The Start of the Divisions

Left vs Right in the NEC

Within the settlement of the 1972 strike was a comment that ‘some form of productivity payment scheme should be evolved’ by the National Coal Board (NCB) and the NUM (Allen, 1980 p217). This proposal posed a problem for the Left; although they had a powerful voice within the National Executive Council (NEC) it was, under Miners’ Union leader Joe Gormley, led by the Right. Any existing unity over wages (won by the Left) would disappear if a bonus scheme were introduced. For the Right, it was an opportunity to break the hold that the Left had on the wages issue.
By 1974, Gormley had reached agreement with the NCB on the proposed productivity scheme; this was neither supported nor rejected by the NEC. Put to the vote, it was rejected by 61.53%. Three further times the Right tried to have the scheme accepted – at the 1976 and 1977 Annual Conferences, and another ballot was held in 1977.

It was rejected by 55.75% of the membership. Again the NEC was not prepared to accept the decision of membership and agreed to introduce the scheme on an area-by-area basis.

In addition, there was the support that the Right gave to the Labour Government’s incomes policies, which needed the support of the unions. The effect of the Bonus Scheme issue was a form of depoliticisation among miners who had witnessed the rejection of their decisions, expressed through the ballot box, by their Union on two separate occasions. Further to this there were two court judgements supporting the NEC’s right to reject the democratic will of the miners.

Disdain and Contempt

1979 saw the end of the Labour Government, and the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government. With their ideologies and policies based on the economics of the market place, nationalised industries were seen as a financial burden on the taxpayer. The Tories’ Coal Industry Bill [CIB] (1980) outlined the necessity for the coal industry to be self-supporting by 1984-85.

For the NCB to achieve this, they had to close pits for economic reasons – no longer solely for reasons of exhaustion or safety, but on their viability and ability to survive in the market place.

Because mining is an extractive industry, any number of factors, including lack of investment, can have an immediate and serious effect on the viability of a pit. In early 1981, in line with the financial parameters laid down by the Department of Energy, the NCB announced their intention to close between 20 and 50 pits over the next five years. The immediate reaction was that Scotland and South Wales came out on strike, and a nationwide escalation looked likely.

The Government’s response was equally quick; they convened a meeting between the NUM, the NCB and the Department of Energy. The Government agreed to relax the financial criteria contained within the Bill, thus allowing the NCB to withdraw the pit closure programme.

Gormley, agreement in hand, went immediately to the waiting media and called the strike off, destroying any escalation of the strike and throwing the miners into confusion. No miners, nor their leadership, had scrutinised the agreement, and the miners were to pay the price of Gormley’s agreement. By mid 1982, 15 pits on the original closure list had been shut; the NCB enhanced the MRPS as a sop to achieve the required redundancies and pit closures. Through the ‘Coal News‘, the NCB continued to extol the financial benefits of this scheme, especially to miners 50+.

Gormley’s actions prior to the ballot for industrial action in January 1982 were revealing, and exposed the disdain and contempt that he held for the NUM, and his feelings towards the Left. Through the media, he argued against the NUM NEC’s recommendation for strike action in support of the demands of their wages claim (Daily Express, 1982, January 13). The subsequent ballot result was against taking strike action.

The Left In Control

Gormley retired in 1982; Arthur Scargill replaced him as President of the NUM, with overwhelming support from the miners. The Left was in the ascendancy, with overall control of the leadership of the NUM secure: with Scargill were Vice President Mick McGahey and the General Secretary L. Daly (who was replaced in 1984 by another Left candidate P. Heathfield). The ‘Troika’ was established, and no longer would miners face the divisions created by the Right as they ignored the democratic will of the miners. Instead this leadership was committed to fight for conference decisions and was prepared to march the length of Britain to take the Union’s case to the miners and the public.