- Interview by
- Francesca Newton
Eight years ago, the film Pride brought the little-known story of a group of lesbian and gay activists who had organised support for the 1984-5 miners’ strike to international attention and acclaim.
Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, or LGSM, originated with Mark Ashton and Mike Jackson at Pride 1984 and grew quickly, attracting a cross-section of the contemporary LGBT Left to regular meetings in London bookshop Gay’s the Word. Hoping to direct the funds they raised to a specific community, the organisation twinned with South Wales’ Dulais Valley; in the face of what became an entire year out, the pit families there—and across the country—needed all the support they could get.
LGSM’s activism combined shaking buckets outside London’s gay venues with larger-scale events like the famous Pits and Perverts gig headlined by Bronski Beat at Camden’s Electric Ballroom in December that year. Visits by the mining families to the capital and by LGSM to Dulais cemented the communities’ relationship; nights ended regularly in dancing, whether in a club like Heaven or in the Onllwyn Miners Welfare Hall.
In 1985, despite their efforts and those of thousands like them, the strike failed. Pits began to close, and the communities they had once supported underwent a decimation from which they are still reeling. Mark Ashton passed away two years later, at the age of twenty-six, having been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS just twelve days before.
The alliance contributed, however, to a separate victory, which in the months and years following the strike saw Britain’s trade unions and eventually the Labour Party itself pivot to back LGBT rights. That mutual support, born from a position of unconditional solidarity, has now become a source of inspiration for groups across the Left today.
God knows we need it. Britain is currently facing the biggest fall in living standards on record. Hate crime is rising. Those who take action against either continue to face hostility from police and press alike, and an increasingly authoritarian government is more interested in expanding anti-union laws and policing powers than in helping the millions unable to put food on the table. Things look bleak.
There is, however, a new fight forming. The country is entering a summer of widespread industrial action, kicked off last week by the biggest rail strike in a generation and followed up quickly by action by criminal lawyers and care workers, with many more—teachers, nurses, postal workers, call centre staff—likely to join. Amid the excitement, it’s important to remember that such circumstances can easily turn the question of solidarity into one of life or death, as it was for those mining communities in the ’80s facing Thatcher’s attempts to starve them into submission.
As Pride Month draws to a close, then, there seemed no better time to visit Mike Jackson. Born in Accrington, Lancashire, and a horticulturalist by trade, he has now settled in a flat in London’s King’s Cross. We sat in his garden, under the porch to protect us from the intermittent rain, and discussed his memories of the struggles of those latter decades of the twentieth century—what’s changed, what’s stayed the same, and what history can teach us about the fight ahead.
I was surprised to read in Tim Tate’s book (Pride: The Unlikely Story of the True Heroes of the Miner’s Strike, a collection of interviews with LGSM members and Dulais residents released in 2017, following the film) that you felt the government of the day was worse than Thatcherism. Can you explain why you felt—or feel—that?
Thatcher was a monster. But she was the first monster. She was the first person in the world, notwithstanding her friend General Pinochet’s dictatorship, to properly roll out neoliberalism, and I will hate her forever for that. So will millions of others, especially the labour and trade union movement. What she did was overturn a lot of sacred achievements—the welfare state, support for working-class people more broadly—and in successive generations a lot of Tories have taken her baton and run with it.
It’s funny how that whole move against regulation and for the small state is always except for the trade unions, which are instead subject to lots and lots of highly restrictive regulation. Where’s this free market, then, if the labour element, which is substantial to any product or service, isn’t part of it? It’s a nonsense.
But now, compared to even 2017, we’ve got a government that’s out of control. They’re abject liars. In the old days, people would at least resign if they were found guilty of the misdemeanours that this lot are on a daily basis. But they don’t give a stuff about it. They really don’t care about democracy.
Is the ability of the current government to be so lax about democratic process a result of the weakness of the opposition, particularly when it comes to backing organised labour, as we’ve seen this week?
It’s outrageous. We’ve got this shell of a Labour Party that’s not doing anything.
I mean, good old RMT, they’ve battled on regardless. But the Labour Party has always been a bit flaky. There’s this idea that the Labour Party was a child of the trade union movement, and it’s not completely true. It was a child of both the labour movement and the Whigs. That faultline has always been quite critical in the Labour Party, and at the moment seems to be its undoing. Because what is it for, now? It’s just trying to out-Tory the Tories.
Some have pointed out that the film Pride played down the more explicitly political elements of LGSM, like Mark Ashton’s involvement in the Communist Party. Was that a necessary omission to get the story out, do you think?
Regarding the American market’s hostility to communism, yes. The American DVD covers for Pride actually airbrushed out the lesbian and gay elements of the movie. It was absolutely absurd. It just talked about ‘a group of activists’ supporting the miners.
When we started up the group all the different factions of the left were beating their separate chests, but actually it didn’t last long. We sorted it out. No matter where exactly on the left you aligned yourself, we all thought that what we were achieving there was too good. Possibly it was that first visit to Wales in October 1984—that was transformative, really.
Can you describe the effect of the visit?
I’d originated from an industrial town in Lancashire, which had all kinds of heavy industries. Coal mining was only one of them. There was big manufacturing, chemical works, a dog biscuit factory—all kinds of things. So that was what I was expecting—the same smelly, dirty, monochrome background that I’d known in my childhood.
I was shocked when I got to Wales, and it wasn’t like that at all. This was beautiful. I dubbed it ‘pits and sheep’, because there wasn’t really anything else, but that concentration of industry engendered an extraordinary culture among the miners. I mean, during the strike, there were barely any scabs in Wales. There was no picketing in South Wales—the Welsh miners went to picket in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere because their home pits were so solid.
That’s something to do with the fact that it’s so pure, the coal mining industry there, and therefore its culture, the culture that follows it. And it’s very old—450 years, industrial coal mining in South Wales.
The Fed [South Wales Miners’ Federation], which turned into the NUM in South Wales, served over that time as far more than we’d see a trade union usually provide. It provided libraries, swimming baths, education classes, adult education classes. The union was the welfare state in South Wales before the welfare state existed—and, of course, the NHS was born in Tredegar in South Wales. The union meant everything to people. It was the focus of community life.
We were quite lucky that we twinned with a community that, despite its isolation geographically, had this long history of being very outward-looking—internationalist, really, in its perspective. They were very fond of Paul Robeson, and he adored the South Wales mining communities and came over many times. And miners went to volunteer in Spain during the Civil War. These communities had an expansive view of the world. And so I think a bunch of queers coming down from London, in that context, wasn’t that foreign to them.
One story they tell you when you go down there: there’s this row of terraced houses in the Valleys, which they said they called Spanish Terrace, although it’s not really called that. When we asked why that was, they said that during the 1930s, the coal owners tried to undermine the wages of the native Welsh miners by importing Spanish labour. Turns out they made a mistake, because what they did was import all these anarcho-syndicalists who started organising the Welsh miners for better pay. They weren’t going to be used like that. Fuck that!
That’s an interesting contrast to the slightly uneven narrative that sometimes frames LGSM—that of an outsider group coming into a proud but isolated community.
That’s just wrong. One of our group, Clive Bradley, said that it makes it sound like we introduced them to opera and pasta. It wasn’t like that at all. We learned a great deal. The Welsh have a tremendous cultural history—singing, the choirs, the brass bands, writing, poetry.
These communities have been portrayed intentionally as brutes by the government and the press. And I don’t mean to get too sentimental and romantic about it, but it turns out—and I’ve only found this out in recent years—that there was a long history, during lambing season, of absenteeism from the pits because a lot of the miners were also part-time shepherds. They had little flocks of sheep, and they were doing lambing. What a contrary narrative.
These were people who had families and kids and wives to provide for, and they were fighting to keep their very jobs. The ’84-5 dispute was an unusual one, because it wasn’t about pay, or working conditions, but about keeping the industry going. Without it, they knew their communities would just implode—which, subsequently, they did.
It’s a way the working class is maligned, this belief that the men are all thugs. But you think, well, you had the Pitmen Painters. And what’s Boris Johnson? He’s a thug. From what I can gather he has no interests in anything—he’s just a robber baron.
So there’s a balance between finding shared experience and showing solidarity across difference?
When we first went to Dulais, they could see that we were being demonised, as they were being demonised. We were being portrayed as these paedophilic perverts and they realised that it was all nonsense. That there were people like Cliff [Grist, a gay man and resident of Dulais], who had never articulated their sexuality, wasn’t necessarily because of any rampant homophobia, it was just the prevailing tide.
I grew up in Lancashire, in a very working-class background, and again nobody talked about that stuff. All the messages I got from school, family, television, everything, was that I was mad, sad, and bad, and I believed it because I had no choice.
It was only when I moved to London aged nineteen and phoned Gay Switchboard to come out that, after several calls, I was persuaded that there was nothing wrong with me, and that what was wrong was this thing called homophobia. And then the penny dropped, and I moved from being this really depressed teenager into this kind of firework of joy and anger at the same time, which is a heady mixture.
Coming out was my personal liberation, and it taught me about other people’s liberation. Black people’s struggles, women’s struggles, these became much clearer to me because I could see the common thing about oppression in our culture.
It was quite shocking, then, to come out as a gay man and find that there was rampant misogyny and racism on the gay scene. It just didn’t make sense to me. And of course, the ruling class love all that stuff, sowing a bit of division. The anti-trans movement is the perfect example of that. It’s an attempt to divide our community—and my god, if there’s one thing I’ve done in my life, it’s champion solidarity.
One thing that definitely brought the miners and the LGBT community together was shared experiences of police violence and media hostility. Do you think that either of those institutions have changed—enough, if at all?
I don’t think the media has changed one iota. Look at the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn.
The BBC, in particular, is a strange animal. There it was in the strike, always on the police lines, shooting scenes of miners in physical confrontation with police and making it look like the miners were the ones being aggressive. Now, at the same time as demonising the RMT strikers, they’re showing this great drama, Sherwood, about the miners’ strike, which is all about the state and its surveillance and intimidation.
For the police, on the face of it they’ve changed—we get this big contingent on Pride in London, and there are plenty of gay police officers—but at the same time we have the publication of Morag Livingstone and Matt Foot’s book Charged, and we’re uncovering as best we are able all the horrendous things the police state has been doing over the years.
One wonders if we’ll ever get to the bottom of that, because a lot of this history is redacted. And that’s outrageous. None of this stuff is being redacted to protect the country. It’s being used for political purposes.
So they’ve improved their PR image, but policing has become more covert, and that’s what’s scary about it. Not to mention that this government has recently passed legislation giving legal immunity to undercover police, just as there’s this inquiry going on into the historic undercover spying on the citizenry.
That’s a nasty side to the Conservative Party that’s always been there. I don’t really think they believe in democracy. They just try and work it as best they’re able.
Did you worry about police infiltration in LGSM?
Not in LGSM, no. But with the miners it was different.
After the big miners’ strike there was another in 1992-3. In a bizarre set of coincidences, in 1992, having spent most of my adult life in London, I was living in a mining community in Lancashire, trying to run a horticultural nursery. It was failing, and what really ended it was this round of pit closure announcements—thirty-one pits, the government announced they were going to close, and our local pit was one of them.
Interestingly the media, in ’92, were much more sympathetic to the miners because the miners had such a beating in ’84 and ’85. They were all fawning over the ‘poor miners’, and you just think, God, you hypocritical bastards. It wasn’t like that eight years before.
Anyway, the local miners called a public meeting, and I went along and threw myself into their struggle. What a lot of these pits did was occupy their entrance. Initially it was one caravan, then two, then two and a portacabin, and slowly it became a little hamlet. It was 24/7, and ours was the longest lasting—eighteen months. The women were magnificent—they did all the occupying, five occupations of the pits.
But we had a phone, and you knew those phones were tapped. You could hear it clicking. One woman picked it up once and she heard, played back to her, the very conversation she’d just terminated on the same phone.
On top of that, the pit camp was on the main road, and there were two guys who came every day with a video camera and just stood recording us from the other side. It was quite blatant. I was a bit bored one day and I just said to Lynette, one of the young women involved, ‘Shall we go and give them a little video?’ We went over, and I said, ‘Hello. We see you every day, spying on us. So I’d like to do a piece to camera.’ And I did, explaining that if they were trying to intimidate us, it wasn’t going to work.
Was the story of LGSM known at that point?
We formed LGSMA, then—LGSM, Again. The whole dispute wasn’t on the same scale, but I was welcomed with open arms. At that first public meeting I went up to Billy, the lead organiser, and introduced myself and said I was involved in an organisation called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. He put his arm round my shoulder and said, ‘I know all about LGSM and that red minibus.’
That’s what happened during the miners’ strike. Don’t forget that it’s pre-internet, pre-mobile phones. The main sources of news—and the only sources of news you could rely on—were the miners themselves. They’d be out doing flying picketing all around the country, so it was this word-of-mouth exchange, and that’s where the intelligence came from.
LGSM was a tiny organisation, supporting a very small mining community in South Wales, but the jungle drums beat, and miners all around the country were talking about what was happening in the Dulais Valley. Those are the moments you find out who’s your friend, and who’s your foe.
But if it weren’t for Stephen [Beresford] writing the movie, our history would’ve been lost, absolutely. I deposited an archive in the People’s History Museum, but what was the point? Nobody knew about it. I imagined we’d all be long gone, dead and buried, and some undergraduate would find this dusty archive and just go, wow, look at this story.
Which is why the movie was written. Stephen was in his twenties in 1992 when this second wave of pit closures came along, and the dispute was on TV every night. He was with a partner ten years older than him, and he said to Stephen that they should get behind the miners. Stephen asked why, and when his partner explained it to him, he didn’t believe him. He thought it was a gay myth.
Being curious, though, he couldn’t help but try to find something. It was only the beginning of the internet, but he did eventually find a video we’d made called All Out: Dancing in Dulais, and realised that he should have known about this—that this was an important part of our heritage.
What history inspired you and your co-founders while you were setting up LGSM?
There was one event in particular, but it’s not LGBT. When I was a student at Keele University we got the coach down to the Grunwick Dispute, the first mass picket I’d been to in my life. There were the Asian women, many of them really tiny—Mrs Desai was less than five feet—standing on the picket line next to the gruff-looking Yorkshire miners, who had come to support them. In the ’70s, the labour movement was sexist, it was racist, it was homophobic: there was a lot of battling to be done. And so that was just: wow, that’s a new alliance. That’s good.
That would’ve been 1977 or ’78. And perhaps for LGSM, without me realising it, the kernel was planted there.
I came out in 1977, so I would’ve known about Stonewall, and the pioneers that had gone before in the LGBT movement. Gay Sweatshop were a radical theatre group around in the 1970s, and they did a lot of agitprop theatre, including one performance about my nineteenth-century hero, Edward Carpenter. That was a source of inspiration, too.
With the growing corporate influence over Pride, do you worry about that radical history—everything from LGSM back to Carpenter and before—getting lost?
Yes, very much so. Ostensibly, that financialisation of Pride is so that it’s more glamorous and exciting, more of a day out. That’s the narrative. But along the way that process has its casualties, and the Left and progressive movements within the LGBT community are those casualties because the corporate people don’t like our politics—and quite rightly, because we don’t like theirs either.
But that’s London Pride, mainly. And it’s not just that—it misses the kind of spontaneity. It used to be that anyone could go on the march—you’d just turn up and join it, and that’s community. Now it’s all marshalled, and you have to preregister, and if you do want to take part in it spontaneously you have to wait until the end and join there.
It still has value, though. We must never forget that on any Pride march, in any town or city in the world, there will always be people for whom it’s their first. And you can have counselling, you can watch videos, you can read books about your own emancipation, but none of that comes anywhere near to going on your first Pride march and being surrounded by thousands and thousands of happy homos, and just thinking, wow. It’s an epiphany. That will always serve, whether it’s horridly commercial or not.
I would’ve gone on my first Pride march in 1974, two years after the original ones. Then, they were terribly small—maybe two thousand people—with a double cordon of police, which was very flattering because they were clearly terrified of us. But it was always London: that was always the only Pride in Britain.
The other big development in my lifetime is that now there are Prides in almost all the towns in Britain, and that’s fantastic, because most of those won’t be terribly commercial things—they will be much more community focused. They will be getting the support of the trade union movement. There was even one in Accrington, my hometown, which I just thought was unbelievable. There, it’s a Pride march within a community, so people don’t necessarily feel like they have to leave home like I felt obliged to—like many of us felt obliged to, in LGSM.
And perhaps most importantly, it will show the homophobes in those little towns that they’re really in a minority. People don’t want their politics. They want the thing that’s celebrating life—not attacking it.
Retrospectively, for the Left, the ’80s are known as a time of huge defeat. But there were moments of light, and I’m thinking specifically of winning support among that labour movement for LGBT rights, which is the note on which the film Pride ends. How do you feel about that period now?
Possibly the ascendancy of LGBT rights was the only glimmer of hope in those dark days. Meanwhile, Thatcher, having won a major victory against the miners, carried on beating up the rest of the labour movement, tying them up in knots with anti-trade union legislation. Everything else went very dark. And even for us, we had HIV and AIDS.
But I was chatting to someone else recently about Section 28 and the big demo we had in Manchester in 1988, and that was the first ostensibly LGBT event where I got a real sense that not everyone there was LGBT. I got a real sense of allyship—that there were a lot of heterosexual people there. They’d seen us kicked by HIV, and they’d seen the historic attacks on the LGBT community, and then we had Section 28. And at that moment, I think the people just said: enough is enough.