Over the last two years, there has been a revolution within the Labour Party in the UK. The Left has taken control of all the key levers in the party from the national executive committee to the leadership. Only the parliamentary party remains as an obstacle to total domination.
Rewind 37 years to the early 1980s – to the last time the Left came anywhere close to taking over the party. Back then, the right wing of the party had strong allies. While the left had a strong base in the constituencies and the national executive, the right wing was able to lean on certain trade union bosses. The struggle was much more evenly balanced.
Labour had lost the 1979 general election and Thatcher had come to power. Many in the party blamed the outgoing prime minister James Callaghan and his chancellor of the exchequer Dennis Healey. They believed socialist principles had been jettisoned during the 1974-79 Labour government and now wanted commitments to nuclear disarmament, nationalisation and abolishing the House of Lords.
But equally, there were trade union leaders who despised the Left and simply wanted a middle of the road Labour party back in power giving them access to Downing Street once more. They feared Thatcher was creating a society in which the unions would see their membership erode as manufacturing was allowed to decline and a new politics where they were being sidelined.
Things came to an almighty head when Callaghan decided to resign as party leader, having stuck around for a year after losing the 79 election. The Left devoted their energy into taking the deputy leadership. Tony Benn would run against Dennis Healey. This became a vicious battle fought in every constituency and union branch. In the end, by a slim margin, Healey won.
This film captures the intensity and vitriol that was unleashed at that time.
During the 1984/85 miners strike, the tabloid newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch – The Sun and the News of the World – took a very hostile stance towards the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Murdoch was about to take on his own print unions so organised labour was in his sights. The Sun put the NUM’s president Arthur Scargill on the front page with the headline “Mine Fuhrer” – geddit?
In response, miners brought out their own right-to-reply version of the Murdoch tabloids that included adverts of support from Murdoch’s print unions and some journalists. That wouldn’t have gone down well with the press baron.
Here, from my 80s archives, is that mock tabloid from the miners:
We all know that Thatcher defeated the miners in 1985 because Meryl Streep told us so. But Maggie’s fight with the National Union of Mineworkers didn’t go without some major hiccups along the way.
When the Tories came to power in 1979, they were determined on revenge for the perceived role the miners had in bringing down the 1970-1974 Ted Heath Conservative government.
The NUM was seen as the militant vanguard of the labour movement and if it could be cowed, then it would be a lot easier to push through the Thatcher agenda.
The government was determined to reduce subsidies to the nationalised industries, which in those days covered car making, steel, transport, gas, electricity and coal mining – amongst other things. So in 1980, legislation allowed Thatcher to remove operating subsidies from the coal industry. By 1981, the Coal Board was begging for more cash. The response was to announce the closure of 23 pits.
The NUM was led by Joe Gormley, who had been leader of the union in the Ted Heath years, and he demanded a reduction in coal imports and the restitution of subsidies to the industry. In a rare climbdown, Thatcher gave in. This was hailed as her first big U-turn since coming to power. So why did she do it?
You can rest assured it had nothing to do with the persuasiveness of Gormley’s arguments. What has since emerged was the existence of a plan drafted by right wing Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley – called the Ridley Plan.
Drafted after the 1974 miners strike, he secretly urged Tories to prepare with almost military precision for a titanic battle with the NUM. Coal stocks would have to be upped, imports of coal increased, money cut off for strikers, etc.
The reality in 1981 was that these preparations were not nailed down. Thatcher needed more time to prepare. And by 1984 – when she announced 20 pit closures – she was ready for the year long battle that ensued.
We all know Thatcher defeated the National Union of Mineworkers in 1985 – but not before, through heavily gritted teeth, she climbed down in the face of the miners in 1981.
On 10th February that year, the Prime Minister announced the closure of 23 pits. This was part of a Tory drive to ‘slim down’ and eventually privatise the nationalised industries that then existed in the UK – like the National Coal Board and British Leyland, which dominated the car industry.
The miners had been instrumental in bringing down the 1970-74 Conservative government of Ted Heath and so the fight with the NUM wasn’t just political and economic…but totemic and personal.
Thatcher was going to take down the workers who took down the Tories seven years before. But in 1981, it was not to be. Faced with strike action, she caved in eight days later. The show down with the pit workers would have to wait another three years…
Click HERE to read the BBC account of what happened.
Here is leaflet I have in my collection when miners and NHS workers took action together in the early 80s.