As well as fighting for the leadership, Yvette Cooper is struggling with a constituency problem: the loss of a major local employer. Kellingley was the last remaining colliery and its closure marks the end of deep mining in the country. I worked for the National Coal Board between 1968 and 1986 and undertook my most successful project at Kellingley when I investigated the potential of new types of geological surveying. It was all a long time ago. So also was the Miners’ strike of 1984-85 that followed after the 1983 election. Both were political disasters for the left in the UK and we should not allow the lessons to be lost in a fog of romantic hindsight.
By the early 1980s the economics of production meant that there was little long-term future for the industry. UK deep-mined coal was becoming increasingly expensive compared to the more convenient fuels of oil and gas, and indeed to coal produced overseas. However the manner of the industry’s destruction was a tragedy for all sides. From March 1984 the coal industry experienced the most extensive and intense industrial dispute that had been seen in Britain since the 1926 General Strike. The strike lasted 358 days but despite the rhetoric and the subsequent romantic image it was never a demonstration of solidarity. Area ballots held in the Midlands, North East and North West coalfields produced heavy votes against the strike. NUM members in the most profitable NCB area in Nottinghamshire continued to work throughout. Support from other trade unions was variable and some were publicly hostile.
However, it made Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader, the hero of the left. One of the most uncomfortable aspects of this awful period for me was attending Labour Party meetings in Islington and hearing the class rhetoric. There was a vicarious enjoyment of the strike from those for whom nothing was at stake. Moreover, mining, a dangerous and unhealthy occupation, was for ‘other people’s children’. The children of the Islington middle class would work in marketing, publishing and broadcasting while hard graft could be done by others in the North.
Ultimately, and probably inevitably, the miners’ strike was a complete triumph for the politics of Margaret Thatcher. The miners returned to work in March 1985 without a settlement. What should have been at issue was the management of change and how necessary but painful economic transitions could be accomplished.
Inevitably, with the benefit of intervening time, romantic folk myths have emerged. The most pernicious is that it marked the beginning of a new awareness and solidarity. There may, it is true, have been some politicisation of the odd individual, however there is not slightest evidence of widespread sustained commitment, even in the mining areas.
This really came home to be in 2005 when, working as a writer and researcher on training, I visited a large call centre in the UK to write a case study. The centre, then branded as Ventura, was located in the Dearne Valley – the heart of the former Yorkshire mining area (and firmly Scargill country). Indeed the modern centre had been built on a former colliery site. The contact centre displayed all the necessary conditions for the emergence of a trade union. Staff were working closely together, many were from traditional mining families; they were not particularly well paid; if they took action the effect on output would be immediate. Yet there was no trade union presence and that tradition was completely absent. For many of today’s workforce the miners’ strike might have taken place 130, not 30, years ago.
*See Episode 6 in my book ‘Labour’s failure’ for the miners’ strike
Labour’s failure and my small part in it: a memoir for my grandchildren Martyn Sloman
Download here Labour’s failure and my small part in it
This short book is based on experiences of 50 year’s activism, despair about the current state of the Labour Party, and the steps that are needed to regain credibility. It is available free of charge as a download on this blog site (above) and on a personal website http://www.martynsloman.co.uk. A Kindle edition, priced 99p., the minimum permissible by the publisher, is also available (details on the personal website).