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The 1984-5 miners’ strike – while Thatcherism won, working-class resistance was not defeated

IAN LAVERY MP, who took part in – and was arrested on – the great strike, looks back on the significance of this heightened period of class struggle

AS A CHILD of the ’60s growing up in Ashington, Northumberland, my life was defined by coal. The entire community owed its existence to the mining industry, the schools I attended, the leisure facilities I used, the doctors’ surgeries and hospitals were all built by the miners.

Forty years ago, in February 1984 I was a mining craft apprentice at Ellington Colliery, just a few miles north of my home town. Having recently turned 21, I enjoyed the lifestyle afforded to me by a vibrant mining community that worked hard and played hard. While rumours of industrial strife persisted, I was very much unaware of the turmoil that soon was to engulf the industry I worked in. The next year would put immense strain on coalmining families and communities and have far-reaching consequences.

When the strike reached the Northumberland coalfield, I had a decision to make. As an indentured apprentice we were exempt from taking part in the strike and told by the union to attend work. My dad, a strident supporter of the National Union of Mineworkers, for the first time in his working life, advised against following the union’s line. He told me I should not be going to work; it was the best advice I have ever received.

It wasn’t long until I was embroiled in the action myself. On March 28 1984 I travelled to Cambois, only a few miles from my home, along with my dad and his friends to picket the now demolished Blyth power station. 

I joined flying pickets from Scotland and Yorkshire and almost immediately was arrested. At 21 years old, it was the first time that I had ever encountered the criminal justice system. In a bitter dispute that was to last a year it was not the last.

I was recently shown press cuttings from that day. It brought back memories of the police brutality meted out against ordinary people who were protesting for the futures of their communities. It is why, while I back an inquiry into the events at Orgreave, I am keener that a full review of the policing of the strike from start to finish takes place. There were mini-Orgreaves up and down the country every day for a full year from Scotland to Kent.

The way the machinery of state was directed against hard-working people in mining communities is shameful. We knew it at the time, and it’s been proven by subsequent releases, but this went to the very top of government. The spidery handwriting of Margaret Thatcher is all over the documents relating to the strike and shows beyond any doubt that she was directing the press, the police, the judiciary and the state against our communities.

This act of grave industrial vandalism was committed with a clear purpose in mind, destroying working-class opposition to the Thatcherite agenda by smashing trade unionism. To achieve this, the Tory government sought out the most successful organised arm of the working class, the National Union of Mineworkers and picked a fight, stacked in their favour, fought on their terms. They would deploy similar tactics time and again in the near future.

But while the government eventually embedded the Thatcherite consensus in British politics, it did not succeed in defeating working-class resistance. Our trade unions are still here, and they still play a crucial role in opposing the agenda of those who think money not people is the most important thing. 

The British working class has gone nowhere either. Having shown it can still shock the Westminster Establishment, it’s high time it started to flex its muscles again.

Despite everything, we gave as good as we got and came within a whisker of winning the dispute ourselves. Imagine where we would be today had organised labour defeated Thatcherism head on. Unlike today’s unions who have learned the lessons of the past, the NUM didn’t have a strike fund that could pay strike pay. Our strike pay was a cheese sandwich and cup of Oxo after returning from the picket lines. We survived for a full year on strike through solidarity.

At meetings up and down the country I heard the finest orators, none of whom had been educated at Oxbridge or the Russell Group universities. On the picket lines and when out collecting I met the finest activists and organisers I have ever known. They were ordinary men and women forced by quirk of fate to realise their potential.

While many were union officials who toiled underground, the strike also saw the rise to prominence of women in the coalfield. Women like Ann Lilburn, described in articles as a housewife from Hadston, rose from obscurity to be a leading figure in the national Women Against Pit Closures movement and spoke internationally in favour of the miners. We could not have done it without them.

The support miners across the country got from trade unions, both here and abroad, from the LGBT community and from people of colour should never be forgotten. Money and resources poured into our communities in solidarity with miners from others who knew what it was like to be oppressed by the state. I will never forget the juggernauts sent from the continent into the coalfields to ensure miners’ children were not forgotten at Christmas.

There is a lesson here in the current climate where culture war politics is adopted to divide our communities. Standing in solidarity with workers in struggle and with communities who are oppressed is the only way we will ever achieve progress in our country. We have to fight for every inch of progress and fight to retain it.

My strike began in picketing the coal-fired Blyth power station at Cambois which though long-demolished now sits in my constituency of Wansbeck in south-east Northumberland. The site where it operated, along with the coalyards and associated industries, is earmarked for the technologies of the future.

It is a future I actively look forward to with thousands of jobs breathing life back into an area that for 40 years has been held back. When the promised jobs come to fruition the lessons of the miners should be heeded. Strong trade unions deliver better wages, terms and conditions. They also play a vital role in shaping the communities that they are part of, building the institutions that still provide so much today. 

Solidarity forever!

Ian Lavery is Labour MP for Wansbeck.

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