despite detailed preparation and the full use of state powers and propaganda, six months into the strike, Thatcher was in trouble (as she admitted afterwards). Even with the stockpiling of coal and the breaking of picket lines by lorries, there was only six weeks of coal left in power stations for winter. When it ran out, so did the lights.

The supervisors union, NACODS, whose members were in charge of mine safety, threatened a strike as they were put under pressure to go through miners’ picket lines by management. This would stop work in all mines. The situation for Thatcher became desperate as she realised a major mistake had been made. A day before NACODS was due to act the leadership called it off on the dubious promise of an independent review for pit closures. Ten years later, the procedure had not saved one colliery.

Resistance

In the UK and across the world there was enormous solidarity, over £60m was raised for miners and warehouses filled with food and supplies in support. New sections of workers and the oppressed gave solidarity and ensured Thatcher and her crew did not get the quick victory planned.

Within weeks of the start of the strike the national Women Against Pit Closures movement was up and running. Women were prevented by law from working underground but were an essential part of the struggle, organising, providing food often with poor facilities and meeting the needs of families. Often harassed and abused by the police, they raised money and organised events and holidays for children. 5,000 women attended a rally in Barnsley and a few months later 23,000 marched through London.

Welsh Women’s Support Group

Had there been no support from women the strike would have collapsed very quickly. As Elaine Robe from Hatfield Main Women’s Support Group wrote: “We attended and organised pickets, rallies and raised money. We didn’t want to be an appendage to the NUM.” For many women the strike was life-changing.

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) organised links with pits too and gave help as they recognised the state’s oppression. By the end of the strike, 11 LGSM groups had emerged with the London group alone raising £22,500 by 1985 (equivalent to £73,000 in 2021) in support. Their story is told in the 2014 film Pride.

The state uses violence

The use of flying pickets involved striking miners going to working pits and persuading them to join the action or convincing lorry drivers to refuse to move coal. The police routinely attacked picket lines but no event demonstrated their violence more than the ambush of 10,000 miners as they picketed outside the Orgreave coking plant near Sheffield. In a deliberate trap, 4,000 police officers led by a cavalry charge, followed by snatch squads armed with shields, truncheons and dogs, caused several severe injuries.

The media notoriously swapped around the sequence of events when reporting, to make it appear that it was miners attacking the police first, rather than the other way round.

95 pickets were fitted up on charges such as ‘riotous assembly’ which carries a potential life sentence. The cases collapsed in court with evidence exposed as being totally fabricated. Miners then sued the police for assault, unlawful arrest, and malicious prosecution – and £425,000 compensation and legal fees were paid out to 39 picketers.

The notorious strike-breaking Union of Democratic Miners appeared on the scene. They recruited working miners using the absence of a national miners ballot, particularly in Nottinghamshire as an argument. Their leaders, including at least one Labour councillor, encouraged miners to scab (carry on working) and thus undermine the strike. The socialist MP Denis Skinner recounted that they even burned down the pickets’ kitchen at the Clipstone pit in his constituency. One of their leaders was later jailed for stealing £150,000 from a charity for elderly miners.

Cartoon by Alan Hardman (1936-2024), longtime cartoonist of the Militant Tendency (a forerunner of Socialist Alternative), published in Militant, 27 July 1984

The argument is still repeated that the miners lost because their action was reckless, the state was too strong and no national ballot was called. Tactically a strike ballot of miners could have been held, even after the strikes had begun, as it would have undermined scabbing, reduced coal production, and the Tories and right of the Labour movement would not be able to accuse Scargill and the NUM leadership of being undemocratic. The union could have organised meetings with Nottinghamshire miners away from management to persuade them that action was needed to defend their jobs.

Marxists, however, understand that the key reason for the defeat was the betrayal and spineless role of the TUC, the trade union bureaucracy, and the leader of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock. By 1984 Kinnock had abandoned any socialist views he had in the past. Labour’s loss of the 1983 election propelled him to the right. Kinnock and trade union leaders adopted the so called ‘new realism’ strategy that the free market was here to stay and it was futile opposing it. He appeared once on a picket line, ‘to observe’ and at every opportunity undermined the strike. 

The Labour right absorbed Thatcher’s neoliberalism – the policy of privatisation, deregulation, globalisation, austerity, and weakening trade unions. A victory for the miners would have been a catastrophe for neoliberalism and raised the demand for socialist policies in the interest of the working class and the end of all anti-trade union laws.

The state uses the media and courts

Throughout the strike, the Tories had kept up a barrage of propaganda against Arthur Scargill and the strikers to try to isolate them. He was accused of organising a private army and wishing to destroy British society. Thatcher made her loathsome ‘enemy within’ speech and later compared the miners to terrorists.

Most trade union leaders were incapable of translating their words of support into action. TUC general secretary Norman Willis joined in the condemnation of so-called violence carried out on picket lines at a miners’ meeting in South Wales and whilst he was berating them, a noose was lowered with a placard reading ‘Where’s Ramsey McKinnock’, referring to the two labour leaders who betrayed workers. The TUC and many trade union leaders were hostile to the strike, using the lack of a ballot as an excuse not to organise solidarity action.

In October 1984, the High Court ordered the sequestration (seizure) of the entire funds of the NUM following contempt of court proceedings. In response to this blatant act of class warfare, Scargill called on the TUC to organise a general strike. This was quickly condemned by Kinnock and the right-wing union leaders.

But Scargill did not have to wait for the TUC leadership. A call for solidarity action from other unions would have received a huge response. As Militant said at the time: “The NUM executive should name the day… for a national day of action in which they would invite the other left unions to take part in a 24-hour general strike.” Action from other sections of workers such as the dockers or rail workers – who have shown the power they have in recent years through the strike wave – could have brought the government to its knees. Unfortunately such a strategy was never adopted, and the Tories’ escalations went unchallenged.

Miners driven back to work

The strike continued to March 1985. With the miners exhausted and betrayed, the NUM held a special delegate conference where they voted 98 to 91 to return to work with no agreement, no reprieve for the threatened pits, and no amnesty for sacked miners. Soon the industry was all but wiped out, with mines closed down and communities destroyed.

This was followed with privatisation and closures in the print, steel and other heavy industries. As a result of this huge defeat, three million manufacturing jobs disappeared, unemployment rose and poverty increased.

The impact of the strike

It would be hard to overestimate the impact of the strike since in the early post-war period the majority of the country’s energy needs were still supplied by coal. While nowadays mining would be seen as a dangerous and harmful activity, and the cry is to ‘leave it in the ground’, miners then were seen as key workers. In addition, they had a proud history of struggle, dating back to 1926, when they also struck for a year and were betrayed by the trade union leaders. With their discipline and solidarity they were seen as ‘the praetorian guard of the labour movement’ and the defeat in 1985 had a deeply chilling effect on the confidence of the working class. 40 years later, this confidence is being rediscovered by rail workers, postal workers, teachers, health workers and more.

Opening the huge Durham Miners’ Gala in 1984, the leftwing Labour MP Dennis Skinner announced “the miners are out… the sun is out… and now the dockers are out!”. That optimism will return in the tradition of solidarity, organisation and the struggle of the miners, women and their many supporters. 2023 saw a significant increase in strikes amongst new groups of workers ground down by the cost of living crisis. In this age of disorder amidst the chaos of capitalism the movement is rearming as the working class fights to defend its wages and working conditions.

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