Paul Foot

Battle for the NUM

(January 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.105, January 1988, pp.9-11.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Arthur Scargill’s dramatic resignation from, and then candidacy for, the post of President of the NUM is of major importance for miners. Paul Foot went to South Yorkshire in the week before Christmas to talk to rank and file militants in the pits. Here he gives his impression of the situation.

WHEN THE NUM branch at Bentley pit, South Yorkshire, met to nominate Arthur Scargill in the election for NUM President, there wasn’t a quorum. The nine committee members were there, but there had to be nine more present to put the meeting in order.

They weren’t there – and indeed by the time the Scargill nomination came up, many of the committee members had left. So the nomination for President went through solely because the committee had recommended it, and there was no opposition.

Bentley is by no means a passive pit. But its miners’ passive response to the dramatic resignation and re-nomination of their President is not uncommon. Throughout the area I was struck by the total absence of any campaign for Arthur Scargill.

Many rank and file militants were worried by it.

“Here we are in the fifth week after Arthur’s resignation”, said one. “The fifth week – and there’s been not a pamphlet or a leaflet from the area on the Scargill campaign.

“He’s holding one meeting in Doncaster towards the end of his campaign – but none of the waverers will go to that. There are waverers, and they need to be won back to Scargill’s camp at canteen meetings, welfare meetings and pit discussions. Of course Arthur can’t go to every pit, but his leading supporters like Heathfield and Thompson can, and they should.”

Of course, there are still a few weeks to go, and all supporters of Arthur Scargill in the union had better use them to the maximum. For even the briefest survey of the most political miners in Arthur Scargill’s heartland uncovers a serious threat to him: abstentionism.

Few miners in South Yorkshire believe that John Walsh, Scargill’s opponent, will get a big vote. They know very well where he stands: four square in the old right wing Labour tradition, in an area where right wing Labour still stinks of corruption on the council and collaboration at the pit.

Walsh’s declaration that he would, if elected, treat with the UDM is greeted with almost universal contempt.

On the other hand, there is this lurking menace of abstentionism. It came up wherever I went – in branch offices, pubs, canteens, miners’ welfare centres.

Even here, and even though one miner told me he’d heard it only from “yes-men”, the weasel words reported in newspapers and on television came out of the miners’ own mouths. “What has he done for us?” “What did the strike do for us?” “Why can’t he even negotiate a wage rise?”

The words, and the low, grumbling tone with which they are voiced, are the exact opposite of what the same sort of people were saying during the 1984/5 strike.

Then, if anyone criticised Arthur Scargill for not achieving anything, the miners’ reply was that he was leading their fight for jobs: that he was only doing what any self-respecting miners’ leader would do; and that if the strike failed, that was a failure of every striker as much as it was a failure of the leadership.

The miners’ strike, they would argue, was defeated because the ruling class organised better as a class than did the working class – and that could not for a single moment be blamed on Arthur Scargill.

On the contrary, the very forces which closed pits and ransacked the coalfield communities were demanding Arthur Scargill’s head on a charger. He had to be defended, and throughout the strike and for many months afterwards, he was defended unconditionally.

Yet now the conditions, the ifs and buts and maybes, have begun to creep into miners’ judgements. Many militants believe that unless some mighty effort is put in during the last few weeks of the campaign, the Scargill majority will be badly dented – and that this could happen despite the groundswell of Scargill support in Durham, and despite the fact that pretty well all the NUM members in Nottinghamshire will vote for Scargill, while in 1981 many many thousands there (now in the UDM) voted against him.

This shift of opinion flows directly from the defeat of the Great Strike and the relentless attack on the National Union of Mineworkers ever since. Go to any pit and you will hear the same dismal story of management attacks from the very moment of the marches back to work nearly three years ago.

At Armthorpe pit, branch secretary Malc McAdam ticks off the employers’ offensives one by one. Signing money for craftsmen – dropped on day one of the return to work; the eight o’clock installation shift for craftsmen – dropped on day one of the return to work; all water agreements – dropped.

There is also a tougher approach from deputies and especially from under-managers about flexibility of work within the pit; and the constant transfer of miners from pit to pit and the attempt by management to set groups of workers against one another.

Everywhere there is the insidious influence of the “brown envelope” (the secret deals between men and management for special jobs to be done for special money without the union knowing about it). “You see them whispering together with an undermanager in the canteen – and you know they’re at it,” one Bentley miner told me.

The secret agreements threaten the union at its jugular, its knowledge and control over everything its members do at work. Once the “brown envelope” arrangements become the norm, a hefty slice of the union’s bargaining power is gone forever.

Above all else, there is the constant haemorrhage of jobs flowing out of the pit, disrupting and disorienting the union influence inside it. At Armthorpe 1,500 men marched back to work after the strike. Now there are 1,225. “They want us down to 1,100,” says Malc McAdam, “and they want more production from the same three faces they were working with the 1,500.”

These appalling figures are, by national comparison, quite good. Since the strike 66 pits have been closed and 83,000 jobs lost, about 30 percent of the entire workforce.

Even in South Yorkshire young people are no longer recruited into coal mining. In the entire South Yorkshire coalfield in 1986-7 British Coal recruited precisely 33 workers.

Of course, the redundancies are all “voluntary”. But for the union every voluntary redundancy is another blow. “In this atmosphere, when a good union man says he wants to go and pay off his debts, it’s hard to know what to say to him,” says Malc McAdam.

The constant demoralisation caused by all this (and there is much more besides – any hour spent with any group of miners will divulge another series of concessions won from the union by British Coal) has led to a shift in the NUM branches’ attitudes to disputes.

One Armthorpe miner put it this way. “Before the strike, if there was a dispute, the whole pit would meet, discuss it, and more often than not come out on strike together while the problem was sorted out. It’s because we did that, we didn’t have that many disputes.

“Now the mood is much more: ‘Get back to work while we work it out.’ This can lead to delays, and to no action. More often, there’s some sort of sectional action which splits the pit. During one of the recent craftsmen’s disputes, when the craftsmen were out, we had to picket the lamp room to get the men coming on shift on strike in support of the craftsmen.”

The defeats and the demoralisation can be seen at every level. Another Armthorpe miner remembers how things were before the strike whenever a rally or a political demonstration was announced.

“You could always fill a bus from Armthorpe,” he said. “Whatever it was – CND, anti-apartheid – there would always be enough to go in the bus and show the banner. Since the strike they’ve only filled one bus, for the biggest of the demonstrations at Wapping. For the others, we had to share a bus with the other pits in the Doncaster area.”

But for all the gloom, defeat and demoralisation which anyone can tell you about, the picture is very different from anything which could have been drawn two and a half years after the defeat of 1926.

The miners were defeated in 1984-5 – it is nothing but bluster to suggest otherwise. But they went back to work with their organisation in shape, and with habits and traditions for which they were still prepared to fight.




13 WKS TO 20/8/87

WKS UP TO 20/8/87
(000’s of tonnes)







































*Denotes South Yorkshire
**Denotes North Yorkshire



* Denotes South Yorkshire

The concessions mentioned here were not conceded by a disgruntled and browbeaten workforce. The South Yorkshire coalfields since 1985 have been a battleground for almost permanent class war (see above graphs): a war in which the workers have been fighting defensively, it is true, but fighting nevertheless, and occasionally winning.

I spent only an hour or so in the cramped union office at Armthorpe – the hour when most of the miners broke for a meal or changed shifts.

Hardly five minutes went by without someone coming in with yet another problem: here is a finger cut off at the knuckle – caused by a carrying job which should have had more men on it; here is a man protesting about the new arrangements for working before the Christmas break; here is a surface worker incredulous at his take-home pay for three weeks over Christmas – £309.

Though the officials themselves seem to be unaware of it they are standing in the front line of a clash between the classes. The battle is going the bosses’ way but nothing like as fast as they would like.

It is not just that the solidarity and the hatred and contempt for the employers are still there in good measure. Worse than that, from the employers’ point of view, is the willingness to do something about it: the instinctive recognition among these miners that they produce the goods: they dig the coal out of the ground.

Their readiness to back that knowledge through action, through “standing”, as they put it, removes from the employers their sense of confidence and strength. You must be careful who you offer a “brown envelope”, in case the man takes the envelope straight to the union office and calls for a strike in protest. You must be careful, as a deputy or an undermanager, if you do a miner’s job – in case the whole pit promptly stops.

It is this determination to resist in the face of appalling odds which has persuaded the coal bosses and the government that not enough was won in the Great Strike. Industrial correspondents gossip that there must be yet “another confrontation” in the coalfields before the NUM is broken sufficiently to ensure the real prize: privatisation and the “freedom’’ once more to make personal profit out of coal which other men dig out of the ground.

Another open battle looms whose aim will be to knock the National Union of Mineworkers out of existence. All the major issues covered in the Presidential election are formally directed to that.

Arthur Scargill stands against the six-day week, against the new British Coal Code of Practice and for no truck with the UDM. Walsh is silent or compromising on all three issues. No NUM member who treasures his union should be in the slightest doubt which way to vote.

But a policy without the means to put it into practice is often as bad as no policy at all. This is the curse of all elections, parliamentary and trade union, and has led to the doubts and the abstentionism even in Scargill’s home territory.

As my conversations with rank and file militants went on, I was struck by the gap between the day-to-day struggles they were talking about – the water agreements, the secret deals, the deputies doing miners’ jobs, the voluntary redundancies – and the grand policy statements and declarations of trust which emerge from Arthur Scargill’s election campaign.

The pace and the rhetoric seem quite different – out of line. No one among the militants I spoke to disagreed with a word of Arthur Scargill’s campaign. But their own talk seemed to clash curiously with his.

Last summer at Frickley the miners rose against a peculiarly oppressive interpretation of the new Code of Practice. They “stood” in a strike which spread like wildfire round the county.

Pit after pit was shut when miners responded to even the faintest call from the Frickley miners. One miner I spoke to, who was then working at Askern, recalled with amazement and delight how he and a couple of miners from Frickley picketed out the entire pit at Houghton Main – in protest against the Code of Practice.

Most Yorkshire militants knew perfectly well what the Code of Practice meant – the end of their union. In a matter of days, thousands of miners were on strike all over Yorkshire.

The Yorkshire Area stabbed the strike in the back. As soon as the National Executive announced a ballot throughout the coalfield on action over the Code of Practice, the Yorkshire Area ordered the miners to return to work “in the interests of unity”.

Though the striking miners, especially at Frickley, were unhappy with this sabotage, they campaigned for a “Yes” vote in the ballot and for a full overtime ban.

An overtime ban can always depend on a majority if only because the majority of NUM members don’t work overtime. But the fullness of the overtime ban was crucial to their decision to go back to work.

In the event, the NUM executive, steeped in the “new realism” of the modern fashionable left, backed away even from a full overtime ban and imposed a half-hearted, futile restriction on overtime which has hit some miners in the pocket but has not affected coal production or even productivity. The coal bosses chortle in their newspapers, and militant miners are furious.

Resolutions poured into the executive from Yorkshire, Durham and Kent, demanding a proper overtime ban. If a delegate conference had been called then and there a full ban would certainly have been imposed.

But then came the announcement of a presidential election, and the vote on the delegate conference on the ban was postponed until the election was over – until February.

“The momentum will have been lost by then,” an angry Armthorpe miner exclaimed. “We will have lost the early anger, and the enthusiasm for the action. I couldn’t guarantee to you now how a delegate conference will vote – it’s all so long in the future.”

In Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution he discusses again and again the difference in tempo between the ponderous, predictable progress of social democratic politics – elections every so often; conferences every so often; meetings every so often, and everything hammered in to fit that timetable – and, on the other hand, the unpredictable but much more decisive pace of the struggle between the classes.

The conference/election cycle seems often the more powerful since it seems in a careful and rational way to gather together the entire force of the party or the union for a particular course of action.

In reality, however, the ability of the employers and their class to move at will, in their own class interests, entirely oblivious of any procedure or timetable, enables them to dictate the course of events. It is the ability on our side to do the same which is by far the workers’ most powerful weapon.

Thus the wildfire action after the Frickley strike terrified British Coal and the government. The ghost of the 1981 unofficial strikes, which humiliated the government and postponed their whole strategy for three years, rose up to haunt them.

As soon, as the Frickley strike was lifted (not by British Coal, but by the National Union of Mineworkers) the employers and the government got their breath back and regained the upper hand.

There is a power there which can stop the British Coal offensive and save the union. The embers of defiance still glow in those perennial disputes about water and secret deals and flexibility and transfers. If the defiance is to grow, those embers need to be fanned.

But they cannot be fanned from far away, with a manifesto or a blast of rhetoric on the television. They can be fanned only from below, by rank and file miners themselves who are ready to fight, and who come together to instil in their fellow workers, at branch meetings and in the everyday discussions which still take place more in the pits than in any other workplace, some of their own confidence in their organisation and their power.

Such organisation cannot survive only on discussions about water agreements or craftsmen’s signing-on time. Its life-blood is the political discussion – the talk of nuclear power and nuclear bombs and apartheid and Irangate and privatisation – and the way in which all these issues are directly relevant to the miners’ struggle and the survival of the union.

“This election seems pretty irrelevant to me,” one ultra-militant miner said at the end of the discussion. “Whoever wins, we’ll still have the same fight on our hands.” A chorus of disagreement greeted him. “We’ll still have the same fight all right, but what a blow to morale if Walsh wins!”

Should Arthur Scargill lose, every single miner who believes in his union and retains even the slightest degree of class consciousness will feel worse, much worse. His fight will be more difficult. The new realists, compromisers, splitters and collaborators will have a field day.

But the reverse is not the case. A victory for Scargill will strengthen the morale of the militants, but it will not win the fight. All Arthur Scargill’s best qualities, his class consciousness, his fighting spirit, his contempt for the ruling class and their media, his refusal for a single moment to betray the people who elect him – all these derive from his roots, from his experience in political organisation in the miners’ rank and file.

His worst qualities, his stubbornness, his triumphalism even in defeat, feed off his isolation from the rank and file, his imprisonment in a world of union elections and executive intrigues.

He cannot decide which influence will be decisive in the long run. That will only be determined by the ebb and flow of the struggle.

It is the miners’ ability to maintain and strengthen their own organisation, hopefully with the support of a newly-elected president, which will decide whether or not Thatcher and her friends can put an end to their union and all the hope, the decency and the democracy for which it stands.


Last updated on 26.1.2005