Chris Harman


The General Strike that never was

(March 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 3, 22 March–19 April 1980, pp. 13–15.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Our editorial Hot Air and Cold Steel in the last issue earned us the epithet ‘miserabilists’ in some quarters. We seemed to be deliberately emphasising elements of gloom in what has been the most exciting period of industrial struggle since the demise of the Heath government. That was not our intention. But we did feel it was necessary to cut through the feeling of euphoria that arises as the struggle gets more intense and to point out the dangers of bad leadership as the odds get higher.

Experience since the Last issue has shown how correct we were. At Leyland the shop stewards’ organisation – and the whole left – were snookered by a completely unexpected move from the right wing AUEW executive. It threw the onus onto the organisation in the factory to get support for what would then be an official strike – and the organisation in the factory, regrettably, proved itself as abysmal as we painted it in our article of two months ago, The Rise and Fall of stewards organisation.

More devastating, because more unexpected, was what happened with the South Wales miners. It was they who provided much of the impetus behind the talk of a Wales General Strike. It was they whose solidarity with the steel workers on the one day strike and demonstration of 28 January created the climate in which even Bill Sirs muttered about ‘the beginning of a revolution’. Yet when it came to the crunch at pithead meetings they voted down their leadership’s call for an all-out strike.

Socialist Review went to South Wales the day after the ballot began to find out from SWP members and sympathisers in Cardiff and Pontypridd how this came about.

* * *

The feeling for the general strike was real enough in south Wales in the weeks before the miners’ ballot. Of that there is little doubt. As one SWP member describes it:

‘I’ve never heard people talk about a general strike before. But in the last few months people in the street have been talking about it. They say, “We’ve got to take a stand against the Tories, that means a general strike.” I’ve heard it so often. The housewives around here all talk about it.

‘The rally in Port Talbot a fortnight ago showed it. That’s the first time I’ve seen a march in the streets with people on the doorsteps crying. A lot of people remember the last general strike and the 1930s and they know what it entails.’

In a pit-head ballot early in January the miners had voted nine to one to take industrial action against the threat of pit closures. The threat came from the Steel Corporation’s planned cutbacks in steel making at Port Talbot and Llanwern, and from its imports of coking coal. In a speech the head of the Wales TUC, George Wright, had let slip phrases about a general strike. The miners’ commitment against pit closures was soon linked up, both in the speeches of union leaders and in the popular consciousness, with the notion of the Wales general strike.

The Western Mail could report on 44 January that plans were expected to be made at the South Wales TUC for:

‘Welsh miners, dockers, seamen, railwaymen and transport workers to join steel workers on strike ... Other unions with a stake in steel and coal believe that the time to launch joint action against the threat of redundancies is while the steel pay strike is still on. They believe that the chances of bringing out the steel workers again will be slim.’

A member from Cardiff describes how the mood developed:

‘Just by the question of the general strike being posed at the time it was posed it became a possibility. The steel men were out, and the miners were taking action through the picketting of coking coal imports. The fact that they were both taking action made the call sound much more credible than it normally would.

‘If the South East TUC or the North West TUC called a general strike, no-one would take it seriously. But because two major groups of workers were already in struggle, it was taken seriously. And, of course, as soon as you pose the thing lots of people start taking it seriously. Initially there was some hesitation, because some people in the NUM said that a general strike in Wales would be seen to be a nationalist thing. Some of the tactics discussed – like blockading the Severn Bridge – sounded nationalistic. But once it became generally talked about the idea of a general strike seemed to have something in it.’

At the time of the initial ballot of the miners over action against the threat of closures, a call for action would almost certainly have received a solid response. The shock of the steel and therefore coal cutbacks came on top of the excitement of the first few days of the steel strike. Yet no call for action came.

The 14 January meeting of the Wales TUC beat a hasty retreat:

‘Yesterday’s Wales TUC heard a plea from South Wales miners, backed by overwhelming support in a series of pithead ballots, to go ahead with a strike as planned from 21 January. But the meeting adopted the plan of the British TUC nationalised industries committee to defer indefinite strike action while efforts were made to get BSC to change course over cutbacks and coking coal ... Mr George Wright, Wales TUC general secretary, said of a one day stoppage for 28 January. “We are not seeking to go it alone, but in order to maintain unity in Wales it was necessary for some sort of action to be called”.’ (Western Mail, 15 January).

The ‘threat to unity’ in Wright’s mind was, no doubt, fear that the miners might at that stage go out in solidarity with the steel workers without waiting for the Wales TUC. The one-day strike headed off that possibility. Although the miners’ leaders were unhappy with the deferment of the general strike – Emlyn Williams urged at the rally on the day of action that the general strike be brought forward – they abstained on the crucial vote. Yet the climate was still one in which all-out action was a real possibility. The following Friday the Steel Corporation announced the scale of the cutbacks at Llanwern and Port Talbot, producing what the senior steel union divisional organiser called ‘bitter, blind rage and the decision’ (Western Mail, 18 January). The one day strike was the only channel for this rage.

Almost a fortnight after the one day strike:

‘The united front sought by the Wales TUC in the campaign against threatened job losses was apparently preserved yesterday by South Wales miners’ leaders – despite speculation that they might launch a go-it-alone policy ...’ (Western Mail, 9 February)

It was to be another ten days before any attempt was to be made to call action. That was a full six weeks after the start of the steel strike and a full four weeks after the news of the scale of the job losses. The result, inevitably, was that much of the feeling that had existed was dissipated. As one lodge official for a coking plant – which itself voted for the strike told us:

‘The miners have been played around with. First it was on. Then it was off. Then it was on again. Emlyn always seems to be threatening strikes. It’s all the dillying and dallying. People didn’t know where they stood.’

As an SWP member who had just been round the pits talking to miners told us:

‘The miners we’ve spoken to have come up with two points that this should have been a national strike, and the playing with dates. They had the one-day strike: They had the option to support the demonstration in Port Talbot a couple of weeks ago. They’ve had the 21st, the 28th, the 10th, the 29th, given them. We were talking to people yesterday who’d actually voted and they were saying, ‘Well, this vote for action from Monday is nothing to do with strike action from the 10th’. They were completely mixed up, even though it was them who were voting. It’s what we always say in Socialist Worker – you can’t play with general strikes.’

For this member, the comparison was with the struggle at Leyland:

‘What we saw at BL last week with Robbo is in a miniature scale what has been going on here. Instead of taking action when they knew something could be done about it, they bought a bit of time. When they had all the support of the workforce, they just bought a bit of time, pleased them with a one-day stoppage, a few marches, just keeping people down until the feeling to do something faded away.’

The long delay meant that much of the momentum had already gone out of the struggle. The steel strike was no longer something fresh, itself a new and powerful challenge to the government. And then there was confusion as to whether this was a pure solidarity action in support of the steel workers’ action against the two per cent insult, or whether it was really over a job issue that concerned miners.

The coal board moved very cleverly to exploit all these fears. When the news came through that the South Wales executive of the union was to recommend an all-out strike. Weekes, the South Wales coal board director, appeared on television. Weekes is known as the coal board’s hard man, ever since he threatened the clsoure on economic grounds of the whole coal field a couple of years ago. Now he warned that by striking miners would be hitting the viability of the pits and at the one time of the year when there was a demand for their coal. The point hit home – since this is also th the time of year when it is easiest for South Wales to get good bonuses.

The intervention of the coal board was repeated on the first morning of the ballot. Pit managers were soon spreading reports that other pits had voted not to strike – even before the balloting had begun.

The local NUM has made much of this interference with the ballot. Yet, to be honest, in the present industrial climate it is quite naive to expect management anywhere not to intervene to influence rank and file opinion whenever they get the chance. The trouble in South Wales was that those who wanted the strike, with very few exceptions, were quite unprepared to counter management arguments.

After the long delay in postponing action on the original nine-to-one mandate, the final call to action was put to the miners at excessive speed. The decision to call for strike action was taken in the afternoon of one day, when the early shift in the pits had finished. It was put to that shift in many pits the next day, as they turned up for work. This meant there was no opportunity for militants in those pits to argue the case properly.

The delegate meeting didn’t end until 1 p.m. on the Wednesday. And the balloting began at 6 a.m. the next morning. So there was no way the delegates could organise a good dicussion to take place over the ballot. In most of the pits there were no leaflets or anything like that. That’s the reason miners were coming out the pits and telling us.

‘They took the decision yesterday and expect us to vote on it this morning without knowing what it’s all about’.

One of the biggest blows to the strike came that morning when Maerdy, a traditionally militant pit, voted it down. The SWP member, explained it like this:

‘Maerdy has a tradition of militancy. That’s the pit everyone looks to. And yet they’re the one that had very little discussion over this strike action beforehand.’

The reaction of the lodge officials at Maerdy – a stronghold of the CP – was to urge the South Wales executive to call off the ballot.

Yet despite all the delays and all the confusion, it was possible to win miners for the planned strike. We know that because at eight pits it happened.

One of these pits was Penrhiwceiber. The ballot did not take place there until the Saturday. But two days earlier local SWP members who visited it with Socialist Worker found a workforce who expected to be out on strike on the Monday.

One of them explained this to us in terms of the basic attitude to organisation of the lodge secretary:

‘Mike knows that of the 700 people he’s got in the workforce, there’s about 200 of them basically interested in the trade union movement, being to some extent in the old school, with the CP tradition in this area. If a meeting is called, most of them will turn up. But he also knows that the other 500 will kick back on occasions. The only way to stop that happening is to keep them continually informed of what’s going on by feeding them information all the time. But if there’s a lodge meeting there’s no way that all 700 are going to turn up. So what he has to do is to get the 40 odd people from the lodge committee out from every meeting, back into each section of the pit, explaining what’s going on to those who hadn’t been at the meetings. That’s why when we turn up with the papers, it’s a foregone conclusion that there’s going to be a strike.’

At this pit the vote was 300 to 20 for the strike.

By contrast, in pits where the thing hadn’t been argued before, the reaction was very hostile. At one pit, three miners who argued for the decision of the delegate conference were ‘howled down’; at another, we were told, ‘they said “Bugger Emlyn Williams, throw him out”.’

Two sorts of bad leadership

The most obvious sort of wrong leadership was that provided by the TUC in London and the Wales TUC.

The British TUC never hid their opposition to the notion of a general strike. As the Western Mail reported on 9 February, ‘TUC general secretary Len Murray has urged Welsh unions to call off the coordinated strike planned to start from 10 March.’

The Wales TUC under George Wright was hardly any better. It is true that Wright had been the first person to float the idea of a general strike. But his motives hardly seem to have been the best. The Wales TUC was very much his own creation, in the early 1970s, and he has sought to make it more prominent as his own prospects for advance in his own union, the TGWU, are limited. This had led to him to push for it to have powers more like those of the semi-independent Scottish TUC than of the regional TUCs in England (like the SE TUC or the NW TUC) with which it is formally akin. Cynics ascribe his verbal militancy over the job losses in South Wales to an effort to restore his reputation ever since a tiff he had with the general secretary of his union, Moss Evans, a couple of years back did him damage, when Wright signed a wage agreement to which Evans objected. In the aftermath, TGWU officials hostile to him put it around that he was making nice noises towards Callaghan in return for the promise of a safe Labour seat in West Wales. The call for a general strike was an easy way to present himself once again as a serious force.

Certainly, once he had raised the notion of the general strike, he endeavoured to drop it again as quickly as possible, using the one-day stoppage on 28 January as an easy let out. Significantly, very few members of his own union, the TGWU, were involved in that stoppage. At least half did not know it was going ahead, since the union made no attempt to inform them. At the Cardiff rally on that day steel workers heckled Wright with shouts of ‘All-Out’ referring to the fact TGWU lorry drivers had been crossing picket lines.

Emlyn Williams and the South Wales miners’ leadership are rather different from George Wright.

As one of our Cardiff members puts it:

‘Emlyn Williams is not a devious man. He’s an honest operator who does not organise politically. He has certainly relied on the CP machine to provide him with support – he himself is a left wing Labour Party member. But his own style of leadership has tended to encourage grass roots democracy as far as he can do, with pit-head ballots and so on. In some ways he’s closer to the CP tradition of militancy than the CP themselves.’

But the assumptions underlying the behaviour of the South Wales leadership are still very much bureaucratic assumptions. Hence the way in which they allowed themselves to be trapped for weeks in the internal wrangling of the Wales TUC over the question of a date for a strike. Hence too a wide communications gap between them and the rank and file in the pits.

This has been partly because of the very involvement in the internal machinations of the Wales TUC. As our Cardiff member explains it:

‘Usually when there have been pit-head ballots or campaigns over wages, Emlyn Williams and his people would have done the rounds of pit heads and so on. But over the general strike argument, he’s been too much caught up in the Wales TUC thing. He has seemed to his members on the ground as a TV personality, not someone they can meet and talk to about the strike call.’

The supposition of the South Wales leadership was that meetings of delegates from the pits would serve to communicate between them and the ordinary miners. But it didn’t work like that in the long, tortuous arguments over the question of strike action against the job losses.

The coke-works trade unionist makes the same point:

‘There’s been a lack of coordination between Emlyn Williams and the pits. He gives the lodge secretaries and chairmen good reports. But they don’t have to report back to the rank and file. The boys hear what Weekes has to say and believe it, over the question of subsidies, viability etc.’

The point is that at a delegate meeting, anyone can put up their hand for action. But unless there exists an organisation with rank-and-file members operating inside the different pits, there is no compulsion on the delegates to go back and argue each question with the membership. Indeed there are indications that in some pits, delegates did not even bother to argue for the strike action: we know of at least one pit where the pit committee met before the ballot and recommended to the men that the time was ‘inopportune’.

All the time the leadership spoke and acted as if it had behind it the solid support of tens of thousands of miners. But each of those miners knew that the issues had not been discussed with them recently. They could easily begin to feel that the leadership was a body acting in opposition to what they themselves might really want.

The problem was made worse by the role of the media – not in this case just by distorting the union’s case, but by the process of taking up Emlyn Williams and turning him virtually into a television personality, necessarily very cut off and very distant from the people he was supposed to represent. This also led him to make unwary statements that confused the membership.

As one of our members puts it:

‘Emlyn Williams has turned into a sort of TV personality. But you can’t keep going to the media and making speeches without saying something new. You’ve got to say something all the time to keep in the limelight. He ended up trying to stretch the 9 to 1 mandate in ways a lot of miners couldn’t understand.’

This was especially true of an interview the week before the call for strike action. What came across was not that miners and steel workers faced a common fight for jobs, but that solidarity was needed with the steel workers because they had been insulted over the two per cent offer. To many miners it seemed they were being asked to fight someone else’s battle.

‘The union had assurances from the strike committee in Port Talbot and Llanwern that they wouldn’t go back, even if pay was settled, without assurances on jobs. But this was not communicated to the mining rank and file.’

The alternative to debacle

The lessons to be drawn from the defeat are not new ones for the readers of this publication. What we’ve stressed before – for instance in our report on Leyland – is the danger, in a new period of bitter class confrontations, of many of the habits that union activists have developed over recent years, which separate them off from the rank and file. The participation arrangements that grew up under the Labour government encouraged this (for the mines, see the article by Bill Message in the last issue of the Review). The turning of trade unionists into media personalities encourages it. Activists – even the best, most honest, most committed ones – can come to see themselves as important, without worrying about their ability to carry the rank and file with them, all the time. Managements are themselves becoming very aware of this gap – and are attempting to exploit it with their current fashion for direct balloting.

The exceptions in South Wales – the lodges that voted solidly for strike action – show that this management strategy can be beaten back. But only by building links between the activists and the rank and file that are much deeper than those provided by the media or by routine delegate meetings. An organisation of militants is needed that enables activists at the grass roots to put across arguments to explain the shifting of tactical calls and strike dates, even when the local delegate does not bother to.

In South Wales, as elsewhere, there was a time when the Communist Party, even in a somewhat distorted way, used to provide a network which could do this to some extent. It is no longer capable of doing so: in the South Wales coalfield it has many activists, but they’ve ceased to be a cohesive force capable of responding to events The Morning Star in no way provided day-to-day leadership in the battle over the ballot, and as far as we can see, no CP propaganda went out to counter the machinations of Weekes and the NCB. As is too often the situation in such cases, the only printed material that attempted to put the arguments was a duplicated bulletin produced by the relatively few members of the local SWP branches.

Individual setbacks, like that in South Wales or the Robbo affair in Leyland, are not going to smash the working class movement. But a succession of further such setbacks can begin to irredeemably weaken our class, as some militants are weeded out of industry and others lose their faith in the ability of the rank and file to support action. That is why the lesson about organising among and communicating with the rank and file has to be learned quickly, however insignificant such activities can seem at times compared with the televised speech or national negotiations with management!

Last updated on 21 September 2019