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Miners strike - 30 years on: Wanton industrial vandalism

Thirty years on IAN LAVERY MP vividly remembers the coming together of communities to defend their livelihoods

The first days of the miners' strike are etched vividly into my memory.

As an National Coal Board apprentice, the sight of striking miners in other coalfields filled my mind and fuelled the conversations of those above and below ground in the communities as yet undeclared.

It was amid the footage, the speculation and furore that I began to realise this was destined for the Great Northern Coalfield and the region's miners would soon follow and support the national strike.

I first experienced life on the picket line at the now sadly demolished Blyth Power Station where striking miners from across the country had congregated.

The atmosphere, as police and pickets assembled and I found myself face to face with the state for the first time, was electric. The realisation began to take hold both in my own mind and those of others on the picket lines that this was to be a long dispute.

This was a conflict born out of a desire to confront and fatally wound political trade unionism through any and every means available.

Margaret Thatcher and her government of extremists set about their dastardly aims by targeting the union that they feared most.

The union that, in order to achieve higher standards of health and safety, pay and conditions, in their industry, had forced a change of government only a decade earlier. This was a full-frontal attack on the National Union of Mineworkers and the coalfield communities they called home.

I became a regular picket, travelling the country's coalfields in support of the strike with my family and friends.

As days and weeks passed my conviction that we were doing what was right grew stronger and stronger. This was not the disputes of decades gone by, for pay and conditions, that older pickets had been involved in, this was a fight for the very survival of our communities against an all out attack by the state.

Looking back after 30 years, it still strikes me as sad that trade unionism and all it stands for, the collective, working together for the better of all, not just the few, was seen as such a threat to the British Establishment. The bloody noses and broken bones experienced at the hands of working people were still fresh in the memory and revenge was on the mind.

Thatcher always claimed she was but an innocent bystander in this dispute. The Cabinet papers relating to the strike, released this year, paint a different picture and have confirmed what the coalfields have known for three decades. Not only was she heavily and intricately involved in the strike, but she sent out senior politicians and civil servants to mislead the country and was prepared to stop at nothing to win.

This was a prime minister who was intricately involved micromanaging the government side of the dispute. While lying to the country about the scale of the closures programme she simultaneously schemed to use the armed forces to ensure victory. The state unleashed a politicised police force and judiciary on men who were defending jobs in their communities.

The National Union of Mineworkers spoke often of the secret plans to decimate 75 collieries and 65,000 jobs. But the government of the day and senior civil servants in its pay lined up to dismiss the claims as the fanciful dreams of militants and revolutionaries. Not only did this list exist but it was well known to those right at the very top of government.

It seems absurd to think that the energy needs of our nation and the vast reserves of coal, still under our feet, would be sacrificed in an ideological crusade to crush trade unionism. The dispute did indeed deal a blow to trade unionism but it was certainly not fatal. Perhaps the current government's anti-union rhetoric can be linked back to the distant memories and their fear of ordinary people organising to force change.

With the vicious daily attacks of this current Tory-led government, which has the gall to claim it is the workers' party, ordinary people are realising once again that they are stronger together.

 

Looking back on the strike with 30 years having passed by, I see two contrasting but concurrent disputes.

There was the desperately sad side, where a government hell-bent on mass destruction in the coalfields was prepared to use any and every means to win.

But there was another more positive side, where countless communities banded together fighting for what they knew was right, existing on the breadline for a full year in defence of their livelihoods.

The strike and its hardships brought out in people, things that were unknown, even to themselves. From the men who had worked their whole lives underground to those involved in the women against pit closures, the strike ignited talent they had never known.

From masterful oratory that would put the grandest public speakers to shame, to the ability to comprehensively get the point over in a debate, whether for or against, that legal representatives train their whole lives for.

It was all hands to the pump and people found talents in everything from organising to collecting and distributing. It was amazing to witness and amazing to be involved with.

Trade unionists across the world supported the effort in our communities with acts of kindness that could not be comprehended.

Parcels of food and clothing made their way from far-flung places, while shipments of toys made Christmas 1984 more bearable for those with children who had been on strike for nine months.

As a young apprentice the strike politicised me. The year-long strike and what followed took its toll on my community and hundreds of others up and down the country. Three decades later, many still show the scars of the wanton industrial vandalism that was done. I saw how power in the wrong hands could be wielded.

But I also witnessed, first hand, communities coming together to fight for their very existence. I first stood on a picket line as a young man unsure of what the future held. Thirty years later, more weather beaten, under the same circumstances in a heartbeat I would do exactly the same.

 

Ian Lavery is Labour MP for Wansbeck.

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