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.
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.