The left’s betrayal of the Miners’ Strike

Today’s middle-class identitarians view the working class with disdain.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics UK

It will be 40 years this March since the beginning of the Miners’ Strike. Anniversaries of this most momentous of British political struggles used to provoke strong emotions on the left, including anger, melancholy and sometimes defiance. But this doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, and it’s not difficult to work out why. Too many on today’s middle-class-dominated left disdain the working classes. And many view the Miners’ Strike itself with little more than hazy regret, a reminder of an ‘old-fashioned’ class politics they have abandoned.

This is quite the turnaround. The Miners’ Strike was the defining, pivotal event of British politics during the 1980s. This conflict between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government began on 6 March 1984 and lasted until 3 March the following year. Such was the magnitude of the conflict that Thatcher had to call on nearly every resource of the British state to defeat the miners, including the mass mobilisation of the police.

This de facto civil war was a product of the huge changes then taking place in Thatcher’s Britain. For much of the postwar era, successive governments had engaged in a comradely ‘beer and sandwiches’ approach to industrial disputes. This meant that the government would work with the unions to mediate conflict between employers and employees. But by the time the postwar boom came to an end during the 1970s, this old social-democratic arrangement was no longer working. Facing a deepening crisis of capitalism, Thatcher’s government tried to rescue the system by taking on the unions and the working class. The Miners’ Strike brought a militant working class into direct confrontation with the forces of capital.

The defeat of the miners in 1985 represented a catastrophic defeat for the entire British working class at the time. Many pits were forced to close, devastating the communities that depended on them. Thousands of former miners were left stranded on benefits in towns with few other forms of employment.

To some on the left, the defeat of the Miners’ Strike cemented the image of the Tories as mean-spirited and ruthless defenders of the existing social order, no matter the social cost. Yet it’s important to remember that plenty of middle-class liberals were often just as averse to the miners as Thatcher was. The Guardian opposed the Miners’ Strike on law-and-order grounds. It rearticulated its opposition to the miners in 2009, on the strike’s 25th anniversary.

Some far-leftists also viewed the striking miners unfavourably at the time. Marxism Today, house journal of the Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain, attacked them for their ‘familial and masculinist’ posturing. Even during the 1980s, you could see bourgeois identity politics beginning to usurp class politics, at the miners’ expense.

At the time, there were numerous cases of minorities seeking solidarity with the miners, from Sikh workers to lesbian and gay activists. Yet there was still a growing sense among leftists that the miners’ values and attitudes were simply not ‘progressive’ enough. That they were too sexist, too homophobic and so on.

This view of the miners has grown over time to dominate the cultural perception of the ‘lions’ of the labour movement. Take the film Billy Elliot, released in 2000. It used the backdrop of the Miners’ Strike to criticise the homophobic attitudes prevalent among the working-class inhabitants of this traditionally masculine world. The 2014 film, Pride, consolidated this view by mocking miners’ traditional views on marriage and relationships.

Since then, the miners’ stock has plummeted even further in the eyes of bourgeois identitarians. First the old pit-village constituencies voted for Brexit in 2016. And then they reaffirmed the referendum vote by voting for Boris Johnson’s Brexit-backing Tories at the 2019 General Election. This led left-wing journalist Paul Mason to smear these voters as ‘ex-miners… sitting in the pub calling migrants cockroaches’. Ken Loach’s latest film, The Old Oak (2023), built on this anti-Brexit, anti-working-class prejudice. The film centres on a Syrian asylum seeker who arrives in a former mining town in the north-east, seemingly to correct the supposedly xenophobic views of its inhabitants.

It’s not just the embrace of identity politics that has turned left-wingers against the miners. The middle-class left has also bought into a reactionary green ideology. The miners’ old way of life is now uniformly presented as a stain on the environment. Today, you’re more likely to find leftists backing campaigns to close remaining coal pits than to fight for people’s jobs. Labour’s Ed Miliband has vowed to fight the opening of a planned coalmine in Cumbria, which would be the first new mine to open in 30 years – all on environmental grounds, of course.

There were certainly plenty on the left who were willing to defend miners’ jobs four decades ago. Yet even among the leadership of the NUM and its cheerleaders on the radical left, a dismissive attitude towards working-class people was growing. This was clear from the union’s determination, backed by supposed radicals, not to hold a ballot on the strike. They claimed this would mark a treacherous concession to Thatcher’s demand for ‘legal’ strike action. But there was another reason, too. They feared that the NUM might lose the ballot. That the miners might vote the ‘wrong’ way.

This was an early glimpse into that now familiar leftist mistrust of the working class at the ballot box. After Thatcher’s re-election the previous year, thanks in part to a fair few working-class votes, leftists were increasingly viewing workers in a negative light. They were worried that the tabloid media would exert a negative influence on the miners. They felt the working classes were too easily manipulated to be able to discern their own interests.

In truth, the reluctance to put strike action to a vote reflected the weakness of the NUM’s leadership. And so a chance to unite the divided miners in common cause was missed.

Still, those many miners who joined the strike did so courageously. They fought for their livelihoods and to preserve their way of life. They fought for the social solidarity that had previously prevailed in colliery towns and villages.

Forty years on from the Miners’ Strike, identity politics has now thoroughly eclipsed class politics. A bourgeois-dominated left now views the working class with unvarnished contempt. And liberals and leftists alike are convinced that the majority of their fellow citizens cannot be trusted to vote the ‘right’ way.

The miners’ defeat all those years ago continues to shape our political present.

Neil Davenport is a writer based in London.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK


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