The ebb and flow of class struggle in British miners’ unions

Ben Purtill reviews Huw Benyon and Ray Hudson’s The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain.

From Brexit to Trump, Covid denialism to corporate culture wars, some on the left have begun asking: what if the working class is simply no longer with us? Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson’s The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain could be read as another contribution to the growing library of literature on this question. Certainly Verso is keen to present it as such, promising a study of “the coalfield constituencies which lent their votes to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in 2019.”

What makes The Shadow of the Mine unique in this burgeoning genre is that it is also a book about the class power of the men who mined it. In providing a “deep story” of two of Britain’s most significant coalfields – in South Wales and Durham – Beynon and Hudson provide a compelling and often tragic account of the rise and decline of industrial militancy, one which doesn’t shy away from the left’s culpability in the eventual defeat of this forceful working-class constituency.

The industrial politics of power

Until the middle of the twentieth century, coal mining held a pivotal position in the political economy of Britain: “No coal, no industrial revolution.” In Durham, coal mining had a long and rather fraught development, retaining rural precapitalist elements for centuries, for example the practice of “tied labour”: tying miners and their families to landowners through an annual bond, which was only abolished in 1872 under pressure from the recently formed Durham Miners Association (DMA). Mining in South Wales developed far later and more rapidly, and so too did the miner’s county union, an amalgamation of smaller local unions that dissolved into the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF) in 1898.

Both areas produced flourishing proletarian public spheres. The authors cite Jonathan Rose’s description of the network of lodges, libraries, halls, miners’ institutes and dissenting churches in South Wales as “the greatest network of cultural institutions created by working people anywhere in the world.” Echoing an argument also made in Eric Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels, who described the South Wales miners as “dissenting sectarians almost to a man,” these institutions equipped many young mining men with the initial skills – critical, oratorical and organizational – to “express their antagonism to grim conditions and injustices.” Beynon and Hudson argue that they were also essential for coal miners to establish their credentials: they may have been “ostensibly unskilled,” but they held great power both in their work underground (and its place in the economy) and in their ability to create their own communities above.

The pit villages where miners and their families lived and worked were spaces where social life was “regulated by committees and common ownership,” with a core organization of “social relationships and institutions that had built up around the industry” over a century symbolizing their strength.

Their unions, of course, were at the heart of this, though the DMA and SWMF differed in structure and politics in their early periods. While the DMA was a highly centralized operation, moderate and conciliatory in approach, and allied to the Liberal Party, the SWMF was built around a structure of local autonomy and independence; here, the socialism of the Independent Labour Party and syndicalism eventually emerged as significant political influences. An attempt to restructure the SWMF during a period of intense industrial militancy in the early 1910s produced The Miner’s Next Step (1912), described as “the most elegant testimony to industrial syndicalism in Britain” but not treated in detail by Beynon and Hudson despite its influence across Britain’s coalfields. 

Written by the Unofficial Reform Committee (URC), a group of socialists involved in the Plebs’ League, almost all of whom were working miners, The Miner’s Next Step effectively called for all power to the miner’s lodges, arguing against the power of trade union leadership whose “old policy of identity of interest between employers and ourselves [must be] abolished, and a policy of open hostility installed.” The Committee argued for the centralization of fighting in the form of a national union directly controlled by its membership and able to deploy “the whole fighting strength of the union” rapidly, and the decentralization of negotiating, allowing individual lodges to bargain on local matters where it proved useful. As the authors observe, this would “reverse the present order of things, where in the main, we centralise our negotiations and sectionalise our fighting.”

The pamphlet also issued an argument against nationalization, in favor of industrial democracy and workers’ control:

[Nationalizing the mines] does not lead in this direction [eliminating the employer], but simply makes a National Trust, with all the force of the Government behind it, whose one concern will be, to see that the industry is run in such a way, as to pay the interest on the bonds, with which the Coalowners are paid out, and to extract as much more profit as possible, in order to relieve the taxation of other landlords and capitalists.

In both stressing the need for an industry-wide union controlled by members and warning against the trap of top-down nationalization, the URC were prophetic. Yet while Beynon and Hudson note the influence of the Next Step on the coalfields, they barely mention that the radicals behind the pamphlet were exceptional in the mining communities the authors venerate, their ideas and strategies at odds with men more at home with the prophecies of the Old Testament. “We have it all in the Bible, we’ve lost the vision,” the historian Stuart Mcintyre quotes a South Wales miner as saying in 1940. In this context, miners’ militancy existed against a dominant approach to industrial politics that was overwhelmingly conciliatory: laborism.

Digging for Britain

Mcintyre describes laborism as a “deep-rooted, almost instinctive notion of working-class identity [that] only fleetingly involved a clear sense of class conflict.” Against the URC’s call for a “policy of open hostility” between workers and employers, laborism was “restricted in scope to the protection of immediate working-class interests and did not involve any notion of the incompatibility of those interests with the capitalist class.” The labor movement has two separate and not necessarily equal wings: industrial organization at the point of production concerned solely with day-to-day matters (regarded as lesser, or apolitical), and a political party seeking parliamentary power to advance working-class causes while governing in the interests of the nation as a whole. Unions exist to manage energies on the shopfloor and exert pressure on the parliamentary party, while the party seeks to form a government to manage the national balance of power between capital and labor.

The Shadow of the Mine can be read as a critique of the logic and limits of laborism, particularly in its treatment of the nationalization of the mining industry – and the union’s relation to this process – after the election of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government in 1945.

The appeal of nationalization was rationalizing an archaic, deadly industry and stripping the unpopular, out-of-touch mine owners of their power. In practice, just as the URC had warned decades before, the old owners were generously remunerated and retained influence within the industry, while the unions ceded traditional demands for workers’ control and industrial democracy in favor of the Labour Party’s preferred technocratic model. Far from being a next step for the working class as a class, nationalization was national part of a post-war project to rebuild the British nation. One miner is quoted as saying “when they nationalised the industry […] they nationalised the men as well,” a logic reflected in union leaders telling recalcitrant workers that if they were to strike they would be striking against themselves.

What followed was a Stakhanovite celebration of the power of coal miners and mining; Beynon and Hudson describe an almost Faustian pact between the newly formed National Union of Miners (NUM) union leadership, National Coal Board (NCB), and the British state and capital.

With coal central to post-war reconstruction, increasing production was key, and therefore so was ensuring industrial peace. The Labour government and miners’ leadership believed nationalization alone was enough to achieve this – after all, the Act to nationalize the mines placed the union at the heart of a new system of negotiation, such that the NUM and NCB were referred to as the “Siamese twins.” For union leaders of both right and left, the latter often aligned with the Communist Party, “there was complete accord on the need to support the Labour government, and most particularly to defend and achieve the success of nationalisation.”

“The politics of mining was the politics of hours and wages,” according to David Edgerton, and this didn’t cease to be the case under nationalization, despite some ameliorations. One might also add it was a politics of safety, and here too nationalization offered an improvement on the anarchy of private industry without fundamentally changing the conditions that made mining so dangerous. One such incident was the tragedy at the Six Bells Colliery in Abertillery, which Beynon and Hudson say issued a “stark reminder of the dangers involved in mining coal ‘on behalf of the people’,” with 45 of the 48 men underground killed. Six years later, the Merthyr Vale Colliery’s waste tip slipped and engulfed a school, killing 147 children and teachers. The victim’s families correctly declared that they were ”Buried alive by the NCB.” The Labour government joined the NCB in refusing to pay for the removal of the tip.

Three-day weeks and winters of discontent

Anger about these man-made disasters occurred alongside accelerating pit closures, as the Harold Wilson Labour government increased reliance on oil and gas to replace coal as a major fuel source. In December 1971, NUM members struck nationally demanding a wage increase – the first time the industry had stopped at a national level in forty-five years. While “every year there were many hundreds of strikes in the mines, almost all of them unofficial,” they would often only impact one colliery at a time, and then only for a short period. By the early 1970s, NUM members were “deeply angry over their wages and conditions of work, and frustrated by the inability of the leadership to negotiate successfully with the NCB,” wedded as it was to the management of the nationalized industry. A national ballot saw 59% of miners vote for strike action.

In their account of this struggle, Beynon and Hudson pay particular attention to the mass picketing strategy which was deployed to prevent the movement of coal with great success, including at the Battle of Saltley Gate, a coke plant in Birmingham, where negotiations with local non-mining unions saw engineers from car plants and workshops join the blockade and the police concede defeat. With tens of thousands taking part in the picket, the country’s power supply was cut significantly, and by the end of February 1972 the miners were victorious.

This kind of militancy continued, with another national miners’ strike bringing down Edward Heath’s Conservative government only a few years later, this time over a demand for a 35% pay increase. In a mark of how much things have changed in the fifty years since, in 1974 the electorate were asked to vote on “Who Governs Britain?” – the Conservative Party or industrial militants. Voters decided the latter. 

The new Labour government’s attempt at social peace in the mines, the new Plan for Coal, conceded many of the miners’ demands on wages and conditions and even proposed an increase in output, predicting the expansion would reach its peak by the end of the twentieth century. Once again however, in traditional labourist garb, the miners were asked to think of the nation, with returned Prime Minister Wilson addressing the 1975 NUM conference with the demand that the miners “should embrace the slogan ‘not a year for self but a year for Britain’.” 

Such drives for productivity could work to break down rank-and-file militancy. One proposal was an amendment of the national day-wage agreement with an additional incentive payment: a bonus for teams based on weekly output. While this was initially opposed by 61% of miners, particularly on the basis that it would threaten national unity, the NCB and NUM leadership pushed the proposal hard in areas that would benefit more from the scheme – including securing the seal of approval from stalwart of the Labour left Tony Benn. Eventually areas began to introduce their own local incentive schemes. The result produced “a clear incentive for face teams to increase their pace of work, often competing with each other […] but also increasing tension within the mines.”

Beynon and Hudson largely skim over the fact these schemes and plans occurred against the backdrop of the Labour government’s Social Contract, an agreement between the Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Labour Party which would see unions practice voluntary wage restraint in exchange for the government advancing a range of beneficial economic and social policies, framed as a “social wage.” The collapse of the Social Contract produced the near-mythological Winter of Discontent of 1978-9, which saw 1.25 million public sector workers taking strike action, pushing the very limits of labourism by taking down the Labour government.

Thatcher faces off

If the Labour governments of the late 1970s awkwardly attempted to plan for (social and industrial) peace, the Conservative Party prepared for war. When Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister in 1979, curbing the power of trade unions was a core focus of her Conservative government. Through the direction of right-wing Tory MP Nicholas Ridley, planning for a confrontation in nationalized industries had already begun in the years leading up the election, with the 1973-74 coal strike providing key lessons for the so-called Ridley Plan. Beynon and Hudson’s account of the period begins by highlighting the impact Thatcher had on British manufacturing, where a removal of capital export controls and a tightening of monetary policy caused huge closures and job losses, not least in South Wales and Durham.

In this climate, the authors contend that the offensive trade unionism of the 1970s very quickly became a defensive one. Nowhere was this clearer than in the coalfields, where “workers were historically disinclined to support strike action over mine closures” (“the Achilles’ heel of the NUM,” the authors observe) even as workers were militant on questions over wages and conditions; this attitude was encouraged by the union leadership, who regarded action over pit closures as falling outside the purview of union business within the labourist compact. For instance, in the view of NUM president Joe Gormley, who held the position from 1971 to 1982, the NUM’s “role in society is to look after our members, not run the country.” Gormley played off rank-and-file anger about closures with promises to make those who retained their jobs their highest paid industrial workers in the country.

Within a decade, striking would become a matter of survival and Gormley would be out of a job – accepting a Conservative peerage shortly after.

In 1981 the government u-turned after a provocation over closing “uneconomic” pits was resisted by the NUM; by 1983, Thatcher had personally appointed American industrialist Ian MacGregor to lead the NCB, a firm believer in “management’s right to manage.” All the pieces were in place for the kind of confrontation plotted in the Ridley Plan. The breaking point was the announcement that Cortonwood colliery in South Yorkshire would be closed.

The 1984-85 Miners’ Strike is the backbone of The Shadow of the Mine, the chapter covering the year-long strike itself containing a prelude and epilogue. The authors deftly weave the political maneuvering of the trade union bureaucracy, corporate board, and government agencies with the rank-and-file action of the miners and the counterinsurgency-like tactics of the British police, a core element of the Ridley Plan. The full weight of the state was deployed against the miners – from intrigue to brutality – who bravely held out for far longer than was expected in such hostile conditions, including the predictable abandonment by the Labour Party. In all, over 200,000 workers and their families were involved in the strike, by Beynon and Hudson’s count, with 20,000 arrested or hospitalized, 200 serving time, and nearly 1,000 sacked or victimized. There were also four fatalities on picket lines, or of miners on their way to picket.

The British state and capital had learnt how to disrupt previously successful tactics like mass picketing – as evidenced at the Battle of Orgreave, outside a coking plant in South Yorkshire – but the authors also pay testament to the strength of the mining communities during the strike, developing what a contemporary report in the Financial Times described as an “informal welfare state.” 

The authors manage to find a degree of hope in the new connections that emerged during the struggle, for example the formation of groups like Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). Nevertheless, the sense of New Left optimism that such organizations connecting workplace politics with community groups could help rebuild the labor movement feels misplaced nearly forty years after the breaking of the strike, and with it, the strength of the wider British labor movement.

After their account of the strike, equal attention is paid to the process by which the miners returned to work, and from there, voted their work out of existence. Even after reading descriptions of the brutality with which the British state carried out their opposition to the strike, the process by which exhausted, defeated workers were forced to make a false decision between the closure of their pit or losing their redundancy is particularly cruel. This continued throughout the remainder of the 1980s and early 1990s – by the time the industry was privatized in 1993, it “comprised only sixteen of the 219 mines operating in 1980.”

It wasn’t without resistance yet was carried out with a persistence that became self-fulfilling. The bastards ground them down, and the union was reduced to a PR campaign to protect the few remaining open pits – class power smashed, they turned to symbolic actions to win public sympathy. As the authors write:

In spite of a one-day strike, the two national demonstrations in London, meetings of two parliamentary select committees, and the court judgment supporting the rights of miners to access the new modified review procedure, the closures went ahead. […] a combination of legislative power at Westminster and direct power by management in the mines produced a fait accompli, convincing all but the most diehard that ‘resistance is futile’. Such was the success of this strategy that ministers felt able to divert criticism with the suggestion that the closures were welcomed by the miners.

Scrounged from the dustbins of history

Beynon and Hudson are damning in their account of the consequences. The destruction of these proud, often small-c conservative communities and a resolute failure to provide alternative forms of employment meant the break-up of families, rises in chronic illness, and increasing deprivation and poverty across former coalfields. 

Yet in concluding that the hope of rebuilding the labor movement may lie in building connections with movements beyond it, for example by taking inspiration from the “external bonds of solidarity” that sustained the miners during the 1984-85 strike, it is tempting to argue the authors make a similar mistake to the labourism they criticize. This may seem counterintuitive: after all, they are looking for ‘bonds’ beyond the working-class, not a politics based on intuitive class identity. But both approaches require sacrificing class independence and downplaying the political content of workplace struggle.

It is a matter of contemporary, global significance, as the international labor bureaucracy increasingly talks of a Just Transition away from fossil fuels, with rank-and-file membership simply one of many passive power blocs in a pluralistic society ready to be lined up with NGOs, churches and political parties in schemes to save the planet. Beynon and Hudson see their book as an attempt to ‘scrounge from the dustbins of history’: perhaps it is The Miners’ Next Step and its intransigent class independence we should be reaching for.

Ben Purtill is an amateur labor historian living in the UK.