RICHARD BURGON on how the miners' strike exposes the class loyalties of the Tories today just as it did then
A YEAR ago this week, the Conservative Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced the government’s refusal to set up a statutory inquiry or independent review into the brutality visited upon striking miners at the Orgreave coke depot during the 1984/5 miners’ strike.
This anniversary of the government’s shameful denial of justice to striking miners got me thinking back and reflecting — not just over the last year but back through the decades.
In the time since I was first elected as an MP back in May 2015, I have never seen Conservative MPs so vitriolic, so enraged and so unmasked in their own class-conscious politics as they were when the subject of Orgreave and the 1984/5 miners’ strike was discussed in Parliament.
It’s testimony to the importance of the miners’ strike that over 30 years later, it can raise such passions among MPs, many of whom were little more than primary school pupils at the time.
Hearing about the 1984/5 miners’ strike and its aftermath played a key role in the shaping of my socialist politics.
While I can’t remember actually being there, there’s a video recording of a regional news report from a Yorkshire picket line where in the background I can be spotted on my dad’s shoulders.
My dad, a teacher, used to go to the picket line on a morning before going to his school, in order to show support for the miners.
His brother — my uncle — co-ordinated fundraising efforts in Leeds for the striking miners and a huge amount of money was raised. At the end of the strike, he was made an honorary member of the National Union of Mineworkers. My auntie was married to a striking miner and was active in Women Against Pit Closures.
I grew up listening to recollections and analyses of the miners’ strike — of its heroisms, its pain and its injustices. It’s what got me thinking about class politics because the miners’ strike was class politics unmasked for all to see, and demonstrated how a Conservative government was prepared to use the state, supported by big business media, to attempt to crush working-class people who had the temerity to get together to stand up for their communities and for a better society.
As a young adult, my interest in the miners’ strike led to me being a regular attendee at the annual Joe Green and Dave Jones Memorial Lecture in Barnsley. Green and Jones were striking miners killed on the picket line during the strike.
It also led to me being lucky enough to be allowed to attend the weekend schools of the Yorkshire Area of the National Union of Mineworkers, where my political education continued.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the miners’ strike, I organised for a DVD to be produced of a reunion meeting of striking miners that took place at Swillington Miners’ Welfare Club, near Leeds.
The DVD included interviews with striking miners and Women Against Pit Closures activists, photos from the strike that people had brought to the reunion and a reading of poems written during the strike by the wife of a striking miner.
The DVD also included the whole of the incredible speech that Dennis Skinner made at the reunion that day.
Through helping to put that DVD together, I felt I was doing my bit to ensure that the memories of the participants in that heroic struggle were captured and preserved forever.
In my speech at the 2016 Durham Miners’ Gala, I tried to do the same. I never thought I would ever be a speaker at the Durham Miners’ Gala and so I wanted to make sure I used the opportunity to do justice to the memory and legacy of those involved in the strike.
Labour’s commitment to an inquiry into Orgreave is part of doing what’s right by the miners.
The miners, battered and bludgeoned at Orgreave, deserve truth and justice. The brutality inflicted upon the striking miners and the crooked cooked-up statements that followed it in an attempt to smear the striking miners and let the authorities off the hook have come to symbolise the injustice that all too often working people have been expected to put up with. A Labour government would order an inquiry into Orgreave.
The real reason the Conservative government of today won’t agree to an inquiry is quite simple. An inquiry would risk exposing — for all to see — what those who were involved in the strike already know: the iniquitous, undemocratic and immoral role that Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative government played in what they viewed as a war against a so-called “enemy within.”
I believe that the striking miners and the Women Against Pit Closures activists are heroes and heroines. I believe that those who got involved in the countless support and solidarity groups — from Labour Party and trades council fundraising groups to Lesbians and Gays Support The Miners — demonstrated the best of the labour and trade union movement.
The miners’ strike, the brutality visited upon the striking miners at Orgreave and the co-ordinated attempts to fit them up afterwards unmasks a rotten system.
An inquiry into Orgreave is part of righting the wrongs of the miners’ strike — wrongs which are still deeply ingrained in the consciousness of former coalmining communities.
The consequences of the miners’ strike of 1984/5 are still being felt in a myriad of ways. It’s a dispute that set so many striking miners and members of Women Against Pit Closures down the path of a lifetime of political and trade union activism.
In other trade union and political campaigns, I’ve worked alongside so many who were first politicised by their participation in that strike.
But even more widely than that, the outcome of the 1984/5 miners’ strike was the precursor to a period in which society was unfair, where decent jobs and manufacturing were decimated and one in which low pay, zero-hours contracts, insecure employment and casualisation became endemic.
The strike was about securing a future of decent jobs and a more equal and just society, where no community is left behind or put to the sword of market forces or thrown on the super rich’s scrapheap.
A socialist Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn can be part of achieving that positive future. The heroes and heroines of the miners’ strike — and, in fact, all working people and their families — deserve no less.
Richard Burgon is shadow Lord Chancellor and shadow Secretary of State for Justice.