Thursday, 5 March 2009

But They Got Dole, Not Coal

Christ, can it really be 25 years ago?

Here in Lambeth you couldn't move for miners: every time I left my front door there seemed to be another lot of them at this or that meeting, or just collecting at one of our many tube stations. About £1000 a week ( probably about £2.5K in today's terms) in donated coppers was being taken at Brixton tube alone. I also remember the big demos, mainly with fondness - I never saw any trouble. Like the rest of the country, I watched the big 'set-pieces' like Orgreave on the television. I was a supporter, not a participant.

But there are some funny memories that remain with me as well: one young South Welsh lad bitterly complaining he had been billeted with me and my mate in the hard to let council flat we lived in then, rather than in the posh Clapham house his mates were in; stories of miners refusing to go home from their comfy university billets (and, ahem, university girlfriends, comfy or otherwise...) after the strike had ended.

It was perfectly possible to support the strike and still think, on balance, the odds on winning would have been better with a ballot. That was my position at the time. It might have made it more difficult for the press to present the Nottinghamshire miners as heroic resistors of mob pressure, and made it a bit easier to lobby for solidarity action from other unions. But all this stuff about Scargill losing the strike through not holding a ballot is baloney.

Even back then I didn't think the ballot question was decisive in the battle. I was always amazed that Kinnock even gave it half -hearted support and I don't think having a ballot would have increased his support one iota. The key was always the Ridley plan - the Tories had meticulously prepared for the fight for a long time.

I also remember thinking the strike was lost after about six months. It was almost impossible to openly discuss this view on the Left back then - we were all so strongly committed to the struggle which was undoubtedly the biggest and most intense moment of class conflict I ever experienced, albeit at second hand as it were. Even quietly suggesting it was perhaps time to think about limiting the losses would have been seen as an act of gross betrayal. So I kept quiet (not that anyone would have bothered about the opinions of some 25 yr old South London voluntary sector worker from a non-mining family anyway).

But I do now wonder if the defeat would have been quite so total if the strike hadn't gone on for quite so long....if there is a potential criticism to be made of the NUM leadership this is the one I'd focus on, not the tired old issue of the ballot. Did they keep the miners out for so long out of pride, or because they genuinely thought it was still winnable in the winter of 1984/5?

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