Culture Politics & Current Affairs

A View to a Kill – The End of the Miners’ Strike: Part 2

On March 5th it will be exactly thirty years since Britain’s miners marched back to work at the end of their titanic struggle to preserve their jobs and communities. Thirty years since I ‘celebrated’ my eighteenth birthday by weeping into my pint in a now long-closed miners’ welfare.

To commemorate the occasion I’ll be posting excerpts, up to March 5th, from the chapter in my book, Look Back in Anger: the Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire – 30 Years On (print edition available here and e book here) that deals with the end of the strike and its aftermath. Here’s Part 2.

Chapter 15: A View to a Kill: Part 2

A minor scandal around the issue boiled over when Liptrott was caught by his own Branch of forging the Branch Treasurer’s name on the Branch’s returns. The loyalists were amazed when the Area Executive found in the Branch’s favour and upheld the complaint. However, the ‘disciplinary’ measure visited upon the Sherwood Branch Secretary was an instruction not to do it again, whereupon a unanimous vote was recorded in favour of taking no further action.

Henry Richardson, on the other hand, was not in receipt of such leniency. For carrying out nationally-agreed policy, he was finally sacked as Area Agent, Area Official and Area General Secretary on the 12th March. Prendergast told the press that, “the Executive has considered a complaint in respect of Mr. Henry Richardson and that complaint has been upheld by the Executive. Mr. Richardson’s terms of dismissal will be given in writing. He has been told he has been dismissed.”

Richardson was enraged, claiming he had been informed of no such decision. ”It’s diabolical,” he said. “The whole meeting was a charade, a witch-hunt; nothing but a kangaroo court. The decision had already been made before the meeting. I’ll be taking legal advice. I am not prepared to accept that I am no longer Notts NUM General Secretary. I’m employed on a national level and I’m still a member of the National Executive Committee, which makes this decision farcical. They cannot tear up a contract after thirty-four years in the industry. If this happened in a pit, miners would be out on strike. Trade unionism has gone out of the window in Nottinghamshire. I have been sacked because I made a stand and followed national policy.”

Just two days later, Richardson was given cause to be optimistic when he won his job back, if only temporarily. He was granted a temporary High Court injunction which prevented the Area Executive from carrying out its decision. Mr Justice Steyn ruled the Area General Secretary be restored to his post in all three capacities; Area Agent, Area Official and Area General Secretary. Needless to say, this wasn’t something Lynk, Prendergast et al, were prepared to swallow. Their own legal team were soon involved, seeking to overturn the injunction.

While all over the UK’s coalfields the NCB was purging and victimising activists, Nottinghamshire had the added burden of having to fend off their own Area union which was doing exactly the same thing. Nottinghamshire’s NUM loyalists were fighting a defensive rearguard action on two fronts.

All through 1985, the battles raged on. Henry Richardson’s injunction was lifted and he was ousted for good. This time the judge, Mr. Justice Mann, declared that, “It would be quite wrong for this Court to impose on a trade union an official in whom it has no confidence.” Richardson’s pro-strike administrator, Pam Elliot, also received her marching orders and joined her old boss in exile at the NUM’s Sheffield HQ.

On the 14th May, the NEC took its revenge. Its members voted by ten votes to nine to recommend to Conference, scheduled for July, that Lynk be sacked and Prendergast issued with an official warning.

The fight to win reinstatement for those miners sacked during the strike suffered a fatal blow when the national membership voted against the introduction of a 50p per week levy to support their axed comrades. Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and South Derbyshire, who had by now formed an informal ‘Democratic Alliance’, boycotted the ballot which made the final results all the more shocking, given the Left were overwhelmingly in the majority of those miners who voted.

 Nationally, the final result was 50,429 in favour of the levy and 58,721 against. The turnout was low, only around fifty-nine per cent. Scotland recorded nearly a 4-to-1 margin in favour of the levy while Yorkshire only just squeezed a majority; fifty-two per cent.

Henry Richardson, in a defiant speech at the first David Jones Memorial March and Rally at Ollerton, organised by Jimmy Hood, received a rousing ovation. The first thing he was going to do when he won his job back, he told the three-thousand strong crowd, was campaign relentlessly for the reinstatement of Nottinghamshire’s twenty-one sacked and victimised miners. “They are not alone, they are not forgotten. The fight goes on,” he told the rally.

The next set-back for the Nottinghamshire Left was the election of Lynk and Prendergast to the NEC. Unlike Richardson’s sacking, this would stick first time as it was the result of a properly conducted ballot as per the rule book. Richardson and Chadburn were both replaced with the Area President ruefully commenting, “In political terms, I suppose you could say I’ve lost my deposit.”

There was one small victory to be savoured and that was the matter regarding strikers’ subscriptions. A High Court judge ruled that the Area Executive had been wrong to try and recoup the arrears and instructed that all miners who had paid must be reimbursed. In addition, they were unequivocally bona fide members of the NUM. It was a rare defeat for the rebel Area which made it all the sweeter for the Left.

In July, the NUM National Conference arrived but before the Delegates could address the Nottinghamshire problem; there was the contentious matter of a completely new rule book to resolve. ‘Rule.51’ remained and a plan to reorganise the representation of Area’s on the NEC was also included. Rule.11 was what raised eyebrows, though. This withdrew the President’s right to a vote on any matter completely. There were two schools of thought here; one was that Scargill was sliding around Tory anti-trade union law, specifically the Trade Union Act 1984, as removing the right to vote meant officers didn’t need to stand for the mandatory fiver-year re-election that otherwise applied. Alternatively, it was a pre-emptive strike against Nottinghamshire’s declared vow to oust the President by forcing him to stand for re-election whereupon, they believed, he’d be toppled by a ‘moderate’ candidate.

The Left was hopelessly riven. By now, several Areas, South Wales, particularly, contained very few Scargill supporters and the Communist Party members on the national and Area leaderships were encouraged by their Party leadership to vote against the adoption of an entirely new rule book that was, they felt, solely designed to concentrate yet more power in Scargill’s hands. In truth, the rule changes had more to do with countering Area independence so that any future struggle would not see an Area behaving as Nottinghamshire had done. For example, Rule.17B allowed the membership of an Area to be bigger than the Area itself and 17D conferred upon the Conference the right to “create, dissolve, merge, combine or amalgamate Areas.” Rule.26C invested the NEC with the authority to “… call industrial action by any group of members whether in one or part of one or more than one Area.” This last, particularly, went down a treat with Nottinghamshire. Scargill had, though, paid tribute to the implacable fight waged by the women of mining communities by creating Rule.5A. The new rule, governing associate membership status, was designed to allow the Women’s Support Groups entry into the NUM; a far-sighted and commendable initiative. Sadly, it was the only new rule to fall to the Conference vote.

Where some felt Scargill did let himself down was on the question of Rule.11. The right of the membership to control and elect its leaders was sacrosanct and a principle to which no self-respecting left-winger could object. Others, though, saw opposing the rule as siding with the Right and so, badly divided, cantankerous and mutinous, the Left let the new rule book pass; which was exactly what Nottinghamshire had been waiting for (Scargill later outmanoeuvred his critics by unexpectedly standing for re-election. in 1988 he was re-elected with 53.8 per cent of the vote). Their Delegation promptly upped and walked out in protest. Escorted to and from Mansfield by police outriders, the Delegation returned the next day to hear Conference vote by 81 to 13 to sack both Lynk and Prendergast. Clearly Delegates felt the NEC’s recommendation of a formal reprimand for Lynk’s no. 2 was insufficient. Both men had clearly prepared for the move as although the decision meant the loss of their £18,000 salaries, it turned out both had already signed contracts of employment with the Nottinghamshire Area Executive.

The next day the Delegation were back to see the new rule book formally ratified by Conference and once again, they upped and left; but this time, there would be no coming back. Forty-eight hours later, on Saturday 6th July 1985, Nottinghamshire Delegates gathered at Berry Hill and voted by 228 to 20 to formally break away from the National Union of Mineworkers. Chadburn refused to endorse the move and raged furiously in hopeless opposition. The new regime promptly locked him out of the Berry Hill offices and then sacked him.

In a round-table post-strike discussion, hosted in April 1985 by the Communist Party, the Scottish Vice President, George Bolton said, “we tended to assume that Nottingham was much worse than it really was.” What Bolton couldn’t know then, was just how spectacularly wrong he was. Nottinghamshire was actually “worse” than anyone had assumed.

From July up to the Union of Democratic Mineworkers’ (UDM) certification by the Trade Union Certification Officer, in December 1985, the extent of the breakaway union’s collusion with the NCB was breathtaking. Not until documents were released to the National Archive, twenty years later, would the real truth be revealed.

In a series of secret meetings, covert correspondence and clandestine pacts and agreements, the UDM was afforded NCB legal advice, help and support all the way through the process. Schemes were hatched to pay UDM members more than NUM miners, in a bid to further weaken the NUM, both NCB agreements and Parliamentary Acts were flouted and broken as the NCB aided the new union to break the NUM.

 Ned Smith and James Cowan were secretly letting Nottinghamshire working-miners know, as early as January 1985, that recognition for their breakaway would not be a problem, in a bid to hasten the split. Peter Walker was also involved in ensuring the NCB and UDM kept their manoeuvrings secret until the appropriate time and was at least aware, if not directly involved, that NCB chiefs were planning to renege on constitutionally agreed industry norms. Walker had had an excellent war. Of all the key Tory players, he hadn’t put a foot wrong. Whether it was keeping the tactically incompetent MacGregor on a short leash, expertly spinning the Government’s line to the media, or sabotaging talks when it looked as though the NUM were nearing a breakthrough, the Energy Secretary had served his Prime Minister flawlessly. He rounded off a superb performance by smoothing the way for MacGregor and Cowan to act as midwives at the UDM’s birth.

From at least as early as his overture to Ray Chadburn in 1981, Cowan had been angling to split the NUM. He finally realised his wish and said later that he knew the breakaway was “on the cards” even before the strike. As well he might; it’s almost certain, given Cowan’s actions in this regard, that he and Lynk had colluded before the strike to bring about the split.

The UDM initially comprised around eighty per cent of the former Nottinghamshire NUM, South Derbyshire and the newly-formed Colliery Workers and Allied Trades Association; a rump faction of mainly ex-Durham Craftsmen who had been expelled under Rule.51 for scabbing. Leicestershire was an obvious target for Lynk and his NCB overlords. It had produced just thirty strikers during the year-long dispute, the ‘Dirty Thirty’, and Area President, Jack Jones, who loathed Scargill, had happily encouraged his Leicester men to work throughout the dispute. Despite all that, Jones was pro-NUM and convinced his Area to vote against joining the UDM.

Cowan popped up again and was alleged to have tried bribing Jones into swinging Leicestershire to the UDM, saying, “You are holding up the entire operation. Leicester has got to go to the UDM. We need you for the final breakthrough in Warwickshire, including Coventry – and from there up to Lancashire. If we get that we have captured the motorway block.”

While the UDM never managed to make any significant breakthrough outside its Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire axis, it did the job it was designed to do with devastating effectiveness. Over the next seven years, it willingly aided the NCB in breaking the NUM’s dominance in the industry as pay, terms, conditions and benefits for NUM members started to fall and pits closed with a dizzying frequency.    Once the smoke of 84/85 had cleared, it became apparent that the ‘Great Strike for Jobs’ hadn’t been a war, after all; it had been but a battle in an ongoing war. An unprecedentedly bloody and ferocious battle, certainly – an industrial Stalingrad – but a battle nevertheless. As Seumas Milne sagely noted, the post-strike world saw even greater power concentrated in the hands of fewer NUM members and, horribly wounded though they were, they were not yet down and out; the war would continue.

While the leadership turned on itself and, rudderless and split, could offer little in the way of a unified coherent national response to the radically changed political climate, at pit level the miners took the war to the enemy in the form of guerrilla and unofficial actions. Go-slows, walk-outs and wildcat strikes raged across the coalfields for years afterwards, particularly in Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, Nottinghamshire faced the additional challenge of rebuilding the NUM in the County entirely from scratch, beset on one side by the UDM and a vastly more powerful NCB on the other. “The first obstacle we had to overcome in Nottinghamshire,” says Keith Stanley, “was that they recognised the new breakaway union as the major union and they put every miner into that union, for administration purposes, so in the initial week leading up to them coming in as the official union, my union money was going to go to them! We had to go round all our members and get them to sign saying they didn’t want their money going to the UDM and that they wanted to stay with us.” Management refused to operate a ‘check-off’ system for the NUM; weekly membership dues would no longer be deducted at source and sent on to the NUM. “We had to run around getting every miner to sign direct debit forms. Well, not every miner had a bank account so we had to operate a ‘rent book’ system for some of them to pay cash.”

Henry Richardson shakes his head in disbelief. “If I’ve been a member of the NUM, all my working life, and a new union comes along, surely I should have to opt out of the NUM to join the new union? But no; they [NCB] automatically registered every Nottinghamshire miner as UDM unless they opted in to the NUM. And they got all our assets, too.” The Berry Hill premises, the convalescent home on the east coast, at Chapel Saint Leonards, and capital, totalling around £1.7 million, was all awarded to the UDM by a High Court judge. This left the NUM Area organisation penniless with no premises, no cash, and no infrastructure of any kind.

Richardson continues, “We’d got Keith and Eric running around trying to recruit back into the NUM – bloody heroes, they were. They should have had medals; the shit they had thrown at them. Victimised, put on shit jobs, weren’t allowed an office even though we had as many members as the UDM at Thoresby but they never stopped fighting for the Union – and I’m working from Jiff Clifford’s bungalow, with Pam. Jill were a secretary at Berry Hill; she eventually got sacked as well. Took some guts; letting us use her house and she were going into Berry Hill every day –  she and her and her husband were out at work all day so she let us set up there, out at Ravenshead, with miners traipsing up and down the path all day, in and out of the house as we tried to rebuild. God knows what the bloody neighbours thought! It were only for a few weeks and then we set up at Mansfield, after we’d been at Sheffield, we got some premises up there.”

Ray Chadburn confirms, “We slowly rebuilt. We didn’t have premises, we didn’t have any money but we got £10,000 from South Wales and a chunk from Durham but we were blocked at every turn, trying to get new premises. People gloating that the NUM was smashed and Lynk said ‘they’ll never get back into Mansfield.’ But eventually we did get some offices. I was painting, decorating, fitting radiators and we finally returned on May Day, 1986. We loved it; it was on a May Day when they’d tried to get rid of us and it was on a May Day when we returned. We went across to the pub and had a little celebration; we were back!”

It was far from plain sailing, though. The UDM even campaigned mercilessly to evict Chadburn and his family from their home, arguing his rented NUM property should be the property of the UDM. Chadburn eventually won that particularly lengthy and stressful legal battle and purchased the home outright.

At the point of production, Eric Eaton ran the risk of the sack every day. Even sticking NUM circulars on the notice board was grounds for dismissal. Eaton made a famous contribution at one of the post-strike NUM Conferences. Holding up a plastic bag, he asked the Delegates if they could guess what it was. “It’s my office,” he said as he educated the Conference in the realities of life for NUM activists in Nottinghamshire.

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