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International Socialism, September 1976


Bill Message

The Miners and the Labour Government


From International Socialism (1st series), No.91, September 1976, pp.9-14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


In 1972 and 1974 the miners led the struggle against the Tory government’s attempts to cut living standards by limiting or freezing wage increases. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that the rank and file of the National Union of Mineworkers pushed a right-wing dominated union executive into leading the fight, and when the executive tried to limit the scope of the struggle in 1972 the rank and file ignored them.

Since 1974 it seems that the majority on the national executive have had things almost all their own way. They have been able to lead the membership away from any challenge to the Labour government’s wage limitations. In doing so they have undoubtedly influenced the rest of the trade union movement considerably. Since 1972 all sections of the working class, as well as the ruling class, have looked towards the miners. They have been recognised, rightly or wrongly, as leaders in the struggle and their failure to set a lead by fighting the £6 deal and the current 4½ per cent deal has not encouraged the rank and file of other unions to rebel against their leadership’s acquiescence in the government’s attack on living standards.

Why has this happened? The most common explanation to be found is that the miners’ traditional blind loyalty to Labour governments has totally disarmed them. While there is an element of truth in this it is by no means the full explanation. After all, it was the militancy that arose during the last two years of the previous Labour government that led to the massive confrontation with the Tories in 1972. With the possible exception of the last Heath government the miners have been treated with more contempt by Labour governments since the war than they have by the Tories. The years of 1964 to 1970 brought a massive increase in the number of pit closures and redundancies, as well as actual wage cuts for many miners and a general erosion of the value of real wages for them all. By 1972 it seemed to many of them that there was nothing left to lose and it was this sense of an all or nothing struggle that contributed much to the strike of 1972.

In 1974 a second miners’ strike not only smashed the Tory government’s incomes policy, but it brought the government down with it. By February 1974 Heath was totally discredited, not only in the eyes of the rank and file of the trade union movement because of incomes policy, the Industrial Relations Act, the three-day week and all the rest of it, but he had also lost favour in the eyes of the more intelligent members of the ruling class who realised that his crude style of trying to subdue the union movement was counterproductive.

At a time of rising class consciousness Heath’s policies led to confrontations, which in turn increased the polarisation of the class forces. In this respect he was not only in disfavour among the more far-sighted members of the ruling class, but also among the trade union bureaucracy whose attempts to bring the membership under control were being continually thwarted by Heath’s amazing capacity for stirring up trouble. He seemed to be totally incapable of offering the kind of concessions that were needed if the trade union leaders were to pacify the rank and file as the crisis of capitalism deepened.

Having won the first general election in 1974 the new Labour government set about trying to find the kind of concessions needed by the NUM leaders if they were to redress the balance in favour of the right wing in the union.

The Background to the 1972 Strike

Immediately after the war the miners had been in a position of tremendous strength. The fuel shortage meant that their bargaining power was very high, and militancy at a rank and file level was on an upward trend. Labour government ministers, NUM leaders and even leading members of the Communist Party presented the rank and file with a barrage of propaganda, the point of which was that nationalisation meant that the miners now had a moral duty to disregard their own interests and work harder in the ‘national interest’.

Nationalisation of the mines had been a long fought for demand of the miners’ unions since before the first world war. Now it was to be used as the carrot with which the miners were to be encouraged to accept further exploitation. When the Labour Party came to power again in 1964 they were to use another old demand of the miners as a double-edged sword with which to exploit them even further.

Almost every NUM conference since nationalisation had passed resolutions demanding the end to the piece-rate system and its replacement by a national wage structure. The piece-rate system was extremely divisive, although in many areas good rank and file organisation could push the rates up so that they were well above average wages in other industries. Nevertheless the piece-rate system was regarded widely as the one big hang-over from the days of private ownership.

In the mid-1960s the National Coal Board agreed to negotiate the end of the piece-rate system, but on their own terms. This meant a productivity deal which was known as the National Power Loading Agreement. The NUM national officials, including Will Paynter who was general secretary and a Communist Party member, sold the deal to the membership with zeal. The NPLA was one of the most vicious productivity deals that was ever rammed down the throats of a union membership during the 1960s.

Thousands of coal-face workers suffered wage cuts as they were transferred from piece-rate work to the NPLA rate. More and more pits became ‘uneconomic’ and were shut with only token verbal opposition from union officials of the right and ‘left’. Wages, as well as being cut, were held back so that increases in the NPLA rates between 1966 and 1972 were held back below the increase in the cost of living. The ratio of officials to workmen was increased dramatically. All negotiating rights of major importance were taken out of the hands of local union representatives and given to the National Executive Committee which was and still is almost exclusively comprised of full-time officials.

The years of the first Wilson governments of 1964 to 1970 were the darkest days for the miners for three decades. In 1964 there were 550 pits in Britain. Six years later about 250 of these had gone under the axe and the workforce had been cut from 400,000 to little more than 250,000. In 1967 Lord Robens, then chairman of the NCB estimated that at the current rate of contraction the number of miners would be reduced to 150,000 by 1975 and to just 64,500 by 1980. The carrot of the national wage structure had a bitter taste indeed.

The reaction of the broad left leadership in the union to this varied from cooperation on the part of Will Paynter and others to the organising of little more than token protests by others. But at a rank and file level bitterness was mounting and would soon burst out into open rebellion, not only against the government and the NCB but also directed at the National Executive Committee of the union.

In September 1969 the miners at Cadeby Colliery near Doncaster came out on unofficial strike over wages. They were instructed to return to work by the Yorkshire Area Executive but they stayed out and tried to spread the strike. Before this issue could be resolved 70,000 Yorkshire miners were on strike in support of a demand for shorter hours for surface-workers. The strike was spreading to pits in South Wales, the Midlands and Scotland.

The national officials of the union then negotiated a claim for 27s 6d a week for day-wage workers and won every penny of it, but the strikers were not to be bought off so easily. They countered by demanding the resignation of NUM president Sidney Ford and general secretary Lawrence Daly. Daly had only just been elected, defeating Joe Gormley on a militant platform advocating a campaign of guerrilla strikes to force wages up. Now Daly, in common with other ‘left’ leaders in the union was telling the strikers that their action was premature and they had to return to work. The unofficial strike collapsed due to a lack of coherent leadership, but it demonstrated to the executive the pressure that was building up. It also showed the broad-left leadership that the rank and file were ahead of them and that they would have to pull something out of the hat. At the 1970 Conference the right-wing were on the defensive and a resolution for a wages structure of £20 a week for surface workers, £22 for workers underground and £30 for faceworkers was passed unanimously. An amendment from the South Wales area calling for strike action if the claim was not met was carried by 169 votes to 160.

In September the NCB offered half the amount demanded. The negotiators were picketed by nearly 1,000 miners and the pickets who had come from the South Wales area arranged a mass meeting for all the pickets which they persuaded Lawrence Daly and acting president Sidney Schofield to attend. This was a masterly stroke because it meant that the national officials were being forced to report back first to a mass meeting of the rank and file instead of the executive. When they went to the executive the following day they had already felt at first hand the pressure of the membership. The events of 1969 had taught them that they could only ignore this pressure at their own peril. The NEC recommended unanimously a national strike.

A ballot was held and produced a 55½ per cent vote for strike action. At that time, however, the rules demanded incredibly a two-thirds majority before strike action could be taken. The ‘left’ leadership hummed and hahed but a straightforward majority was enough for the rank and file. Within three weeks all but a handful of miners in Yorkshire were out, all the pits in South Wales were on strike, all but eight in Scotland were at a complete standstill and stoppages were also occurring in Kent and Durham.

Once again Daly’s response was to tell the men to get back to work. The Communist Party’s leading members in the union were divided, with only Dai Francis actively encouraging the strike. At a lower level of course many CP militants were playing an active role in the strike, but this was in spite of rather than because of any lead from the party itself. Once again this lack of co-ordinated leadership led to failure of the rank and file’s attempt to put its own activist stamp on the policy of the union.

This then was the background to the 1972 strike. The membership, bitter as a result of the Labour government’s betrayals and the stabs in the back by their own leaders in 1969 and 1970, incensed still further by the confrontationist arrogance of the Tory government, took control of the situation. In the face of the rank and file power displayed during the strike the NEC was virtually paralysed in its attempts to curb some of the ‘excesses’ of the rank and file.

Joe Gormley was an experienced bureaucrat and sell-out man, but it was his first year as president of the union. His appearances on the television and his press statements were so meek and conciliatory that the executive, fearing an even greater rank and file revolt against the rules they had laid down for the conduct of the strike, pushed Daly into the front line.

Lawrence Daly was mindful of the antagonism that had been shown towards him by the unofficial strikers of 1969 and 1970, so he polished up his left-wing image. The fact that the strike was official meant that he could once again be militant without any fear that the right-wing could attack him for being ‘unconstitutional’. The fact that after 1972 many ordinary militants forgot his betrayals of 1969 and 1970 is significant. In the absence of an organised rank and file movement the lessons of spontaneous struggle which should be so perpetually illuminating to the participants are not so thoroughly absorbed as they deserve to be. [1]

The Crisis of 1974

In 1974 the miners struck again, but it was a very different strike. For a start the stakes were higher – it was a far more overtly political strike with the future of the Tory government directly at stake. Despite this the strike was a much quieter affair with the officials much more firmly in control. There was virtually no mass picketing since both the right-wing and the broad left wanted no violent scenes which they feared might damage the chances of the Labour Party winning the election. When Heath accused Michael McGahey, president of the Scottish miners and a leading member of the Communist Party, of wishing to bring the government down by industrial action he hotly denied the allegation and said that his philosophy for political change was through the ‘traditional’ medium of the ballot box. In all the areas the broad left leadership took action to limit the number of pickets and to ensure that no incidents occurred that might embarrass the Labour Party. The net effect of this was to exclude from action vast numbers of the membership.

The TUC was scared stiff. Hugh Scanlon postponed the pursuit of the engineers’ pay claim and the TUC promised not to use any ‘special case’ settlement with the miners as a justification for any other union’s claim. Why were they so scared? In a pamphlet published by the Sunday Times [2] Stephen Fay and Hugo Young have argued that the government was completely out of its depth. The Tory Cabinet was in such a state of mental exhaustion that they were totally confused and several ministers were in favour of using the most repressive measures at the disposal of the state in order to crush the miners. As far as they were concerned the question of workers’ power was on the agenda:

The mood affected their whole lives. John Davies, who was Minister for Europe, remembers it. ‘We were at home in Cheshire, and I said to my wife and children that we should have a nice time, because I believed then that it was the last Christmas of its kind that we would enjoy.’ [3]

When the TUC promised that it would regard the miners as a special case and not use their settlement as an excuse for other workers they thought that they were getting the Tories off the hook and allowing them to save a certain amount of face. When the government turned this suggestion down flat the union leaders’ worst fears were confirmed. Unless they played things very quietly indeed and ensured a Labour victory in the election then British society was headed for the most massive confrontations, in which their ‘responsible’ restraints on their members would collapse in the face of large-scale class warfare. The vast majority of the NUM executive shared the fears of their brothers on the TUC General Council. When the election was announced Joe Gormley said that he wanted the strike to be called off, but the large number of telegrams that poured into the Euston Road headquarters of the NUM from the branches and lodges demanding his resignation meant that he had to backpedal on this quaint idea.

If any members of the broad left leadership in the NUM spurned the fears of the right wing they did absolutely nothing concrete to challenge the restrictive rules laid down for the conduct of the strike. Since the 1972 strike they had assumed the leadership of the rank and file without in any way attempting to build a real movement within the grass-roots. Leaderless again the rank and file acquiesced almost entirely in the conduct of the strike.

When the Labour Party won the election everybody from the president of the Confederation of British Industry to Lawrence Daly breathed a sigh of relief. At last the serious business of rebuilding a ‘concensus’ style of government in the face of the deepening crisis of British capitalism could be attempted. The first task of the government was to get the miners back to work and then they could get on with the age-old preoccupation of Labour governments, to strengthen the power of the trade union officials against the power of the rank and file, so that future attacks on the working class might be met with less opposition.

The strike was settled. Faceworkers, the most militant section were given the full claim. Other workers underground received £4 less than they were demanding and surface workers were given £3 less than they had been demanding. In 1969, 1970 and 1972 the rank and file had fought hardest for the lowest-paid – the surface workers. That essentially unselfish and socialist consciousness on the part of the strongest for the weakest was missing in 1974, largely because of the low-key nature of the strike. The lower level of struggle, despite the higher stakes, meant less comradeship.

When the settlement came Dai Francis, general secretary of the South Wales miners and a member of the Communist Party, pleaded with area lodge delegates to accept it in the name of ‘unity’ and with the exception of the Cwm Lodge they did, despite the fact tbat at several pits mass meetings had voted against acceptance. Two years previously Francis had pleaded with them to let safety work be done during the strike – in the name of ‘unity’ and responsibility to the industry – but then the lodges, almost without exception, had ignored him. [4]

At the end of the 1974 strike the left on the executive asked the membership to accept the settlement on the understanding that there would be further talks between the union, the NCB and the government to sort out the ‘fringe benefits’ excluded from the settlement. Apart from the £3 and £4 missing from the claim for the surface and underground workers, one of the other ‘fringe benefits’ in question concerned the men who had been sent home without payment during the overtime ban that had preceded the strike. Over two years later delegates were told by Lawrence Daly at this year’s conference at the Isle of Man that the NEC was still negotiating with the Coal Board for these men to be paid.

The Plan For Coal

In the early summer of 1974 the new Labour government got down to the serious business of soft-soaping the miners. The energy minister at the time was Eric Varley, an NUM-sponsored MP. He convened a tri-partite discussion between the NUM, the NCB and the government. There was now a new situation in the energy market. The oil-producing nations had increased the price of oil dramatically over the previous two years, and once again coal became cheaper than oil. The leaders of the NUM were beside themselves with self-congratulation; for years they had hopefully predicted that this was going to happen and now it had.

During the fifties and the sixties oil had come to take over from coal as the primary fuel. The NUM leadership, comprising reformists of both the left and right had never seriously challenged this. The tendency was for them to accept in practice the arguments that oil was cheaper than coal – hence their efforts to help the NCB increase productivity and their glee when coal became cheaper again. They never said ‘To hell with your capitalist economics, it’s social issues that we’re concerned with.’ Consequently the power of the multi-national oil companies and their backers was never challenged. While the coal industry was torn to pieces, men were thrown out of jobs and entire communities wiped out, the oil bosses were allowed to print their own money.

Reformism rests on the hope that capitalism can be gradually transformed peacefully into a more equitable and just society by using the wealth that capitalism produces with the consent of the capitalist class. This blinkered philosophy ignores among other things the fact that capitalism is by nature prone to terrible crises when the possibility of wringing meaningful reforms from it is restricted by its own instinct for survival. This short-sighted reformism allowed the leaders of the NUM, left and right, to trick the membership into believing in 1974 that they had a bright new future in the industry. They ignored two vital factors. Firstly that the recession was going to depress energy demand in the immediate future and the probability of further sharp recessions following very quickly meant that long-term planning of not only the coal industry but every other aspect of the energy scene was to be extremely accident-prone. The other factor, allied with this, was the development of North Sea oil.

North Sea oil is relatively expensive to extract in comparison with operations in the Middle East. Both the private and state sectors of capitalism that are involved in the North Sea oil operation therefore have a vested interest in keeping the international oil price high in order to make the North Sea venture as vastly profitable as they expect it to be.

The oil companies’ greed for profits is so great that the North Sea will be exhausted of oil by the middle of the 1990s on current estimates. This means that in any recession when energy demand falls, the first cuts will come in coal, not in oil. After all nobody gets fat on coal profits these days.

But in 1974 there was a temporary ‘energy crisis’. The miners had a winning hand, but instead of using it to force more out of the government their leaders squandered it for less than a pocketful of promises and minor concessions. Suddenly, despite all the bitter experiences of the 1960s, the Labour government was the best friend that the miners had ever had. Even Arthur Scargill, the outspoken president of the Yorkshire miners, described Tony Benn, Varley’s successor as energy minister, as a ‘true friend of the miners’ at the Yorkshire Miners’ Gala in June this year – despite the fact that Benn had urged the miners to accept the 4½ per cent deal in the ballot that had just taken place.

Once again the absence of any well-organised rank and file opposition to the manoeuvres of the leadership has been felt. In most mining areas the Labour Party retains much more traditional support and active involvement among manual workers than it does in most industrial towns and cities. Many branch and lodge officials are Labour Party officers and councillors in their localities. Many of these men have spent decades devoting themselves to the Labour Party. With a minority Labour government just clinging to power in the summer of 1974 it is perhaps not surprising that a lot of them wanted to believe that at last a Labour government was going to advance the interests of the miners.

On top of this the Communist Party, bound hand and foot by its cherished British Road to Socialism was not at all keen on being too critical. The result was that the right wing were in their element. The field was clear for Joe Gormley and friends to re-assert their control, providing of course that the government could come up with something for them to sell.

The result of the tripartite talks was two apparent concessions on the part of the government in return for a commitment from the NUM executive that productivity would be increased and negotiations would take place on a productivity deal to ensure this.

The first apparent concession, which was nothing short of a classic confidence trick, was the Plan for Coal. The government and the NCB acknowledged that they had got their sums wrong back in the sixties and that the industry had been allowed to contract too much. Unless the investment famine in the coal industry was brought to a halt overall deep-mined production of coal would fall from a notional 120 million tons per year in 1974 to just 80 million tons by 1980.

The report of the tripartite talks mentioned ‘increased production’ in almost every paragraph, but what was really being discussed was increased productivity. A brief examination of the figures quoted will illustrate this. In order to halt a decline in deep-mined production of 40 million tons by 1980 the NCB undertook to extend the life of some pits in order to provide an extra 9 million tons per year. Another 13 million tons was to be gained by major improvement schemes at a few other selected collieries, and a further 20 million tons was to be mined from new pits (including 10 million tons a year from Selby.) This programme was to be achieved by 1985.

In other words over a ten year programme the NCB promised to increase deep-mined production to 122 million tons annually in comparison with the target of 120 million tons for 1974. This increase of 1½ per cent was hailed as a tremendous victory for ‘King Coal’ by the NUM executive. The NCB also said that it might be possible to increase total output even more, but they committed themselves to no hard figures beyond the 122 million tons, which in reality of course meant a standstill. At the same time they were predicting an overall increase in energy demand of 10 per cent by 1980 and a further 10 per cent by 1985. The only section of coal production that they promised definitely to increase was that gained from open-cast workings. Opencast mining is carried on by private contractors on contracts awarded by the NCB Open-Cast Executive. The contracting firms that do this work are now reporting large profits as a result of the expansion already undertaken since 1974, and earlier this year the Financial Times published a special 3-page report outlining the huge profits that are to be made in the open-cast sector.

In the absence of any campaign by the broad-left leadership to point out what a con-trick the Plan for Coal really was, Gormley and the right-wing were able to add further stability to their growing control. A false sense of security was deliberately fostered among the membership.

Just how false this security was could have been demonstrated if the broad left had seriously attempted to expose the crippling productivity clause on which all this promised ‘expansion’ depended. Everything was conditional on ‘joint production drives’ and ‘productivity incentive schemes’. The report stated:

Realisation of the potential output for which these plans provide also depends on realising the assumption on which the plan is based that output per man shift (OMS) can be raised by some 4 per cent a year.

What this little clause meant was that the full-time officials of the NUM had undertaken to negotiate a productivity deal which would increase OMS from 42.3 cwt to 65.1 cwt in ten years – a total increase of 54 per cent.

To calculate output per man shift it is necessary to divide the total amount of production by the number of manshifts worked. If total production is to rise by less than two per cent but productivity is to rise by 54 per cent then there is only one way in which this can be achieved – by reducing the number of men working in the industry by approximately 35 per cent.

In other words when they signed the report of the tripartite discussions the NUM was signing away the right of some 85,000 men to have jobs in the mining industry by 1985. One would have expected a loud outcry from the broad left but no attempt was made to get this message across to the rank and file in any organised form. The only attempt to seriously analyse the deal and warn the membership came from the very small Collier Group, which published a pamphlet entitled The Great Productivity Trick in the autumn of 1974.

The truth is that the broad left was paralysed in any fight against productivity deals in principle because some sections of its leadership were only luke-warm, to say the least, in their opposition to them. Since then some of them have drifted so far to the right that they are now actually advocating a productivity deal. George Rees, who has taken over from Dai Francis as secretary of the South Wales miners, is a member of the Communist Party. At this year’s conference at the Isle of Man he appealed from the rostrum for a new ‘national incentive scheme’, which is the euphemism used by Gormley and NCB chairman Sir Derek Ezra for a productivity deal.

Instead of campaigning against productivity deals per se the broad left chose the soft and less controversial option of fighting against the particular kind of deal favoured by the right wing and the NCB. The National Power Loading Agreement had been an attempt to ‘rationalise’ the wages, work disciplines and extractive techniques of the industry. This meant that it was easier for the NCB to point a firm finger at the ‘uneconomic’ pits and close them while at the same time making it more difficult for the rank and file to fight back. But the initial success of the NPLA for the NCB turned full circle after five years when the national wage rates helped the miners forge a new unity. The 1972 strike proved beyond doubt that the NPLA was played out as a means of boosting productivity.

The NCB therefore had to come up with a new scheme that would once again divide the miners and destroy their unity while at the same time establishing a new yard-stick whereby efficiency could be measured and miners could be persuaded to accept more pit closures without too much fuss. The Coal Board and the right wing on the NUM executive seized upon a plan whereby a productivity bonus would be paid to men working on units which exceeded the particular productivity targets allocated to them. The advantages to the NCB of such a scheme were obvious: the management could manipulate targets on different faces or at different pits according to whether they wanted to keep them open or shut them; different levels of bonus payment would once again destroy the unifying effect of national wage rates without giving the men on the job any power to force rates up at local level.

They had their eyes focussed particularly on smashing the new militancy that had blossomed in Yorkshire since the 1969 strike. This had thrown up a whole new layer of leaders in the Yorkshire coalfield – men like Arthur Scargill, who although a member of the broad left, could not always be relied upon to toe the party line. When the new Selby super-pit is open it will almost inevitably have an exceptionally high productivity rate. It would therefore pay a high productivity bonus. The NCB were hoping to use this as a lure to attract men from other pits in Yorkshire that they wanted to close, at which they would have been certain to pay a low productivity bonus. The Coal Board would have been able to recruit more easily and selectively for Selby from those pits they want to shut, taking the younger men, running the old pits down and then closing them altogether.

If they could achieve this the strength and unity of the Yorkshire miners would be smashed and Scotland and South Wales would be on their own. Isolated and demoralised the Scottish and South Wales miners might be easier targets themselves for closures and redundancies.

Faced with this prospect the broad left countered the right’s scheme by arguing for a national incentive scheme which would pay average bonus rates to everyone in the industry regardless of where they worked and according to national production targets. The Coal Board’s scheme, backed by a majority of the executive, was put to a ballot in November 1974 and was heavily defeated by 133,110 votes to 79,078. The broad left had won against that particular form of productivity deal; but not against the general commitment of the union to productivity dealing because they had been incapable of launching such a fight without dissension in their own ranks.

When the ‘left’ are seen to be advocating higher productivity then they have conceded half the battle to the right already. Once again the lack of any meaningful rank and file movement with firm roots in all the coal-fields makes itself felt. It is possible that this may have serious repercussions next year. If, as they are already demanding, the union leaders are given a productivity clause in the next round of incomes policy, the right wing in the NUM will have a greater chance of success. If the rank and file are persuaded, after two years of declining living standards, that the only chance they have of improving their wages is through the kind of productivity deal favoured by the Coal Board there is a danger that they may vote to accept it out of frustration rather than enthusiasm. If this should happen the broad left will only have themselves to blame.

The Compensation Issue

If the ‘expansion’ of the coal industry that was announced after the tripartite talks was a pretty shrivelled carrot, more like a product of this year’s dry summer than of the wetter one of 1974, then the other carrot was a little juicier – if only on first appearance.

For decades one of the most emotive grievances that miners have had is the fact that thousands of men working on the coalface were thrown on the scrap-heap when their lungs became scarred by pneumoconiosis. The record of the NUM in seeking compensation for victims of ‘the dust’ is absolutely appalling. The first authentic test case brought against the Coal Board was not in fact started by the NUM. An ex-miner, Stanley Pickles, from Doncaster took the NCB to court with the aid of his new union the AEU. In fact no judgement was ever made because the NCB settled out of court for £7,500 in January 1970.

After years of doing nothing the NUM executive was forced into action by rank and file pressure and specifically the threat by some members to go ahead with prosecutions on their own. A number of test cases were prepared and were due to go to court when in the summer of 1974 the government and the NCB offered a pneumoconiosis and byssinosis compensation scheme.

In 1972 legal experts had estimated, on the basis of the Pickles settlement, that the total cost to the Coal Board in damages if all the sufferers from the dust were to be compensated would be over £300 million, at 1970 values. On September 12th 1974 a pneumoconiosis compensation settlement was agreed to by the NUM. The government provided a total of £100 million towards the costs of the scheme, which according to the 1975 NUM Executive Report would amount to ‘in the region of £125-£130 million’. This was less than half the amount that legal experts had suggested might be needed at 1970, money values. When the settlement was signed the NUM agreed not to ask the Coal Board to pay the vast legal charges it had already incurred in preparing the test cases for court. Recipients of compensation under the scheme had to sign away any right to sue the NCB for more compensation later.

As soon as the settlement was reached the claims came flooding in. According to the NUM figures, by 25 April 1975, 38,393 claims had received offers totalling £91,930,675 – an average offer of just short of £2,400 for each pair of lungs. By 23 April 1976, 60,555 claims had received offers totalling £122,443,675 – a lower average of only just over £2,000 for each pair of lungs. Between October 1974 and April 1976 521 men became crippled with pneumoconiosis. According to NUM figures these men qualified for an average payment of just £603 each.

In May 1976 the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union of Rochdale, with only a tiny fraction of the strength and power of the NUM, negotiated £13,000 compensation for Thomas Simmons, a cotton worker from Halifax with byssinosis. The maximum amount any miner can receive under the settlement negotiated by the NCB is £10,000.

The NUM estimates that 10,000 miners with pneumoconiosis do not qualify for payments under the terms of the scheme and that a further 14,500 widows are excluded because their husbands died before 26 January 1970.

Why did the executive accept such a pathetic and insulting settlement? They explained rather shamefacedly in the 1975 NEC Report: ‘To add to our difficulty we were also faced with a general election and at that time we did not know whether a new administration would be as sympathetic, so rather than risk the whole scheme we settled.’ In other words the miners’ rights were once again sacrificed for the sake of maintaining a Labour government in office. Because the broad left did not seriously oppose the settlement outside the executive the right wing were able to sell it as an indication of the good faith of the Labour government.

Pay and Closures

A false sense of security, engendered as much by the failure of the broad left to get out and warn the rank and file as by the efforts of the right to promote peace and quiet, was to lead to defeats for the left in 1975 and 1976. At the 1975 annual conference the Communist Party led Scottish delegation persuaded Yorkshire to accept a re-wording of their demands for £100 a week for faceworkers that allowed the executive to put any interpretation they wished on the final resolution that was passed. What was happening was that the Communist Party and its followers in the broad left leadership were beginning to reap the bitter fruit of their misdirected tactics.

They had never tried to build a movement among the rank and file, but had relied on ‘left’ officials being elected. Their attention was directed at seeking prominent office and bringing about change from the top, not at seeking to involve the rank and file members in a campaign for the reelection of officials, for them to receive the average wage of the members and for the executive to become a more democratic and representative body. Their attitude towards the rank and file had always been that of ‘elect us and leave things in our hands’. The rank and file revolts of 1969 and 1970 had caught them with their trousers down. Between then and 1974 they had managed to place themselves at the head of militants, but now lack of principle and organisation had left the rank and file open once again to the propaganda barrage from the right.

The extent to which this was true was shown by the fact that only a couple of weeks after the 1975 conference the right wing on the executive felt strong enough to accept the £6 deal and recommend that the membership should do likewise. The ballot was held in August and the result showed a vote of 60.5 per cent in favour of the £6 deal. Despite all the indications of what was likely to happen the Communist Party leadership in the union had shut their eyes to the danger. They had even pretended that the wages resolution at conference that had been watered down to placate the right had been a victory. Other members of the broad left, to their credit thought otherwise. Arthur Scargill, for instance, was extremely bitter about the antics of Michael McGahey, but failure to build a real base outside the broad left prevented him from doing anything but succumb to the pressure put on him in the name of ‘unity’.

By the end of 1975 the government and the NCB felt strong enough to twist the screw a little harder. It was time to test opposition to pit closures. The colliery that was chosen was Langwith in North Derbyshire. A couple of years previously they had managed to close Glapwell Colliery in the same area without any major opposition being mounted by Peter Heathfield the left-wing secretary of the North Derbyshire miners. This time they had a harder fight on their hands.

Immediately after the Christmas break the Derbyshire area started an overtime ban in defence of Langwith and they appealed to the national executive for support. For over a month the NEC held back, stalling for time. It was not until 12 February that they decided to call a national overtime ban. Gormley and other right wing officials mounted an immediate campaign to get the decision reversed and encouraged the membership to ignore the ban in several areas. Seven days later he was able to get a majority on the executive in favour of calling off the ban. A ballot was held and despite a swiftly mounted campaign by the left the NEC’s retreat was upheld.

The lessons are clear. If a campaign had been mounted among the rank and file by the broad left nationally at the beginning of January for immediate action in support of the Langwith men the outcome may have been different. Instead they confined their struggle to the debates on the NEC. The weeks dragged on and the right wing were given all the opportunity they needed to sow the seeds of doubt and confusion among the membership, backed up of course by a massive press campaign.

The lessons may be clear, but sections of the broad left have already chosen to ignore them. The South Wales area tabled a resolution to this year’s conference calling for renewed opposition to pit closures on economic grounds, but accepted a right wing amendment which called upon the NEC to publish guidelines for the fight against pit closures. As Peter Heathfield pointed out angrily, the NEC had shown their attitude to closures by what they had done to Langwith, what was the point of expecting them to lead any fight against closures now?

The Coal Board won at Langwith and their success has already encouraged them to move on. They now want to close Teversal Colliery in Nottinghamshire, and they are openly admitting that the reason for this is because they want to move the workforce to another colliery, a reason they would never have dared to use before the Langwith fiasco. Once again however the broad left are ignoring the danger.

Gormley also was encouraged by his success. This year he managed to get a ballot on the 4½ per cent deal held before the annual conference, thus avoiding any debate on wages. This time the vote was closer, with just 53½ per cent voting in favour, but again the broad left was slow to react. In almost every area the Collier leaflet was the first to appear against the deal. Most of the 20,000 copies of this leaflet that were printed were distributed in the Yorkshire, North Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire areas, where The Collier seems to have its most organised support so far, and according to the ballot results it was precisely these areas which registered the highest ‘swings’ against the 4½ per cent deal compared with the 1975 ballot on the £6 limit.

The Struggle Ahead

The improvement in the ‘no’ vote this year shows that if the correct tactics are adopted by the left the rank and file could well reject the incomes policy next year. But the first thing that the broad left must do is discard embarrassments like Lawrence Daly, who insisted at this year’s conference that he was not in favour of a return to free collective bargaining next year. This they are unlikely to do and in the event of a continued abdication of principled leadership they will either be caught with their trousers down again by a rank and file revolt or will strengthen Gormley’s control.

The main struggle this year, however, is now the claim for earlier retirement by January 1977. Ever since the 1972 strike one of the main arguments used by the right wing against wages militancy has been that it is better to fight for lasting benefits like earlier retirement that cannot be eroded by inflation. They ignore the fact that such ‘lasting benefits’ are valueless without a decent standard of living, but we shall ignore their peculiar logic for now. With the right wing in control and wages removed from the agenda of this year’s conference by order of Joe Gormley, the delegates turned their attention to a resolution from the Nottingham area demanding retirement at 60 by January 1977 to be further reduced to 55 by 1980, with no loss of earnings. The resolution, which promised industrial action if its demands are not met by January, was passed unanimously.

If these demands are implemented the result could be the creation of over 20,000 job vacancies in the industry next year, and a total of well over 100,000 by 1980, since the average age of the present workforce is so high. In the fight against unemployment and for the right to work this claim for early retirement without loss of earnings obviously has a central position of importance.

Speaking at conference Michael McGahey complimented the Notts area, not for their uncompromising resolution, but for their ‘sensible’ moderation:

I want to compliment Nottingham on their sensible and logical resolution because it does recognise that we have an ageing workforce in the mining industry and that immediate retirement at 55 would denude the pits of their manpower.

Surely this is the NCB’s problem, not the NUM’s! If wage levels had been higher in the past and there had been greater job security the Coal Board may have had more success in recruiting younger men and keeping them in the industry.

This note of caution bodes ill for the struggle for earlier retirement if it is to be the attitude of the broad left generally. Early retirement is directly opposed to the rigid restrictions of the 4½ per cent deal. Since early retirement could help to alleviate unemployment it is logical to assume that a real fight to achieve it could do much to show the rank and file of every union, not just the NUM, that incomes policy causes unemployment. If the fight is delayed however it could prove to be disastrous.

If there is no campaign mounted by the broad left that seeks to involve the membership in the pursuit of the claim the right wing might succeed in postponing it, especially if the government should promise to include it in a productivity deal that might be offered under the next round of incomes policy. If early retirement were to be linked to a productivity deal it could be just the instrument that the government and the NCB are seeking to aid a new round of pit closures. The result of this would be a small workforce concentrated in a small number of highly productive pits fighting each other for higher bonus payments.

Two years of Labour government have resulted in a broad left split on many issues: worker participation, incomes policy, productivity deals and tactics for wage claims. The modus operandi of the broad left prevents them from kicking out the traitors in their midst because they are constantly looking solely for allies at the top instead of organisation at the grass roots. It was the revolt of the rank and file that began seven years ago that put them in control, and on their current showing it is only another revolt that can help them to climb back to power. The cruel irony is that their compromises and vacillation hinder the development of any such revolt.

The picture is not entirely bleak though. Certain leaders within the broad left like Arthur Scargill, Jack Collins and to a lesser extent Peter Heathfield have on occasions shown an inclination that they could break the restrictive discipline of the broad left machine. To what extent this is the product of careerism and to what extent it is genuine concern for the rank and file will be shown in time. But the important consideration is not the attitude of a few leaders, it is the question of whether a real rank and file movement can be built in the NUM.

The rank and file paper The Collier was started by a very small nucleus of miners after the 1972 strike. The domination of the broad left at that time made its development very slow and problematic. The lack of any real base meant that it did not survive the right wing offensive that started in 1974, but this year publication has been started again. Already the paper, which is produced every month, is selling more copies than it did before. More NUM branches and lodges are taking official orders of the paper and the response is encouraging. The test for The Collier is now the extent to which it can gain the ground that has been conceded by the broad left. Certainly the arguments for a rank and file movement are far easier to get across to militants than they were between 1972 and 1974, but the test is whether such a movement can be built in practice.


1. See the articles by John Charlton in IS 56 and IS 57 for a detailed analysis of the NUM from nationalisation of the coal industry to 1972.

2. The Fall of Heath by Stephen Fay and Hugo Young, published by The Sunday Times in March 1976 as an edited version of three articles that appeared in the newspaper in February and March 1976.

3. The Fall of Heath, page 6.

4. For a detailed analysis of the 1974 strike see the article by the present writer in IS 68.

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Last updated on 24.2.2008