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Pits Against the State

In the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, Thatcher weaponised hunger to force striking workers back to work. What she didn’t expect was workers in pit communities and beyond mobilising to organise an alternative welfare state.

18 January 1972: Wives of striking Derbyshire miners hand in a letter to the Coal Board in Hobart Place. With them is Dennis Skinner (centre). (Evening Standard / Getty Images)

As the cold months close in and the British public is left facing the spiralling cost of food and unpayable energy bills, millions more are set to plunge into grinding poverty. Levels of hunger have surged since the start of the year, with close to ten million adults and four million children now regularly skipping food. The need for immediate intervention to alleviate this crisis is obvious—but, from the Tories, unforthcoming.

The close relationship between Conservative policies and hunger is not new. In the 1980s, the Thatcher government attempted to use hunger to undermine strike action by removing the rights to benefits for single strikers in the Social Security Act 1980, meaning those who took strike action would have to do it without funds. During the strike of 1984-5, £15 was also removed from benefits for families on the false assumption that those on strike were getting strike pay (they weren’t).

The foreseeable result across pit communities was widespread hunger, as families quickly found that they could no longer afford basic necessities. After just three weeks on strike, Yorkshire miner Stan Whitworth told ITN that food was already being rationed: ‘Everybody’s had to cut back, there’s no money coming into the house. We’ve got to live on, more or less, fresh air. It’s hitting everyone very hard.’ But the resolve to continue the strike was clear: miners would ‘stick it out as long as needs be,’ he said, ‘even with no money’.

Feeding these communities therefore became an epic task, one taken up by women’s support groups across the country. Run mostly by miners’ wives, soup kitchens were opened and ration bags distributed which kept whole communities from starvation. In the process, they effectively created an alternative welfare state.

In South Wales, one support group, the Gwent Food Fund, distributed at least 3,500 food bags a week—every week—during the strike. This operation was only possible due to support from the public, who contributed to fundraising and food collections largely organised by the women’s support groups. Cries of ‘support the miners’ and the rattling of buckets filled with coins became a common sound in city centres. Under the now famous banner of LGSM, lesbian and gay activists in London also collected funds for the South Wales mining community of Dulais.

Although rarely featuring in the news media, food and funds also came from trade unionists from around the world in a demonstration of solidarity of a scale never seen before or since. In October 1984 alone 400 tonnes of food came from French trade unionists, and 200 tonnes from Denmark after workplace collections across Scandinavia and the Soviet Union. For striking miners, the displays of solidarity were as important as the sustenance: as Kent miner Mick Carey remarked of the French delivery, ‘The food is definitely a help, but the solidarity they are showing means more to us than that. It shows that they are thinking of us over here.’

As Margaret Vallins of Chesterfield Women’s Action group put it at the time, the impetus behind this work was not charity. Instead, it was solidarity that kept communities living and pushed back against the cruelty of the Thatcher government, fundamentally undermining the drive to starve miners back to work and offering real resistance at a time when opposing political parties were missing in action. ‘Charity is what rich people give to poor people, as a token,’ she tells filmmakers in the Miners’ Campaign Tapes. ‘This is what working-class people are doing to help other working-class people.’

Facing such opposition, however, the response from the Thatcher government was to further weaponise hunger and continue to grind pit communities into poverty. Another £1 cut in supplementary benefits was made on the onset of winter in 1984, while coal concessions were withdrawn in parts of the country, leaving many families to freeze. As one Hucknall miner recalled to Harry Paterson in his book Look Back in Anger: The Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire:

It were November and just about everything in the house had been sold to keep the debts manageable or to buy food or burned to keep us warm. I didn’t have any furniture left downstairs apart from a couple of kitchen chairs and a table. Me front room just had a couple of orange crates, and I were sat on one chucking shoes onto the fire to warm the house up for the kids coming in from school.

Meanwhile, union funds, which had been bolstered with local and national fundraising, were sequestrated by the High Court during the strike due to an alleged contempt of court. The crime? Refusing to pay a £200,000 fine issued for declaring that the strike was official, a decision the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers labelled ‘one of the most trivial [cases] in British legal history’. It was likely one of the biggest thefts of union funds ever in this country, done during a time of widespread hunger and destitution.

The consequences for pit communities were severe, creating a situation in South Wales where cheques to pay for potatoes bounced as a result. The food collected from trade unionists across Europe and the Soviet Union could also be held up or even destroyed before reaching those communities, the excuse being that it might contravene British import regulations aimed at keeping out animal diseases. Some was eventually allowed through Hull docks in October 1984 on the proviso that the NUM paid thousands of pounds for its release.

For Durham NUM Secretary Tom Callan, the hold-up of donations, which included canned meat and baby food, was deliberately political: ‘They are trying to starve our wives and children.’ This weaponisation of hunger came at a time when bribes featured in newspapers tempted miners to break the strike, too, with promises of £1,500 before the Christmas holidays. That the majority of miners stuck it out over the cold winter of 1984-85 is a testament to courage and commitment, and to the community and international solidarity that made doing so possible.

The callous nature of the Conservative Party towards hunger continues today—but so does the philosophy of solidarity in response. In 2015, as just one example, Fans Supporting Foodbanks was set up in Liverpool as a joint initiative between the Blue Union and the Spirit of Shankly to collect food for those who need it. Since then the grassroots initiative has exploded across the UK as the need for foodbanks has grown.

When hunger in the UK is the end result of Conservative governmental policies, charity itself will not be enough to end it. A central lesson of the ’84-85 miners’ strike is of the importance for organising to take care of communities and push back against state-driven austerity. As Ian Bryne, founding member of Fans Supporting Foodbanks and Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby puts it, what is needed now is systemic change:

The time for sticking plasters—such as a reliance on thousands of foodbank and pantry volunteers and donors—is over. We need systemic change so that all our people might live with the opportunity of health, happiness, and dignity.

For Byrne, that means legislating for a right to food. On a broader scale, now, as in 1984, it also means reshaping our politics so that the hunger of working people is not something that can be comfortably ignored by the ruling class, much less weaponised in an attempt to bring about silence and submission. As the power of industrial action has once again raised its head this year, so too should the pit communities’ values of collective support and working-class strength. When our leaders insist on failing us, we can and must look to each other instead.