Activism & Solidarity

Constructing Alliances: Why my Research on the Miner’s Strike Solidarity Movement Matters

In April this year the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Reunion’ focused on the 1984-5 miners’ strike. One participant, Conservative politician Ken Clarke, sought to remind listeners of the scourge of flying pickets: those ‘howling mobs’, as he described them, who sought to defy economic logic. My research into the support movement during the dispute is not an attempt to reheat old arguments – should there have been a national ballot? – but is nevertheless animated by that classic notion of challenging the enormous condescension of posterity (or Conservatives) that Clarke’s statement represents.

Many of the more mainstream accounts of the strike still stubbornly view it through the lens of Scargill versus Thatcher and McGregor (although the new documentary Still the Enemy Within is a welcome attempt to contest that narrative). My focus is on a relatively untold aspect of the strike. While Women Against Pit Closures has rightly received significant attention, other elements of the support movement have not. I decided to look at the activists in London partly because of the diversity and size of the movement in the capital – but also because for many people London socially and politically represented a stark contrast to the heartlands of British coal mining. I was initially inspired by Doreen Massey and Hilary Wainwright’s essay ‘Beyond the Coalfields: The Work of the Miners’ Support Groups’ (1985), which highlighted the social and geographical diversity of this social movement. My first attempt at bringing to light one of the ‘untold’ stories of the miners’ strike was to look at London Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and their support for Dulais in South Wales. The release of the film Pride last month means that this inspiring group is receiving the attention they deserve but, luckily for me, there is plenty more to be said.

Pride 2014
‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ banner at this year’s London Pride Parade, 28 June 2014 (photo credit: Kim Bonnar)

In addition to LGSM there were other individuals and groups supporting the miners in the mainstream labour movement and beyond that are worth remembering. Feminists in London, such as Lambeth Women’s Support Group, made connections with women active in mining areas. Interviewed in Spare Rib, one activist asked: ‘what else would have brought together women from mining villages and London feminists, giving us access to each other’s different ways of life?’ Black Delegation to the Miners organised a visit of black Londoners to the Kent coalfields, and collected money and distributed ‘Black People Support the Miners’ badges at the Notting Hill Carnival. They argued that the miners’ strike ‘is critical for the fight-back of the working class as a whole, women and men, white and black.’ My research aims to contribute to the ‘resurgence of “class” in history’—suggested by a recent conference in Essex by that name—with an emphasis on the way in which support for the miners by groups such as Black Delegation and LGSM aimed to contest who counted as working class and what was included in working-class politics.

Rather than seeing it simply as a defensive campaign, it is important to look at the kind of alternative political visions mobilised through the solidarity networks. Fleet Street workers, for example, challenged media bias against the strike both by promoting a statutory ‘right to reply’ alongside the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and by taking industrial action against the worst excesses. Most famously, workers refused to handle a Sun front page headline and photo comparing Scargill to Hitler. The desire for a more democratic media is still relevant today. Through groups like Greenham Women for a Miners Victory and events such as the Mines Not Missiles festival in Kent, the strike also had a powerful connection to anti-nuclear campaigning. The strike offered lessons for the left—albeit highly contested ones—for example, in terms of the nature of the state and building networks of support.

My research is centrally about the concept of ‘solidarity’. In coal mining historiography solidarity usually means within mining communities. But this emphasis on likeness, as David Featherstone argues in his book Solidarity(2012), ‘obscures the importance of solidarities in constructing relations between places, activists, diverse social groups.’ It’s important to place the support movement in longer histories and cultures of reciprocal solidarity—for example, the way in which Brent Miners Support Group drew attention to miners’ support for the Grunwick strike of 1976-8 in their borough.

The impulse for this study then is ultimately political – thinking through what the miners’ strike says about constructing alliances. In his review of Pride, Ben Walters argues that it is ‘in essence […] a feelgood treatise on intersectionality, the utterly timely idea that systems of oppression and discrimination inevitably overlap and are most fruitfully considered and confronted in relation to each other.’ My PhD thesis is unlikely to be ‘feelgood’ in the same way but the importance of recounting this history is fundamentally the same.

See also: Diarmaid Kelliher,  ‘Solidarity and Sexuality: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners 1984–5’ History Workshop Journal (77) 1 2014  (special Open Access)


  1. When I was the director of the national museum of labour history in limehouse London, our walk in safe was used to look after monies raised by collection for the miners’ dispute, we did the same thing for the wapping dispute.
    When the tuc conducted a report on the museum I was heavily criticised by Clive Jenkins for housing such money , as this action put the tuc and the labour movement in disrepute with the authorities, this gives you some idea of the hostility shown by the then general Secretary of the tuc Norman Willis and general council members such as Clive Jenkins, although it has to be said there were members of the general council of the tuc we were a sympathetic unfortunately they were outvoted on more than one occasion

  2. While the work in solidarity with the miners in the Metropolis was undoubtedly important it only tells one (small) part of the story, particularly in the spatial sense. The solidarity covered the length and breadth of the country, each geographical area having its own distinctive story to tell.

    The work of the Oxford Miners Support Group, for example, has been one of the most heavily documented with a recent exhibition of materials and a conference at Ruskin College to commemorate the 30th anniversary, and an exceptional 120 page large format paperback ‘The Miners Strike in Oxford’ replete with articles, pictures and information (obtainable from the Oxfordshire County Libraries Local History section if you cannot get it anywhere else). Particularly central is the role of alliances created through the sponsorship of the local TUC, support from individual trade unions in a city with a long industrial tradition (Cowley car plants), the links with College student bodies (JCRs), links with the Labour Party and its control of the City Council, the local Women’s movement and with the Peace Movement (‘Mines not Missiles!’ was the theme of a demonstration during the strike).

    Good luck with the Thesis!

    1. Thanks Mike. I definitely agree with this – and hope I don’t come across as suggesting that the London support matters more than elsewhere. One thing that I would add was that there was also a significant international element to the solidarity, which Jonathan Saunders wrote about in his 1989 book ‘Across Frontiers: International Support for the Miners’ Strike’.

  3. Yes you are right. The 1985 Oxford book has a five page chapter with pictures called “The International Dimension” written by Jon Saunders, who was based in Oxford at the time of the strike, particularly about the links developed between Oxford Miners Support Group through the ‘town twinning link’ with the German city of Bonn – then the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany and seat of the parliament. The role of the Green Party in the German parliament is particularly covered. There are also sections on links established with Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain. Spain is particularly noteworthy due to the efforts of the Welsh miners in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s being still within living memory at the time (it is retold in the book ‘Miners Against Fascism’ by Hywel Francis which I won in an Oxford MSG fundraising raffle during the strike and was donated by the NUM and is inscribed with “Miners Strike 1984 – Maerdy Colliery – Rhondda’s last pit”; I’ve treasured it ever since!).

    It’s been decades since I’ve seen it and I don’t have a copy but I expect Jon’s 1989 book covers the same links and more .

  4. I didn’t mean to suggest that London was any less important. What I meant was that by looking only at only one geographical area it’s hard to get the necessary spatial sense of the scope and diversity of the solidarity movement with the miner across the country, from large cities to small villages and towns and even individual streets.

    Oxford was only exceptional in that the campaign there was so well recorded. This is hardly surprising, with two Universities in a small city, a large publishing industry and a large labour movement then strongly influenced by the far left outside the SWP (the SWP being important because of their then national weight and their strongly negative approach to support groups for the first three months of the strike).

  5. Watching “Still the Enemy Within” reminded me of going on the Womens delegation to N.Ireland with the miners wives during the strike. This is an important aspect to the strike which seems to have been written out of the history althogether. It struck me watching the film that the scenes in the pit villages mirrored the same scenario in the council estates of Belfast that we stayed in on that visit.
    It is a shame that your research is going to be written up as a PHD, hopefully you may be able to write it up in a more accessible way for the majority of us who want working class history to be for those who make the history not just the academics!

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