Workers Vanguard No. 1061
6 February 2015
Gays and the 1984-85 British Miners Strike
Pride: A Celebration of Solidarity
A Review by Len Michelson
The following article is reprinted from Workers Hammer No. 229 (Winter 2014-15), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain.
The new movie Pride has been met, deservedly, by a raft of rave reviews. Released 30 years after the launch of the heroic 1984-85 miners strike, Pride offers an exhilarating glimpse at what remains one of the most combative expressions of the class struggle in Britain and at the electrifying impact it had on broad layers of the oppressed. For those, especially younger people, who know only the occasional one- or two-day token strike in response to the incessant and unrelenting attacks by the bourgeoisie against wages and living conditions and the onslaught of racist, anti-immigrant and “family values” reaction, this film is a reminder that another world is, indeed, possible.
The year-long struggle led by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) exposed the threadbare social fabric of decrepit British capitalism. Intent on taming and destroying the most powerful union in the land, the Tory [Conservative] government of Margaret Thatcher provoked a torrent of class-struggle opposition that nearly brought the union-busting, anti-Communist “Iron Lady” to her knees. In building mass pickets and defying an army of scab-herding cops that flooded the coalfields, the miners inspired tens of thousands of railway and transport workers and other unionists to risk their jobs by engaging in concrete acts of labour solidarity. The NUM’s struggle against the despised Thatcher also galvanised the support and solidarity of the oppressed black and Asian communities, Irish Republicans and others chafing under the heel of the capitalist ruling class and its state, first and foremost the miners wives’ and women’s support groups that sprang up in every pit locality. In turn, this upwelling of support, and their own experience in struggle, dramatically changed the consciousness of the strikers and their families.
Pride focuses on an organisation of one such layer of the oppressed, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM). The film begins with the June 1984 Gay Pride parade in London, where the central figure, Mark Ashton (played by Ben Schnetzer), encourages his friends from Gay’s the Word bookshop to carry collection buckets for the strike. A raucous meeting follows where Ashton, joined by a handful of other gay men and a sole lesbian, Steph (Faye Marsay), founded LGSM in the face of narrow gay sectoralist concerns and hostility to the working class (derived in part from memories of beatings by backward workers). The LGSM activists are then confronted by prejudice from the other side, as one pit after another turns down support from an openly gay group. Finally, after a series of comic misunderstandings, Dai Donovan (Paddy Considine), a strike leader from the Dulais Valley in South Wales, comes to London to meet them. Donovan’s quiet and sober demeanor contrasts sharply with the ostentatious gay lifestylism flaunted by some of the LGSM.
The theme of solidarity in struggle (and human warmth) creating bonds and understanding between seeming opposites weaves through the film. The flamboyant Jonathan (played by Dominic West, previously Detective McNulty in The Wire) becomes the hit of the mining village after disco-dancing on the tables in the miners welfare club and teaching some of the younger strikers to dance (“Welsh men don’t dance,” complains one local woman). The older women in the village insist on a tour of gay clubs (including the “rubber scene”) while visiting London for a strike benefit. The venerable Welsh village elder (played by Bill Nighy) confesses before the film’s end that he has been in the closet all these years.
Feel-good Hollywood cliché and schmaltz abound, but they speak to a deeper truth about the strike. As we noted repeatedly in our press at the time, as the strike went on it began to break down longstanding sexual, racial, regional and national barriers. Dai speaks for the many strikers who became powerful public speakers in the course of the struggle. The fiery women portrayed in the film did become among the most intransigent and articulate fighters for a strike victory after breaking down the resistance of their husbands and sons to women playing a full part in the struggle. Women not only participated in running the communal kitchens and dining halls but also joined the picket lines and spoke publicly to motivate support for the strike at meetings and rallies. More than one of the thousands of miners who came to London to collect donations confessed to knowing “friends” who had been racist until they encountered resounding support for their struggle within the black and Asian communities. These miners were welcomed into the homes of strike supporters, just as supporters who visited the pit communities were welcomed into the homes of strikers.
In motivating gay support for the strike, Ashton declaims that Thatcher hates the miners as much as she hates gays and that the cops have now found someone else to “pick on.” In our articles on the strike we, too, made the point that the miners were being subjected to the same brutality the bosses’ state had long meted out to more vulnerable layers of the oppressed. But there was a more fundamental reason why blacks and Asians, women, gays and Irish Catholics rallied behind the miners cause. The miners had social power, a power derived from the workers’ organisation and their ability to stop the wheels of the capitalist profit system from turning. Many saw the NUM, which had brought down the Tory Heath government in 1974, as the vanguard of the trade union movement and looked to the miners to bring down the universally hated Thatcher and open the road to a better future.
But to achieve victory the solidarity the miners needed most was not money and friendship. From the outset of the struggle, we said: “Miners must not stand alone!” The only way to defeat the full might of the capitalist state arrayed against the NUM was to bring out other unions in struggle on the picket lines. With the Labour Party leadership under Neil Kinnock and the TUC [Trades Union Congress] under Norman Willis openly hostile to the strike, we pointed to the urgent need to draw the left-led unions, whose leaders claimed to support the miners struggle, out on strike alongside the NUM. When two brief dock strikes in the summer of 1984 threatened to bring the economy to a standstill (plunging the pound sterling to an all-time low), we agitated for a fighting Triple Alliance to shut down the country through joint strike action of miners and rail and other transport workers around a series of demands in the interests of the whole trade union movement. This would have amounted to a general strike, posing the question of a struggle for power. And this is what frightened the Labour and TUC tops, “left” as well as right, more than anything else.
While tens of thousands of miners and other workers showed their contempt for Kinnock and Willis (including by lowering a noose in front of the podium when Willis appeared in Wales in 1984), [NUM leader Arthur] Scargill and prominent Labour “left” Tony Benn did not challenge these scabherders, nor did they criticise their “left” TUC allies for refusing to bring out their unions. As we wrote at the end of the strike, “In the final analysis, it was not the cops and courts that defeated the NUM; it was the fifth column in labour’s ranks” (Workers Hammer No. 67, March 1985). The scene depicted in Pride of the Dulais miners marching back to work, heads unbowed, was repeated in pit villages around the country, and inspired our headline: “Thatcher Vindictive in Victory—Miners Defiant in Defeat.” We drew a balance sheet of the strike:
“The NUM leadership under Arthur Scargill took the strike about as far as it could go within a perspective of militant trade union reformism, and still it lost. Why? Because militancy alone is not enough. From day one it was clear that the NUM was up against the full power of the capitalist state. What was needed was a party of revolutionary activists rooted in the trade unions which fought tooth and nail to mobilise other unions in strike action alongside the NUM. But all Arthur Scargill had was the Labour Party, and it would rather see the NUM dead than organise to take on the bosses’ state in struggle.”
Pride makes no mention of the broader social and political questions at stake in the strike, aside from a seemingly jocular exclamation by Steph when the LGSM is founded: “Terrific—let’s bring down the government!” The film does not indicate that Mark Ashton was actually a leading figure in the Young Communist League. Yet, as Ray Goodspeed, one of the founding members of LGSM, told [the left group] rs21 (21 September 2014): “Of the eleven people who started LGSM, we were all either Trotskyists, communists or very close friends of communists.” Goodspeed was then a longtime member of the Militant group, which was buried deep inside Kinnock’s Labour Party. Goodspeed acknowledges that Militant “had a very dismissive position on gay rights.” One wing of the divided Communist Party openly braintrusted for Kinnock (and later [Tony] Blair) while the other acted as “left” apologists for the Labour/TUC tops. Many groups on the left shared Thatcher’s visceral hatred for the Soviet Union and/or joined her in calling for a strikebreaking “ballot” after the strike was already underway.
Sectoralism—be it feminism, nationalism or gay lifestylism—accommodates the divisions fostered by the capitalist ruling class and undermines the struggle against special oppression. The closing scene of Pride, as hundreds of Welsh miners and their families pour out of coaches to proudly place themselves, marching bands and all, at the head of the 1985 Gay Pride parade in London, points symbolically to another alternative: that of the organised working class standing at the head of all the oppressed. That sort of unity can be achieved only under the leadership of a revolutionary vanguard party that acts as a Leninist tribune of the people, championing the rights of gays, women, ethnic and national minorities and all the exploited and oppressed as part of the struggle for workers revolution.