Tony Cliff

Miners after three months –
a crisis of leadership

(9 June 1984)

From Socialist Worker, 9 June 1984.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The miners’ strike has gone on for over three months. Serious miners are more and more asking themselves why there is no real move forward.

In the 1972 strike, the steel industry was completely paralysed by the third week. By the fifth week, power was badly affected and one million workers were laid off. By the seventh week it was 1.5 million. The pressure on the government was enormous.

In 1974, the government introduced a three day week from day one of the miners’ strike. This time however there have been hardly any lay-offs after three months.

The only real progress in the strike came in the first week with the significant hardening in South Wales and Scotland and after the national delegate conference that led to more Notts miners, though still a minority, joining the action.

The reason for these difficulties is basically political. The capitalist class uses both its two arms in the struggle – the economic and the political. They use their economic power of hiring and firing labour, investing and withdrawing capital, or simply removing it elsewhere. They also use their political power – the police courts, press and TV.

But on our side, the political weakness of the workers’ leaders is the root of today’s difficulties.

In 1972 and 1974 the miners did not have to picket their fellow miners. Today 27,000 are still working. The split in the mining community was caused by a directly political act, the introduction of the miners’ incentive scheme in 1977 by then energy minister Tony Benn. It produced a dramatic shift in strike votes.

Again, every miner knows that redundancy payments dramatically weaken miners’ resistance to pit closures. Their introduction was a political decision by the Wilson government in 1966 to allow Coal Board chief Alf Robens, former Minister of Labour in the post war Labour government to close a record number of pits the next year.

Today, the reason why the steel industry hasn’t been stopped is equally political. Arthur Scargill said to massive applause in Cardiff last month that there would be no dispensations for steel. If steel had been stopped as a result, then two weeks later, Ford, BL, Vauxhall and GKN would have stopped too.

But because Mick McGahey believes in a Scottish ‘national interest’, he is scared that British Steel will close Ravenscraig and leave Llanwern and Port Talbot open. Similarly Emlyn Williams, the Welsh NUM president worries that British Steel might scrap Llanwern and save Ravenscraig, so both keep their local plant in production.

This defence of ‘Scottish interests’ on the one hand and ‘Welsh interests’ on the other plays straight into the hand of the Tories’ divide and rule policies.


When Lenin wrote that politics is concentrated economics he meant that to be consistent politically you have to look at the interests of the whole working class, not just sections of it.

Thatcher does just this. She is a consistent class warrior. She knows that if it costs £2,000 million to beat the miners it is cheap at the price. If the miners lose and the distribution of national income shifts by 1 percent from wages to profits, then the capitalist class will have recuperated the cost of the strike in less than a year. In fact a victory over the miners will mean a shift of more than 1 percent.

The Labour movement in Britain doesn’t think like this. It is a federation of sectional groups where unity means unity of the leaders at the top. So Bill Sirs, who lost half his members in a few years, can pressurise the NUM leaders, in the name of ‘unity’, not to close Llanwern, Ravenscraig orScunthorpe.

Because the whole trade union movement revolves round this phoney unity of the chiefs, it paralyses the unity of workers from below. Even within the NUM, Yorkshire president Jack Taylor could knife Arthur Scargill in the back when he responded to Scargill’s call for mass pickets at Orgreave by sending his members into Nottinghamshire.

For more workers, the Labour Party is what politics is about, and Labour’s role has been most damaging of all in the present struggle.

Its leaders are interested in getting votes and are not enthusiastic about the miners’ strike. If you’d listened to Neil Kinnock’s speeches during the first five weeks of the strike you wouldn’t have known it was on.

Labour leaders have constantly argued for negotiations. In the middle of a war, those who call for negotiations are fifth columnists. The NUM should only negotiate after they’ve won.

And the fact that the miners’ leaders accept this Labour Party outlook prevents them from shutting down steel, something which would be unpopular with other trade union bureaucrats and the press.

When we say the strike faces a political crisis, we mean that the two concepts of how society will be changed, of what socialism is about, are decisive. Does it come from the top, through trade union officials and Labour MPs, or does it come from below, through the rank and file?

In 1972 it was Arthur Scargill and the present Yorkshire leadership who were rank and file miners opposing the right wing union officials. They had already led unofficial strikes in 1969 and 1970. But after the victory in 1972 almost all those rank and file activists became part of the union bureaucracy.

The last point on the crisis of leadership is its style. Marxists believe that the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class. So the most important thing is to tell workers the truth.


Unfortunately the miners’ leaders have resorted to tricks and manoeuvres like Scottish NUM secretary Eric Clarke saying that ASLEF had blacked iron ore for the Ravenscraig steel works, or Mick McGahey’s declaration that fuel would be denied to any firm whose lorries took coal to Ravenscraig.

Workers’ leaders shouldn’t have clever cards up their sleeves. Manoeuvres and bluffing usually disorientate your own side, not the enemy.

Nor should they delude themselves that they can raise an army by snapping their fingers. The debacle at Orgreave shows that you can’t expect miners to suddenly flock to picket steel if you’ve been telling them to leave steel alone for 12 weeks.

The rank and file appear as a stage army to the trade union bureaucrats and every action they sanction is too little, too late.

Anyway, much of the officially organised picketing has been an exercise in make believe. Often a site has been picketed for a day and then everyone moves elsewhere. On 15 May for example an excellent picket of 150 miners’ wives turned up at Port Talbot steel plant. The next day there were only four on the picket line, who were completely ineffectual.

It would be easy to run the miners’ strike as tightly and coherently as the police operation that is run from Scotland Yard. If every two Yorkshire pits had been told to picket one pit in Nottingham in the first days of the strike, the 7,000 Notts miners now out would have joined the Yorkshire picket. Notts secretary Henry Richardson (a Broad Left candidate) would have summoned up enough courage to support the strike instead of joining Chadburn in telling Notts miners to cross picket lines.

The miners’ strike has shown starkly the crisis of leadership in the movement. What the miners need to win, as do workers in other industries, is the existence of a community of socialists who look at the working class as a whole. Who think of themselves not only as members of the NUM or NUR but, above all, as socialists, and then members of their union.

That group of socialists should understand that real unity in the working class can only be achieved from below, between rank and file miner and rank and file railway worker. That ideas of the ‘national interest’, whether of Scotland or Wales, is nonsense. Above all, they should know that a victorious mass strike is more important than ten general elections.

In other words it’s necessary to build a socialist party which can argue these ideas consistently and organise those who accept them.


Last updated on 4 October 2019