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Editorial: Orgreave and the bloody birth of today's neoliberal Britain

TOMORROW’S Orgreave Truth and Justice rally in Sheffield, 40 years since the unprovoked police riot against striking miners, is no mere commemoration.

Like the wider 1984-85 strike itself, Orgreave was a formative event in the creation of neoliberal Britain. 

To pursue her agenda of deregulation, tax cuts for corporations and the rich and the sell-off of the services and infrastructure that keep the country running, Thatcher had to break the power of labour. And she did not do so openly or democratically.

Marx described capitalism coming into the world “weeping from every pore with blood and dirt,” a system built on the theft of common land, the mass-scale dispossession of the people by state violence.

Neoliberalism’s birth was violent too, as capitalist ruling classes unleashed a carefully planned counter-revolution against the working-class achievements of the hundred years prior — the extension of public ownership, a “social wage” of access to healthcare, education, pensions and benefits, strong trade unions that gave workers a voice.

It was bloodiest in the first country to be subjected to the free-market extremism of formerly fringe economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek — Chile, where a democratic Marxist revolution was drowned in blood. Thatcher was an open admirer of General Augusto Pinochet, but acknowledged to him that she would not get away with his methods in Britain.

Yet she did not achieve the destruction of industry and the public sector through persuasion. The miners’ strike and the Orgreave tragedy show us how state power was used to smash the working class in the 1980s. The long-awaited promise in Labour’s manifesto of an inquiry into that day’s events is tribute to the determination of campaigners over decades: there is a lot to learn.

The confrontation was long planned. Coal was stockpiled, a fleet of non-union lorry drivers recruited in anticipation that the unionised railway would not help break the strike by transporting coal.

The government lied, denying the scale of its pit closure plans, which would ultimately amount to the total destruction of the industry and the abandonment of the hundreds of communities it supported, condemning many to a future of unemployment, poverty and drug addiction — while we continued to import millions of tons of coal from abroad.

And it used force, militarised police deployed to batter miners and their families. The miners at Orgreave were herded into a trap, then charged by truncheon-wielding officers on horseback. The BBC reversed the footage, to give the impression that the miners had attacked the police: the same dutiful dishonesty in service of state power that it exercised more recently to demonise the socialist-led Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn.

If the miners had won, we could have prevented the tsunami of privatisation and deregulation that followed, that freed the City of London to gamble our futures on the stock market and handed our gas, electricity, water and more to extortionate rent-seeking crooks.

The damage her neoliberal onslaught did stares us in the face every day, in sewage-stricken rivers and NHS waiting lists, crippling energy bills and creaking public transport.

At the last two elections a revolt against the neoliberal order had political expression in Labour. This time it does not, and the dismantling of that socialist project has been as dishonest and undemocratic as Thatcher’s assault on the miners. The Keir Starmer who boasted this week of expelling his predecessor from the party would never have been elected had members realised what his endgame was: a capitalist restoration, to ensure the Thatcherite stranglehold on politics continues.

For all our sakes and the planet’s, it must not. Our economy serves no-one but the super-rich and Labour’s commitment to Treasury orthodoxy closes off the alternative. Our only option is to force that alternative on politicians from below, by rebuilding a movement of and for working-class power.

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