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The Collapse of the Centre: Is Brexit a Disaster or an Opportunity for Labour?


The British political class – a uniquely inbred Oxbridge clique – is in turmoil after the result of the Brexit vote, and is now engaging in a mutual backstabbing that makes Game of Thrones look tame by comparison. However, despite its disorientation, the entire establishment across party lines is clear on one thing, and only one thing: Jeremy Corbyn should not be leader of the Labour party. Its political reflex is to hold him responsible for this disruption of the status quo.

Apart from around 40 MPs, Labour’s parliamentarians are closely tied to former leader Blair’s embrace of neoliberalism that was at the root of the party’s abandonment of the working class in the former industrial and mining areas. There is now the possibility of a split between the parliamentary wing and Labour’s membership, which wants to restore its social democratic orientation. It has this in common with much of the public, even when distorted by a nationalist perspective – the Brexiters’ slogan of more money for the NHS (which they immediately reneged on) was one of the popular drivers of the vote.

Corbyn is a symbol of a social democratic alternative to neoliberal austerity, although his voice was drowned out by the shrill claims and counter-claims of the Cameron-Johnson campaigns. He is still capable of uniting Brexiters and Remainers who want to acknowledge the misery piled up in the abandoned areas of much of England and Wales that had been ignored by the political elite. The vote gave an opportunity to the people living in those areas who felt disenfranchised to show their hostility to the political apparatus; many assumed their vote would not count and that Remain would carry the day simply because it was supported by the establishment.

Gary Younge commented: “If remain had won, we would already have returned to pretending that everything was carrying on just fine. Those people who have been forgotten would have stayed forgotten; those communities that have been abandoned would have stayed invisible to all but those who live in them. To insist that they will now suffer most ignores the fact that unless something had changed, they were going to suffer anyway. … For the last 15 years, governments and the press have stoked fears about whether British culture could withstand the integration of Muslims – of whom 70% voted for remain – when they should have been worried about how to integrate the white working class into the British economy. Brexit didn’t create these problems. It exposed them and will certainly make them worse.”

The referendum itself was inherently divisive, as Patrick Cockburn points out. “This is always the way with referenda on important issues: they make irreversible decisions, but they do so at a high political cost by excluding compromise between contending parties with deeply held opinions that they are not going to abandon on the day after the poll, regardless of who wins or loses. … The Remain camp thought they could win the vote by relentlessly emphasising the economic risks of leaving the EU, though the real danger is political rather than economic as a populist right is empowered with little idea of what it should do with that power.”

The influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe escaping poverty in their own countries has been taken advantage of by unscrupulous labour agencies and landlords to force down wage rates and jack up rents in various parts of Britain. But this is not unique to the UK; it exacerbates a trend seen throughout Europe. Servaas Storm, an economics professor at Delft University, comments: “Almost everywhere in the E.U. — as in Britain — there is a polarization of the income distribution into a large number of low-income households and a much smaller number of very rich, while the middle classes have shrunk. There is a segmentation of employment into low-wage, unprotected and precarious jobs, mostly in low-tech services, and high-wage and protected jobs in high-tech manufacturing, finance, legal services and government. … The massive social protests in France against the modernization of labour laws — newspeak for a reduction in the strength of French job-protection laws and social security in general — by the ‘socialist’ Hollande government illustrate the point: The systemic dismantling of worker protection in the name of cutting wage costs and improving unit-labour cost competitiveness will certainly increase job insecurity, employment precariousness, and inequality without any further macroeconomic benefits.”

UMass professor Richard Wolff explains: “A government, voted in by the French working class, a socialist government … pushed through a labor reform law which basically does everything that the employers in France could have dreamed for a president to do. … the newspapers are filled with spectacles of helmeted police being sent by a socialist government to beat the very people that put that government into office. And if anything were more clearly a sign of the collapse of what the very word socialism meant, as well as the collapse of conventional politics, it’s being acted out on the streets of Paris. … You’re seeing everywhere that the traditional, old, capitalist-maintaining center-left, center-right, is dissolving. And the polarization is the new issue on the horizon. It is surprising the old elites, but that’s really only a sign of how out of touch those governing elites have become …”

The parliamentary Labour party’s attempted coup to unseat Corbyn is another sign of how out of touch it is with the membership. Constituency activists have renewed demands for MP reselection in the event of another general election. Labour party member Dan Iles pointed out: “I believe Corbyn persuaded 60% of Labour’s supporters to vote remain because he didn’t ignore people’s concerns with the EU. By admitting that the EU is not without its faults and then demanding that we should stay in to reform it (from the left) he was able to bypass the binary claims of the two main referendum campaigns. People voted leave because they felt abandoned by politics and scared about immigration. These structural issues haven’t just appeared in the last nine months of Corbyn’s leadership. But I think many felt his defence of immigration and his determination to turn the debate towards austerity was refreshing at a time when the leave campaign was openly whipping up racism and xenophobia.”

UPDATE: David Graeber makes a relevant comment in the Guardian: “If the opposition to Jeremy Corbyn for the past nine months has been so fierce, and so bitter, it is because his existence as head of a major political party is an assault on the very notion that politics should be primarily about the personal qualities of politicians. … the Corbyn project is first and foremost to make the party a voice for social movements once again, dedicated to popular democracy (as trades unions themselves once were). … While one side effectively accuses him of refusing to play the demagogue during the Brexit debate, for the other, his insistence on treating the public as responsible adults was the quintessence of the ‘new kind of politics’ they wished to see.”

The Brexit campaign was always a dispute between factions of the Tory elite, neither of which were serious about the possibility of a Leave victory, meaning that there is no plan for disengaging from Europe. With all the criticism of Farage’s open racism, it has been forgotten that Cameron and Theresa May stoked nativism by imposing English language and income tests on new immigrants, a policy targeted at Middle Eastern refugees. Britain has never had a positive approach to cultural assimilation like the US does. It puts responsibility onto immigrants to somehow integrate themselves into the system.

While the media is fixated on British parliamentary politics, the vote is having major international repercussions, not least within Europe itself, because of the fragility and interconnectedness of the global economy. The Economist notes that the London financial industry could be in big trouble: “It thrives on the EU’s ‘passport’ rules, under which banks, asset managers and other financial firms in one member state may serve customers in the other 27 without setting up local operations. … In the run-up to the vote TheCityUK, a trade body that opposed Brexit, boasted that London had around 70% of the market for euro-denominated interest-rate derivatives, 90% of European prime brokerage (assisting hedge funds with trading) and more besides.”

Will the inevitable diminution of the City of London’s financial clout also lead to a weakening of its political influence? This is Labour’s opportunity: the first task of a Labour government independent of EU regulations should be to take control of capital movements and pump money into kick-starting manufacturing in regionally depressed economies. Corbyn supporters have plenty of policies they could be campaigning on to unite workers whose jobs have been outsourced with immigrants who would fight for a living wage.

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Filed under Brexit, Britain, Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Neoliberalism, populism, Uncategorized

Brexit and a Reappraisal of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, Part One: Its International Dimension


As the consequences of the Brexit vote begin to sink in, the British political class are reeling in shock. Most commentators and even some politicians have realized that the vote reflects a catastrophic failure of government over many years to satisfy basic social and economic needs in former industrial areas – housing, jobs, decent wages, hope for future improvement – that has been distorted through the campaign rhetoric of immigration control.

The Guardian’s John Harris writes: “Brexit is the consequence of the economic bargain struck in the early 1980s, whereby we waved goodbye to the security and certainties of the postwar settlement, and were given instead an economic model that has just about served the most populous parts of the country, while leaving too much of the rest to anxiously decline.” But Harris’s memory is faulty. There was no bargain struck with the public: it was imposed on the country by the Thatcher government acting as an agent for international corporate and financial elites. It is important therefore to reassess the historically defining moment of the establishment of a neoliberal economy in Britain – the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1984-85.

The standard account of the strike relates how the National Union of Miners, considered at the time to be the strongest section of the organized working class in Britain, was overwhelmed by the state’s unprecedented physical violence against pickets. While the miners fought bravely and made many sacrifices for the sake of solidarity, they were isolated by the TUC and eventually had to capitulate. Their defeat meant that Thatcher had definitively ended the credibility of the unions’ strike weapon.

An article by Donald Macintyre in the New Statesman, published to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the strike, follows this familiar narrative closely. He writes sympathetically about the miners’ fate after the eventual collapse of the coal industry, then blames Arthur Scargill for the outcome by claiming that his intransigence prevented a compromise engineered by other union leaders in late 1984 that could at least have saved “the wider authority of the TUC.” He mourns the loss of Heath-era corporatist bodies on which unions sat on equal terms with employers and “provided a platform from which to challenge, or at least counterbalance, the increasing influence of a deregulated City of London.”

But this is merely wishful thinking: the social and economic basis of the postwar consensus in which unions collaborated in government had been eroded long before Thatcher came into power. Keynesian-style central planning had lost its viability after the inflationary wave and industrial slowdown of the 1970s, and when in 1976 the Callaghan government turned to the International Monetary Fund for a loan to overcome a run on sterling, the US Treasury, together with officials in the Bank of England and the UK Treasury, brought relentless pressure on it to accept severe public expenditure cuts. Defending the value of the pound meant prioritizing the interests of the City of London over industry, and Denis Healey became the first politician to privatize state assets when he sold off British Petroleum shares as part of the deal. Labour’s policy director at the time, Bernard Donoughue, later wrote how “the doctrines later known as ‘Thatcherism’ were first launched … ‘in primitive form’ by Callaghan, the Treasury, the Bank, and above all the IMF and sections of the US Treasury.” [Morgan, 385]

“In the face of successively more intense runs on sterling, climaxing in the IMF crisis, the Labour cabinet’s turn to scaling back the welfare state, confronting industrial militancy, and dismantling capital controls was so thorough that, for the first few years of her 1979-83 government, Margaret Thatcher could claim she was only following Labour’s policies.” [Panitch, 158]

When the miners brought down the Heath government in 1974, they had gained a commitment to coal as Britain’s solution to the rising cost of oil. The “Plan for Coal” of that year assumed a steadily increasing demand for coal from electricity power stations, and so an expansion of output and an end to job losses. But Healey’s policies of monetary targets for nationalized industries under the conditions of the IMF loan meant that there would be no prospect of state support for such plans. [Helm, 71-3]

It was under a Labour government, then, that state policy was changed from upholding full employment and social welfare to the priority of controlling inflation and state expenditure. Thatcher would take this much further, but the globalizing economy was the force driving this development. In many countries globalization had brought pressures for “international standards and wage structures and destroyed the tacit link wage-earners had to the ‘success’ of national capital; and the erosion of national sovereignty reduced the political leverage held by the working class or trade unions on the national state. Trade unions themselves began to face increased antagonism from both capital and the state, with stagnation or even loss of membership beginning to appear by 1980.” [Teeple, 29]

Historically, the miners were to become the most dramatic casualties of this extension of the power of global capital into the British economy, or to put it another way, the start of the financialization of the UK. Unlike the circumstances of their victory in 1972, they were not fighting a government oriented to national capital (despite Thatcher’s regular appeals to chauvinism), but one increasingly impelled by the economic logic of globalization.

The international dimension of the strike

While the miners indeed fought bravely in 1984, they did not receive the same kind of industrial support from other workers that they had got in 1972. While supporting the miners with generous donations of food and money, uncertainty over industry closures and high unemployment meant other sections of the trade union movement were reluctant to spontaneously join in mass picketing as they had in the previous strike; the steelworkers were said to be “shellshocked” from the plant closures of the previous three years. [Saville, 312]

There is little chance that calls from union leaders for strike action without a movement among their membership would have been successful. In any case, the TUC was itself divided between unions like the NUM who argued for defiance of the anti-union laws the government had begun to apply after the 1983 election, and others who wanted to maintain a low profile. In particular, the electricians’ unions which organized workers in the power supply industry refused to recognize the miners’ call for support action, and went as far as instructing their members to cross picket lines. [Richards, 136]

Reflecting on the defeat of the strike, “[a] miner at Penallta colliery commented: ‘I think why we didn’t get a lot of support was … people were frightened … very frightened, because the Government had proved that they intended to win and never mind what it cost.’ A colleague at the pit agreed: ‘why we didn’t get that support … is because … the propaganda that Thatcher was putting about, a lot of people unemployed, who were fighting for jobs, and there was people then that were employed who knew that if they didn’t play ball with the employers they would be pushed out.’ The Branch Delegate at Sharlston colliery in Yorkshire spoke similarly: ‘The whole trade union movement has gone through a low ebb … I believe people were looking after their own jobs – they were threatened with ‘if you do support the miners with industrial action, you could close your own factory down.’”[Richards, 138]

The international recession of the late 1970s had hit the trade union movement hard. By 1978, 1.5 million workers were unemployed, disproportionately in areas that had been union strongholds. “By 1983 a continuous spatial tract where at least one-third of the total unemployed were long-term unemployed stretched from the Mersey to the Humber and penetrated both south into the Midlands and north through Lancashire and Yorkshire into the heartland of the British industrial economy.” [Salt, 1985] At the same time, “The number of strikes fell dramatically: in 1981 only 4.2 million days were lost in industrial disputes compared with an average 13 million per year throughout the seventies. Union membership had fallen from over 13 million in 1980 to below 10 million three years later.” [Morgan, 450]

Rapid deindustrialization in the north of Britain was accompanied by an expansion of new industries in the southeast based on microelectronics, which created a broad area of relative prosperity. This gave Thatcher a social base: her government “had coincided with the rising prosperity in the expanding towns of southern England and East Anglia. High-tech industries, based on computer software and the like, had meant near-boom conditions for such places as Cambridge, Basingstoke, Winchester, and especially Swindon, the outstanding growth town of the decade.” [Morgan, 467]

The technology industries tended to be smaller and non-union, and ideologically supportive of the government: “many of the companies making the information technology revolution happen were innovative and enterprising small firms, run by entrepreneurs. Clive Sinclair’s business success over the early 1980s was all the more marked because the demise of Sinclair Radionics in the 1970s was associated, to an extent, with the heavy hand of state control via the National Enterprise Board.” [Lean] The overall effect of their expansion was a radical change in job structures, with a small number of highly-paid technicians alongside a large number of low-paid production workers, and consequently a differentiation of the working class that undermined traditions of trade union solidarity.

These were the social conditions in which the miners began their strike in April 1984 after the enforced closure of Cortonwood in Yorkshire and Polmaise in Scotland. Although industrial support from other unions was not forthcoming, the majority of miners stayed on strike until the end of 1984, many until early 1985. The miners had their own idea of a “moral economy” in which their right to jobs and the welfare of their communities came above capitalist economics. “[M]ost miners … clung tenaciously to an alternative vision of the market – one which encompassed different economic, social and moral dimensions. … miners sought the restoration of a system of negotiation and consultation to which they were accustomed and which they felt was being undermined in the early 1980s. Coupled with this was a clear awareness that the future of their communities was at stake” [Richards, 119-120, 122] Their determination to stick it out, once the strike had begun, stemmed from the fact that the NCB and the government had broken the precepts of this moral economy.

The NUM leadership had expected the strike’s economic impact to force an early climbdown over pit closures. But what was at stake was much more consequential. Despite the NCB’s production loss of £1.1 billion and the eventual economic cost to the government of an estimated £3 billion, “in challenging the assumed prerogatives of management over employment levels in the coal industry, the miners struck at the very heart of Thatcherism’s strategy for the restructuring of the British economy. Its central thrust … was to break with the institutions of corporatism and interventionism, to dismantle the public sector and ‘to reestablish the conditions for free markets. The state had to be strong if the market was to be free.’ Furthermore, given its monetarist goals of eliminating state subsidy of the public sector, and of breaking the power of public-sector trade unions, a ‘public defeat of Scargillism would demonstrate that unions could not interfere with the restructuring of the economy’.” [Gamble, qtd Richards, 123]

Scargill initially thought that the miners alone would be sufficient to defeat the government, but the use of mass pickets in the early part of the strike to prevent British Steel from moving coking coal from the Orgreave coking plant in Yorkshire was defeated by a phalanx of police organized in paramilitary fashion.  “The NUM national leadership hoped for a repeat of the Saltley episode in 1972; instead, Orgreave was ‘the pickets’ Waterloo.’ As thousands of miners from all over the country converged on Orgreave, they were met by 8,000 policemen equipped with riot helmets, shields and truncheons, and with dogs and horses at their flanks.” [Richards, 127]

The Thatcher government had made extensive preparations to isolate the miners and cut off their support. The anti-union laws passed in 1982 “were always intended to be relevant to the NUM, and legal action started to have a serious impact on the NUM’s ability to persevere with the strike in the summer. It was to take two main forms. The first was to mobilize the police to protect working miners and to keep the pits clear of pickets. The second was direct action against the NUM and its assets. … There was only one serious fright for the government before the drift back to work began to erode the strike. This was the vote by NACODS to strike, which led in turn to major concessions by the NCB, including those in relation to the closure programme and the associated procedures.” [Helm, 86]

Large coal stocks had been built up at power stations, which had also been converted to use oil as an alternative fuel. Although ASLEF and NUR had told their members not to cross miners’ picket lines, as the strike continued, “more and more coal was transported in massive convoys of lorries – many of them privately owned. As such, a Derbyshire surfaceworker reflected, the miners’ failure to turn back many lorry drivers at picket lines became a major strategic weakness of the strike: ‘The TGWU – most of their members went through the picket lines … if the TGWU … had stopped the transportation of coal, that would have been better than money coming in’.” [Richards, 136-7]

Thatcher was able to use the opposition of the Nottinghamshire miners to strike action to further undermine the strike politically, although this was more of a propaganda advantage than an economic one. When Peter Walker announced at the start of 1985 that there would be no power cuts in the coming year, a turning point was reached. The NUM leadership had not been prepared for the extended war of attrition that the government had launched. The miners’ job security was based on a continuing high output of coal, which itself depended on the close relationship of the Coal Board with the nationalized electricity industry. Both industries were ultimately based on a social-democratic compromise between labour and capital in a closed national economy. This era had been ended.

The miners’ isolation originated in the international context of the strike: the recession in the global economy had led to the rapid decline of heavy industry and the growth of new industries based on microelectronics that had undermined the class basis of social democracy. The resolve of the Thatcher government to defeat the miners was likewise not solely motivated by national political pressures. It had an international dimension not only because it mirrored a US-supported trend to cut back government spending, dismantle heavy industry and privatize national assets, but also because it was influenced by the example of Chile in restructuring the economy through a drastic offensive against workers.

Next: The international sources of Thatcher’s resolve.

Works cited

Dieter Helm, Energy, the State, and the Market: British Energy Policy since 1979, Oxford, 2003.

Tom Lean, Electronic Dreams: How 1980s Britain Learned to Love the Computer, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016

Kenneth O. Morgan, The People’s Peace: British History 1945-1990, Oxford, 1992 (rev. ed.)

Andrew J. Richards, Miners on Strike: Class Solidarity and Division in Britain, Berg, Oxford, 1996

Leon Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, Verso, 2012

John Salt, “The geography of unemployment in the United Kingdom in the 1980s.” In: Espace, populations, sociétés, 1985-2.

John Saville, “An Open Conspiracy: Conservative Politics and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5,” The Socialist Register, 1985-86

Gary Teeple, Globalization and the Decline of Social Reform: Into the Twenty-First Century, Humanity Books, New York, 2000

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Filed under Arthur Scargill, Brexit, Coal industry, Miners Strike, Neoliberalism, NUM, Thatcher, Uncategorized