The failure to support Amendment 51 of the EU Withdrawal Bill will not loom large in future undergraduate politics essays; it may however find its way into the odd doctoral thesis on the decline of the Labour Party in the 21st Century. Amendment 51 would have obliged the government to prioritise staying in the European Economic Area. Given the Parliamentary arithmetic it offered the best chance of defeating the Government and hence putting a serious impediment in the way of withdrawal.
The Labour leadership opposed the amendment on the bizarre grounds that the Party had better ideas. As a result the Government emerged unscathed. It was a dismal performance in a thoroughly dispiriting week.
Two emails arrived in my inbox on Tuesday, the day before Parliament debated and rejected the Lords’ amendments. One was from Jeremy Corbyn telling me that ‘the Tories are too divided to negotiate with the EU’so Labour‘has an opportunity to vote to protect jobs, living standards and our rights’. Communications from the leader’s office are often impervious to the irony inherent in their content.
The second communication upset me more. It was from Momentum inviting me to attend their ‘big lefty weekend’in July. As well as their conference there will be a ‘People, Pits and Politics Festival’. This will feature Anne Scargill, ex-wife of the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) leader Arthur, speaking on the Miners’ Strike. To quote from the publicity for the event: ‘Still the most significant class struggle in generations, the miners strike of 1984-5 was a watershed in trade union history’. Too true. It was indeed a watershed. It was also a disaster.
Unlike the overwhelming majority of those who will attend Momentum’s jamboree, I do feel in a position to comment with some authority on this chapter of labour history. I worked in the coal industry from 1968 till 1986. During the strike I set up the Coal Board’s job creation company NCB (Enterprise). Having seen it at first hand I have no time for the rewriting of history, or for romantic nonsense about growing class awareness. What should have been at issue was the management of change and how necessary but painful economic transitions could be accomplished. What actually happened was an episode of foolish adventurism led by an egotistic Marxist.
The miners returned to work in March 1985 without a settlement: it was a victory for the politics of Margaret Thatcher and the managerial economics of Ian MacGregor, the NCB Chairman of the time. The NUM was irreversibly fragmented. In less than a year Arthur Scargill and his adherents had destroyed what previous generations of miners had taken decades to establish: a single cohesive trade union. The decline of the industry was brutally hastened rather than sensibly managed.
With the benefit of intervening time, romantic folk myths have emerged. The most pernicious is that the strike marked the beginning of a new awareness and solidarity. That is what Anne Scargill will be peddling. Those attending want to believe that this is the case, despite all evidence to the contrary. They are more comfortable with the delusions of the 1970s and the 1980s than they are facing up to the complex challenges of 2018.
By rewriting history in this way we are doing a disservice to those who worked so hard to bring the labour movement to a position where it could achieve power and bring about social change. Our failure to provide an effective counter to Brexit sadly reflects this preference for gesture politics over difficult decisions.
It has been a dreadful week. I can only look forward travelling to London and joining other members of my family on the March for a People’s Vote on the 23rd and walking off my frustration.
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