Today marks 35 years since miners, their families and their supporters across the labour movement felt the full weight of Margaret Thatcher’s government. Three months into the 1984-’85 miners’ strike, outside Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire, several thousand pickets from across the country attempted to prevent scab lorries collecting coke. They were viciously attacked by 6,000 officers from 18 different police forces from across the country.
The police, who were equipped with horses, dogs and riot gear, set out to teach the organised working-class a lesson it wouldn’t soon forget. After months of rising tension between police and pickets, Orgreave was a battle that the police had set up to intimidate the labour movement from further escalation. The day was a defining point in the strike, and highlighted how serious Thatcher was about destroying the confidence of the miners.
The scale and military nature of the policing on the day meant that the miners stood little chance in what the media dubbed ‘the Battle of Orgreave’. This was no battle. It was a police riot – a rout of workers who were exercising their democratic right to stand up for the right to work. For hours, the police attacked miners in and out of the coking plant. Several mounted police charges were made, and scores ended up in hospital.
Alongside the serious, lifelong physical injuries sustained by many pickets, the psychological injuries remain in many ex-mining communities, who felt every bit the ‘enemy within’ Margaret Thatcher saw them as. Over a year later, the first fifteen of 95 miners arrested that day for riot and unlawful assembly were put on trial. The police evidence presented did not only fall apart under cross-examination but was abandoned by the prosecution, who had no choice but to offer no evidence. In the end, all charges were dismissed.
No figure of authority has ever been called to answer for the acts of violence that happened that day. No-one has been held accountable for what happened, or even asked why it did. No formal process has ever posed the question of why the Thatcher government resourced and deployed a police force against its own citizens on such a scale. As a result, the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign was established in 2012 to fight for an independent inquiry, and to scrutinise government participation and police operations in the events of that day.
The so-called ‘Battle of Orgreave’ was a miscarriage of justice meted out upon scores of working class communities, and any democratic society worthy of the name must demand real answers for why it happened.
There is a direct causal link from the miners’ strike to the kind of society that we have today. As Labour’s prospective parliament candidate for North East Derbyshire, an area that was ravaged by Thatcherism, I regularly speak to constituents who tell me proudly of their mining heritage.
Today, these people see their children and grandchildren in low-paid and insecure work, unable to afford their own homes and frustrated by local and public services starved of investment. Any ex-miner will tell you this is why the strike happened: it wasn’t just to save their jobs, it was to ensure a future for their children and communities.
On Saturday 15th June 2019, hundreds of people gathered at Orgreave to attend the anniversary rally organised by our campaign. Every year we gather–but this year’s rally had the largest attendance we have ever had. Chris Kitchen, the general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, spoke first. His union has never stopped the fight for its members, and last week saw a debate in the House of Commons over the unfair application of the Mineworkers’ Pension Scheme surplus sharing arrangements, in which the government pocketed £4.4 billion that should by right go to former miners and their widows.
The former miner John Dunn spoke of his determination to live to be 114 years old so that he can see the police files on Orgreave that are to be kept embargoed until 2066. Orgreave arrestee Kevin Horne also spoke out against the current Tory government’s attempts to prevent justice in this case.
Rose Hunter from North Staffordshire Miners’ Wives Action Group passionately spoke of the role of women in the strike, leading the crowd in singing the old strike song ‘we are women, we are strong.’ As a fourteen-year-old at the time of the strike, the work of Women Against Pit Closures inspired me deeply, and they continue to inspire young comrades such as Sophie Wilson today. Sophie, who was one of the youngest elected political figures when she became a Labour councillor aged 21 two years ago, spoke eloquently of how the community in Sheffield that she represents still feels the impacts of the miners’ strike and the events at Orgreave.
Not only do people who were present at the time have no intention of giving up on finding out what really happened on the 18th June 1984, the question is being asked by new generations of people who weren’t even born during the strike. The Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has also made a commitment to establishing an inquiry into the events when the next Labour government is elected. The party’s support has given our justice campaign real political weight and we are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a party dedicated to pursuing justice for our communities.
The fight, though, is still an arduous one. The Tory government has turned down our call for a public inquiry, and has rejected a request from the Bishop of Sheffield to set up an independent panel to investigate the events.
But we will carry on fighting. Just like the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester two centuries ago, those in power will always try and hide from justice for their attacks on ordinary people. I would urge anyone who supports us to email Sajid Javid demanding a public inquiry, to attend the next Orgreave meeting or rally you see advertised, and follow the fight on Facebook and Twitter to ensure that the Tories cannot forget the need for justice.
While the Tories have refused to have any kind of independent inquiry–choosing instead to protect the legacy of the Thatcher government–it is clear that we are growing in strength. With determination and solidarity, the truth will out.