Changing Derbyshire NUM by Malcolm Ball (Leen Editions)
IN 1944, British miners took the huge step of moving from being part of the federal structure of the Miners Federation of Great Britain. They became part of a national union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), and this meant that the Derbyshire Miners Association became the Derbyshire Area of the NUM.
Derbyshire had always been seen as a moderate area, likely to side with the other right-wing regions which made up a clear majority on the union’s ruling body. But by the general election of 1970, alongside areas such as Scotland, Wales and Kent, it had clearly moved to the left and Malcolm Ball’s book discusses the national and regional circumstances which brought this political change about.
As the largest affiliated trade union to the Labour Party in 1944, the NUM enjoyed a level of influence which brought about the nationalisation of the industry three years later. It was an issue which had long united the right in the NUM and the triumph of its implementation encouraged a common ambition to make it work, thus limiting the influence of the left.
The author argues that this allowed the right to “institutionalise their political and numerical authority, enjoying the loyalty of the members” and this early period after nationalisation also saw a large number of union officials moving to take management roles with the newly created Coal Board, mainly in industrial relations. It appears to have created little controversy — after all, did the whole industry not now belong to all of the people?
This cosy hegemony slowly began to erode with the accelerating number of pit closures and a reduced workforce throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Derbyshire had 60 collieries in 1947 but by 1961 this had been reduced to 42, one of the factors which changed the membership and political balance of the Derbyshire area council and leadership. This ultimately brought in younger and more politically aware members who were not old enough to have had their views moulded by the General Strike or the pre-nationalisation period.
Education was also a key to the transformation in Derbyshire and its architect was legendary area secretary Bert Wynn, an active member of the Communist Party until 1956 who took office in 1948 until his untimely death in 1966.
He rightly saw the benefits of an education system that encouraged the political and industrial development of active members, especially younger ones and among the successful participants in the programme he developed was Peter Heathfield, who went on to become general secretary of the NUM, and one Dennis Skinner, who continues to inspire by his example today.
A book that would have benefited from better editing and a more inspiring cover, it’s nevertheless an interesting and welcome addition to the growing collection of accounts of British working-class history.