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50 years after the February 1974 election

A Defining Moment for the Role of the Working Class

Workers' Weekly Internet Edition: Article Index :

50 years after the February 1974 election:
A Defining Moment for the Role of the Working Class

Workers' Movement:
Rally Marks the 40th Anniversary of the 1984/1985 Strike and the Miners' Fighting Spirit

50 years after the February 1974 election

A Defining Moment for the Role of the Working Class

Miners strike for a minimum wage, March 1912 - Photo: Getty Images

Fifty years ago this week, on February 28, 1974, then Prime Minister Edward Heath called a snap election [1], asking his famous question: "Who governs Britain?"

This question was in fact forced on his Conservative government by the miners, who at that time were a formidable organised force. Their strike action had been so powerful as to result in Heath's government imposing a three-day working week to conserve fuel as stocks of coal ran low. Heath called the election in an attempt to reassert the authority of the government, assuming that the electorate would respond by delivering him a stronger majority, tightening grip over decision-making power in the face of the growing challenge by the working class and its developing consciousness and organisation.

The resounding answer, however, was: not him. Instead, the election resulted in the first hung parliament since 1929. While the Conservatives had marginally more votes (37.9% to Labour's 37.2%), Labour, by the vagaries of the first past the post system, emerged as the largest party in the Commons, albeit by just four seats [2].

Participation in the election was historically high, with a turnout of 78.7%, the highest since 1959. Yet the combined vote of the two major parties fell from nearly 90% to 75%, in what was perhaps the most significant feature of the election results other than its indecisive outcome [3].

Poster from 2019

In the wake of the election, Heath attempted but failed to reach a deal with what was then the Liberal Party. He resigned as prime minister on March 4, power subsequently passing to Harold Wilson's minority Labour government. The striving of the miners for the recognition of their rights forced another election to be held in October of that year [4]. This election was again barely decisive, but was enough to deliver Wilson a slim majority.

So it was that the ruling circles, in the person of Edward Heath, put the question of "who governs", and lost. The profound repercussions of this moment in history have left their mark on the present and have still not been resolved. Though the government was defeated by its own question, the system then did not provide that it was the miners who won [5]. The role of the working class was affirmed during the whole period of that great conflict, a role that the working class has as its independent programme and mission to play its leading role in the transformation of society and put its stamp on the nation. In particular, the workers' consciousness surrounding its own question of "What Kind of Society?" has been developing since that time, and the necessity and possibility of bringing about a modern alternative that favours the working class and people not the rich [6].

The events of 1973-4 came towards the end of the social-democratic period that had been the consensus since the end of the Second World War, a mode of governance and of accommodating claims on the economy that was going into serious crisis at that time.

The response of the Labour government following these events was to institute the tripartite arrangement between the government, big labour and big business in the form of the so-called Social Contract, to divert the workers' independent consciousness and organisation from developing any further.

Murton Lodge Banner - The Future is in your hands

But this itself was to be short-lived. The whole social-democratic period was to be abandoned with the unleashing of the anti-social offensive spearheaded by the neo-liberal Thatcher government from 1979, and the equally historic miners' strike of 1984, which also marks its 40th anniversary this month. By that time, the aim was the complete silencing of the voice of the workers and the end of any reasonable accommodations.

Today, the days of "beer and sandwiches at Number 10", the days of winning the consent of organised labour to the programmes of government, are a distant memory. It is also telling that no Prime Minister since Heath has both taken and lost their time in office as a result of an election: all have either resigned due to factional infighting, been coronated following such as resignation, or both. The 1974 election marked the turning-point of the two-party system of the big catch-all parties of the postwar period, following which the big parties began to transform themselves into the cartel party system that is in such crisis today. With the decay of the old two-party system came also the beginning of the end of predictability.

Today, the party-dominated system is in utter crisis, while the disequilibrium has become so great that the unions face a huge challenge in effectively carrying out their role as the workers' self-defence organisations.

Wakefield - With banners held high, 2019

Today, it is the struggle between the Old and the New that is increasingly thrown into sharp relief. The financial oligarchy has reached a dead-end, and the workers, increasingly disillusioned with cartel-party politics, are tasked with taking up their independent role. The working class is becoming ever more conscious of the fact that it alone holds the solutions to the all-sided crisis. Workers are aware of their own worth and are determined to make their claims, declaring that "Enough is Enough!".

The times require that the working class upholds the most modern and enlightened definitions of democracy and human rights; it cannot succeed in making its claims on society without them. The role assigned to the workers by history is to make history by taking up the future of society, ending its division into classes and into governor and governed, bringing about a society based on the rights of all and where the individual and collective are one.

Faced with this historic task, the working class faces the immediate challenge of becoming an organised political force in its own right. The working people cannot afford simply to hand over their power to representatives whom they do not even select and over whom they exercise no control.

Today the working people know perfectly well who governs. The challenge facing the workers is to deprive the ruling elite the power to deprive them of what belongs to them by right, including their right to govern themselves and exercise control over the matters that affect their lives. This is what the events of 50 years ago remind us of, and that the working class is set to further respond to this challenge.

1. After announcing the election on February 7, parliament was dissolved just one day later, and the election held 20 days after that.
2. "February 1974 United Kingdom general election", Wikipedia, February 23, 2024
3. Lewis Baston, "Who governs?", The Guardian, April 4, 2005
4. "Who Rules?", Workers' Weekly, June 14, 2017
5. "Election Material", RCPB(ML), April 2001
6. "There Is a Way Out of the Crisis", RCPB(ML), March 19, 1994

Article Index

Workers' Movement

Rally Marks the 40th Anniversary of the 1984/1985 Strike and the Miners' Fighting Spirit

The miners' strike of 1984/1985 was a heroic struggle of this important contingent of the working class, as the ruling elite stepped up the neo-liberal anti-social, anti-worker offensive, and prepared to smash the movement of the working class and people not just in defence of their jobs, wages and working conditions but in its aspirations to determine the future of society and defend the rights of all. The strike represented the determination of the miners, as part and parcel of the fight of the whole working class movement, that there has to be an alternative to the world as it exists, dominated by those that have no concern for the welfare of working people.

According to reports, hundreds joined the march on March 2 through the streets of Dodworth near Barnsley in South Yorkshire to a rally at Dodworth Miners' Welfare, marking the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of the strike, after 19 weeks of an ongoing overtime ban.

Guest of honour was Arthur Scargill, the former leader of the miners who stepped down as president of the National Union of Mineworkers in 2002.

Eric Richardson, event organiser said prior to the rally: "You'll never understand the camaraderie in a coal mine, and that bond will remain with us for the rest of our lives. And this is the result of it. We shall walk up the high street today with real pride."

Speaking outside the rally, Arthur Scargill said: "It's important to come today to pay tribute to the miners, their families and the women against pit closures who fought so hard during 1984 and 1985. The important thing is, people stood together - all over Britain and all over the world we became known for sticking to principles. It was an important part of history. People took part in an historic dispute - they marched into the pantheon of the trade union movement."

Earlier in the day, hundreds of people had gathered by Dodworth mining memorial to reflect on the strike and all those who had lost their lives in the coal-mining industry.

Arthur Scargill (front left) at the 40th anniversary of the 1984/1985 strike

Prefacing the text of his speech made at Dodworth Miners' Welfare, Arthur Scargill issued a statement condemning Israel for the slaughter of 30,000 innocent people including children and the unborn in Gaza as nothing less than genocide. The perpetrators should be arrested and jailed for life, his statement said.

In his speech, Arthur Scargill said: "Today, I'm here to honour miners and their families who in 1984/5 fought the greatest worker' fight since the days of the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs: to save pits, jobs and our communities. That includes our young miners who were in every sense fighting for the future - and the magnificent Women Against Pit Closures who were at the forefront of our struggle."

In outlining the history of the strike, he said: "Forty years ago, the Tory Government led by Margaret Thatcher declared war on the National Union of Mineworkers.

"The Tories had been preparing for a showdown with the NUM since before the 1979 General Election. They could not forget the victorious miners' strikes of 1969, 1972 and 1974.

"In the Spring of 1982, I was handed a copy of a secret Government plan prepared by NCB chiefs earmarking 95 pits for closure, with the loss of 100,000 miners' jobs.

"It became clear in the following period that the Union would have to take action that would win maximum support and have a unifying effect.

Barnsley miners wives banner at the 40th anniversary of the 1984/1985 Strike - Photo: Tom Ingall, BBC.

"A special conference was held on 21 October, 1983, and delegates from all NUM Areas were given a detailed report so that they could vote on what action - if any - should be taken.

"Conference voted unanimously for a national full overtime ban which, over the next four months, had an extraordinary impact. Government statistics confirm that it succeeded in reducing coal output by 30 percent, or 12 million tonnes.

"It cut national coal stocks to about the same level as they had been during the miners' unofficial strike in 1981.

"On 1 March, 1984, NCB Directors in four Areas announced the immediate closure of five pits: Cortonwood and Bullcliffe Wood in Yorkshire, Herrington in Durham, Snowdown in Kent and Polmaise in Scotland.

"On Tuesday, 6 March, Coal Board Chairman Ian MacGregor announced that a further 20 would be closed during the coming year, with the loss of over 20,000 jobs.

Arthur Scargill resisting arrest at Orgreave 1984

"At a National Executive Committee meeting on 8 March, two days later, Scotland and Yorkshire sought endorsement from the NEC for strike action in their Areas. They were given authorization in accordance with National Rule 41, and the NEC confirmed that any Area could if they wished adopt the same policy."

Arthur Scargill continued: "On 12 March 1984, Area strikes began.

"At a Special National Delegate Conference on 19 April, 1984, delegates rejected a call for a national strike ballot and voted to support and strengthen the 180,000, or 80% of Britain's miners who were already on strike on an Area basis in accordance with National Rule 41."

On the battle of Orgreave, he said: "Orgreave Coking Plant in South Yorkshire was a crucial target for mass picketing. Its coke supplies could be cut off as had been the case in shutting the Saltley coke depot in Birmingham during the 1972 miners' strike.

"Picketing started on 26 May 1984, and by 30 May police tactics had turned vicious with substantial attacks and arrests of pickets (including me). It was a signal that the Union's members and the trade union movement had to meet this illegal State force with mass picketing, as they had in Birmingham at Saltley in February 1972 and in London at the mass picket in July 1972 which freed the Pentonville Five.

"On 18 June 10,000 pickets faced 8,500 riot police in a scene reminiscent of a battle in England's 17th Century Civil War. That day, over a hundred were arrested and beaten, 95 of whom were charged with riot, unlawful assembly and violent disorder, and dozens were hospitalized (including me).

"Police brutality, deliberate provocation and lies were later exposed in Sheffield Crown Court, and the charges were dismissed, with some compensation eventually paid to the victims."

Arthur Scargill concluded: "The Miners' Strike of 1984/85 remains not only an inspiration for workers but a reminder to today's trade union leaders of their responsibility to their members, and the need to come together in direct action to challenge Government and employers against all forms of injustice, inequality and exploitation.

"It is a privilege to be here today with all of you who took strike action in 1984 and you who supported our strike:

"You marched into history, and entered the pantheon of working class heroes and heroines."

For the full text of Arthur Scargill's speech, see:

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