- Interview by
- Marcus Barnett
This summer sees the thirty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the miners’ strike, that moment in the 1980s when the state, media, and police entered into an all-out conflict with the British labour movement. Despite an agreement that mining apprentices from the north-east of England would continue working throughout the strike, one apprentice — the current Labour Party Chair Ian Lavery — stood by the pickets.
Lavery entered the strike as a class-conscious but apolitical son of a miner, but was soon radicalised by the experience of police brutality, socialist rallies, and working-class solidarity. Shortly afterwards he became a full-time National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) committee representative for his pit. He eventually succeeded Arthur Scargill as the union’s president in 2002, and only stood down when he became a Labour MP in 2010.
For the first time, Ian Lavery sat down with Tribune Associate Editor Marcus Barnett to discuss his experiences of the strike, the effects of defeat in mining communities, and the legacy of that struggle today.
Can you tell us a bit about your background, Ian?
I’m from Ashington, which was the biggest coal mining town in Europe, and gained the nickname ‘coaltown’. Ashington was built on coal, the whole community depended on it. My father was a miner, my grandfathers were miners, my great-grandfather came from Ireland, from Derry, to mine. Coal dust runs through my veins.
As soon as I left school, I was unemployed, and went onto what was called the Youth Training Scheme. For a short time, I was labouring in the construction industry. I was also on the railways for about a month. But then I got a job in the pit where my father worked. That’s what tended to happen — if your father was a miner, he could check when the vacancies were coming in, and you could get the opportunity. I was absolutely delighted to get an apprenticeship as a mining craft apprentice.
I went to night school to get a qualification in mining, because at school I was one of the ones who would disrupt the class. I was the upstart not the academic, and didn’t really focus like I should’ve. I’d always been energetic but in the wrong way. The struggles ahead would end up properly harnessing that energy in me.
So this was about 1980?
I joined in January 1980. My father was a big union man. He was never an official, but he was very active, a good grafter, and well respected. He always used to say ‘whatever the union tells you to do, you do.’ So I did — I took it from him that that was the case.
In the strikes during the seventies, my father was on strike. But I was at school, so I didn’t think much of it other than that the schools were all shut, which made me an early supporter of strike action!
What happened in 1984 was there was a dispute in a colliery in Cortonwood in Yorkshire. I didn’t know too much about it. I was a fanatical Newcastle supporter, home and away, and that was my main interest. When the strike hit our pit, it was when some people from another colliery came and formed a picket line. I went up to them and I asked, ‘what’s this?’ ‘It’s a picket line’, they said. ‘There’s a problem in Cortonwood and we’re asking you not to cross this picket line’. So I said, ‘Well, that’s fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
Meetings were announced, and it went from there pretty quickly. People came from different picket lines to begin picketing the different coal areas. People that I’d never met before who were terribly comradely explained the situation. I’d always been the sort of person who would stick up for the underdog anyway, but I was more than happy to get involved. That was it. We were on strike.
When the strike came, I was still at home. It was me, my mam, my dad, four brothers, three at home. We were all on strike. It’s been said all over that I was the only north-east apprentice on strike. I’m not 100 per cent sure if that’s true, but what I can say is that the union said that the apprentices must go to work. You had what you called indentured apprenticeships — you must go to work. I said to my father, ‘the union’s telling us to go to work.’ I wondered what I should do. He said ‘you should always do what the union tells you to do. But, on this occasion, let me tell you, you shouldn’t be going to work.’
I took his advice, and that was probably the best advice I had ever taken in my life. I became politicised through turning up to picket lines, all of the marches and rallies, and standing side by side with some fantastic people. I met people who had never had and never would get a qualification but were some of the brightest, most intelligent people I have ever met in my life.
What did the unions say on the ground when they saw you breaking the rules to stick with them?
They were absolutely fine with it. The management weren’t too pleased, because I was doing a management course as part of my apprenticeship and when the strike ended, I got kicked a bit by them. That was fine, because I told them I would rather be a union man than a management man any day.
It was the best year of my life. We picketed early in the morning, travelled about, went to rallies. I’d be listening to speakers like Arthur Scargill, Dennis Skinner, Tony Benn, Rodney Bickerstaffe, the strike leaders in the different regions, and I just thought these people were absolutely amazing. It changed my life completely, because you could understand that these people knew it. They were anti-establishment, which I was for most of my life anyway — I was always an awkward bastard in that respect — but they knew what they were talking about. The strike changed my view of the whole world.
What were your most vivid impressions at the time, and the violence on the picket line?
The police situation was often horrendous. I must have been — or so I claim — one of the first coal miners in the North to have been arrested during the strike! About two weeks in, I went with my father and his mate to a picket line at a power station about a mile from where I live. I got out of the car first, and by the time my father and his mate were at the picket line, I was already in the back of a police van. There was a huge push and the police started kicking us, so I started kicking back. I’d never been in trouble in my life, but I wasn’t going to let anybody kick us. It was just unbelievable as a situation, it was chaos.
So your impression was that the police were game for a confrontation?
Oh, they were vicious. From the very early days at the time of my first arrest. There was a huge protest outside of the police station. People were trying to tip the police van over. When I got arrested, an officer came who said ‘I arrested Mr Lavery on section 5 breach of the peace.’ But that particular policeman hadn’t. I said to him ‘it’s a fact that you didn’t arrest me, why are you saying that?’ I told that to my solicitor — the policeman who arrested me had a distinguishing birth mark on his face. I went to court, I explained my case, and I got off because of what happened. That was my second time on a picket line.
Throughout the confrontation, did you experience the violence becoming worse?
Well, it depended where you went. Orgreave, of course, was the worst. The horrendous thing with the strike was that you had people like me and my father, people who never had any trouble with the police before — all of a sudden they were on your doorstep. You witnessed the state control of pit towns and villages. We should always remember that the government have got the potential to turn the police into a state tool against ordinary working people — and that’s exactly what happened.
Of course, there was persistent rumours that serving soldiers were deployed in police uniform to control miners, leading some to describe the situation in some areas as a military occupation.
I saw policemen with tattoos on their hands — back then, it would be unusual for policemen to have them. There were definitely people in there from the armed forces. Local police often demonstrated against the fact that they were bringing people in from other areas, and some police officers didn’t agree with what went on.
It was a horrendous situation not just with the police, but with the judicial system as well. You could be arrested for nothing, and when you went to court, the solicitor would tell you that you were being charged with a stronger charge, and if you accept something less, they’d accept that. People were arrested on very serious charges and were expected to accept lesser charges. A lot of people were convicted during the strike who hadn’t done a single thing wrong.
What do you remember, at the time, about the solidarity, both nationally and from abroad?
Despite what some people might say now, we had tremendous support. From the community, regional, national, and international levels, it was just phenomenal.
At the time, I was just 20 and didn’t have any kids, but it was very difficult for a lot of my friends during Christmas time. Still, every miner had a chicken or a turkey at their table because of the CGT union in France. They ensured every child had a football or a dolly for Christmas. They sent truckload after truckload to all parts of Britain, and it was really quite important, because it meant the kids weren’t doing without for Christmas. Some girls got footballs and some boys got dollies, but there you are.
During Christmas, we also received a cheque from the miners of South Africa. These people were the most exploited, low-paid, and oppressed individuals in one of the most aggressive, right-wing systems on the globe, but they clubbed together to help us — that was a phenomenal feeling of comradeship and spirit. We framed that cheque and put it up in the National Union of Mineworkers’ office. I will never forget that.
The Russian miners sent us a lot of food, as did miners from across the globe. But in the ports, the railways, the power industry, the solidarity was amazing. Millions gave us what they could.
One of the biggest things that stuck with me was Women Against Pit Closures. It was true that if your partner wasn’t fully supportive you would struggle. But the way WAPC gave that voice to women during the strike, and developed lots of women into fantastic leaders who would address rallies of thousands, it really emancipated women across the coalfield communities. You could feel it.
There is still a lot to reflect on. My mother, who I loved to bits, died in the early nineties. I believe it was a result of the stress she was put under during the strike. We went out picketing, but we still expected food on the table. I’m not sure how she did that, or paid the bills, and we didn’t give any credence to that at the time. I think it was a huge contributor to her premature death.
Is there any way you think the strike could have been won? What do you think were the reasons for the defeat?
Well, I think we have been proven right. But, at the time, we were badly demoralised during the strike. I think people had had enough after a year. People thought they’d done their bit, and it was time to negotiate and get things back to normal.
People were beaten — it’s a long time to be without money, and the communities were really feeling it in smaller villages and towns who had suffered for a full year. You really couldn’t see much of a way out unless we had an organised return to work.
Were you victimised, as the only apprentice?
Not really, other than that I had done my qualification but they wouldn’t allow me to do the next one. I was soon on the union committee anyway.
Rightly or wrongly, my attitude to life, my politics, my grounding in the community, was all based on what happened during the strike. Some people might dislike the way I am, and that’s fine, but my character was defined and shaped by what I experienced. The ultimate objective of the strike was a victory against the state, and given the opportunity again, I would do exactly the same.
Following the defeat of the strike, mining towns changed for the worse. Living conditions deteriorated, poverty and drug addiction shot through the roof. What do you think is the legacy of those years?
The strike ended thirty-four years ago. During the strike, what the government said was that the union were misleading the workforce. The union said the industry would close, that they would be left without work and we would have problems with poverty, low pay, lack of employment, poor health, and that our communities would be left behind. That was called scaremongering by Thatcher, and the government said that they would invest in our communities if the pits went. That investment didn’t happen — it still hasn’t happened.
Today, that is relevant across the country. Look at the Midlands, where the car factories once were. Look at shipbuilding. All were promised that the grass is greener on the other side, we might take your industry but we’ll replace it with something else — it just hasn’t happened.
As we are talking now, none of these mining communities have recovered at all. A lot of these people have suffered austerity not since the Tories came in nine years ago, but for decades since the pits closed. They’ve become immune to it. When the European Union referendum came in 2016, people were saying ‘well, we haven’t got much.’
Do you think this sentiment — that things cannot get worse — is what stirred the Brexit vote in former mining areas?
I think it was about the fact that the establishment doesn’t care about doing anything at all to help these communities. There were other aspects too — in the coal mining industry and the aluminium smelter in my constituency, for example, it was European legislation used by national governments that shut workplaces down, over the reductions in carbon taxes and standards. Lots of people blamed Europe for the fact that they were made unemployed.
During the referendum vote, people here weren’t bothered about pensions because they didn’t have any. They weren’t worried about finances. Lots of people didn’t have anything at all to lose and I can understand that. It was a deliberate policy to leave areas like mine behind and we’ve come to the stage now where people are saying ‘We have had enough’.
Currently, we’re in a position where Brexit, as an issue, is poisoning the country. It’s not that you’re left-wing or right-wing, it’s whether you’re for Remain or for Leave. Jeremy Corbyn is being criticised for what is called ‘constructive ambiguity’ on Brexit. But what we are saying is that we won’t turn our back on the 48% or the 52% — we shouldn’t alienate any side, we need to bring people together. Otherwise there will be a vacuum and what scares me is who might fill it.
The North West, the North East, Yorkshire, Humberside, the West Midlands, these areas we’ve been describing are voting Leave. I think a lot of people would feel cheated or betrayed if the party decided that we would ignore the referendum result. I’m an MP, but I don’t think I’ve got the right to overrule a referendum. I was a Remainer, but I am a democrat first and foremost.
Last time around we had a brilliant manifesto, and the next manifesto will be even better. But if we move towards a second referendum, for example, when we knock on many people’s doors and we ask if they’ve seen it, they’ll say, ‘we’ve seen your first one, and you said you were going to respect the referendum. You didn’t. Why should we believe you on anything else?’ We could offer a minimum wage of £25 an hour, but people where I’m from will just say ‘I don’t believe you’.
We’ve got to have trust with voters, and trust is something you earn. We have Boris Johnson, a serial liar, as the prime minister of this country. But there will even be people in communities like mine who like him. He’s doing a mini-Trump routine, and it’s the same with Farage. How can anybody vote for him? He’s not the man with a pint and a cigarette in a pub. He’s a merchant banker who lives in Chelsea. But people say that he speaks for them. A lot of people just feel deeply disenfranchised and not listened to. We’ve got to do better at getting through to them. It’s a challenge we have to face up to.