The Credibility Gap
The leadership of the Left was tested in July 1982; the NCB offered, in response to the NUM’s annual wage demands, an increased wage offer based on the Union accepting a pit closure programme. The NEC’s response was to hold a national ballot covering both wages and pit closure, and the tying of these two issues together on one ballot paper was a dangerous tactic, because if the miners rejected the NEC’s recommendation, then this would be perceived by the NCB as a green light for closures. In the event the NEC’s recommendation was rejected, with high numbers voting against it in Nottingham and the Midlands. The main reason for this was the high wage levels that these miners were earning due to the Productivity Bonus Scheme.
Their decision raised problems for the Scottish and South Wales areas in trying to evolve a strategy to defend the ‘Peripheral coalfields’ against an onslaught of pit closures. The NCB started in Scotland, and they announced the closure of Kinneil in December 1982; there followed an underground sit-in at the colliery, by six miners led by Bill Sneddon.
The belief within the Scottish leadership was that this action (the sit-in) would be met with an immediate response from within the Scottish coalfield; however, even when the Kinneil miners picketed the Scottish coalfield, a response for industrial action was not forthcoming.
The Scottish leadership recognised the problem that there would be no industrial action by miners in Scotland over the closure of Kinneil. Under the guidance of Mick McGahey and Abe Moffat, they sought solutions. There was a gap between the miners and the leadership at area and local level: no longer were delegates able to take for granted branch decisions calling for industrial action on a Scottish or National basis, especially when these decisions were made by a small group of miners at branch meetings. Both men recognised the de-politicisation that had taken place under the NUM leadership of Joe Gormley. Therefore there was a need to raise the political awareness of miners in Scotland, through the use of ‘The Scottish Miner‘, pithead meetings, and through pit delegates and the committees actively leading discussions on issues that faced miners. These actions by the leadership in Scotland were an important precursor to raising the political awareness of miners prior to the 1984-1985 strike.
The threat to Kinneil was followed by action in South Wales at the Lewis Merthyr Tymawr colliery in February 1983; a similar sit-in took place but the response was different, and the South Wales area took immediate strike action. The South Wales miners were dispersed throughout the coalfield in order that they could present their case to executive, delegate and pithead meetings, on the need to get national support to save their colliery. The NEC responded by calling for a national ballot for industrial action on the question of pit closures.
Once again the ballot in March 1983 rejected the recommendations of the NEC. There were a number of reasons for this rejection. The NCB had organised an excellent PR exercise, using the ‘Coal News’ and individual letters to miners, sent prior to, and on, the day of the ballot. The financial benefits of voluntary redundancy were outlined, and also that miners could transfer to a pit a mile down the road with full transfer monies being paid. So the perception held by miners in areas such as Nottinghamshire, was that as there were no job losses, why should miners lose wages by going out on strike?
The failure for the Union was in its inability to get past the issues of voluntary redundancy and no job losses. Not because it hadn’t tried, the Welsh miners had organised a magnificent campaign to get miners to understand the cumulative effects on future jobs.
The voluntary redundancy package was geared towards miners who were 55+ who in many cases had given 40 years of service to the mining industry. The manner in which the NCB had painted the Voluntary Redundancy Agreement was that it was more like early retirement than giving up your job. Confusingly, not only did miners receive a lump sum but, if they were the right age, they received a weekly pension; some also believed that there were still job opportunities for their sons in the mining industry.