Thursday, 4 March 2010

Debating the Miners' Strike

Last night's Question Time-style event on the Miners' Strike (dubbed by organisers 'The Big A Debate') was always going to be a fiery affair. The panel was composed of Ken Loach, George Galloway, Graun journalist David Hencke, Edwina Currie and UKIP MEP Mike Nattrass - itself an incendiary combination, but throw in an audience composed mainly of ex-miners and lefties you have the recipe for a right old brew up. And you don't have to take my word for it, you can watch it here courtesy of Stoke blogging maestros, Pits n pots.

To set the scene we were shown two short films. The first was a wonderful piece of Pathe-style propaganda from 1952 on mining. In his best RP, the narrator informed us how coal was at the heart of Britain's future as a "great power". We were also shown the (then) state of the art mechanisation of coal mining and measures taken to combat coal dust. This was contrasted with footage from the violent confrontation at Orgreave Colliery.

Oliver Speight, a local businessman then came on to introduce himself as chair and welcomed the panelists. Then came the first question - which was addressed to Currie. She was asked "Has deindustrialisation been a success? Did she and other Tories perceive the heartache and problems pit closures would cause?" Currie replied that of course she was concerned, but pits were already closing and had been for a long time - her Derby South constituency was certainly undergoing that process after having been worked for over 200 years. She also argued that some of her constituents accepted that the pits were exhausted and that it was her job as MP to try and find them something else to do. Galloway replied to say the miners' defeat broke his heart and that everything since can be traced back to that moment. Despite being lambasted by Galloway as a "revisionist" for his recent book that used official documents to shed new light on the strike, Hencke agreed it was the most significant turning point in British political history since 1945. The unbridled capitalism we have now and the disastrous path it led us down is a consequence of what happened 25 years ago. Nattrass offered an extremely superficial analysis of the strike as being a clash between the personalities of Scargill and Thatcher, before arguing for the re-opening of the pits. Lastly, Loach argued the Tory attack on the miners was as much to do with uneconomic pits than the war in Iraq had to do with WMD. British capitalism was failing, and the way to fix it was smashing the unions. Despite this TUC and Labour leaders sat on the sidelines and didn't lift a finger to help - despite the TUC's resolution that it would offer full support.

Continuing the leadership theme, the issue of TUC and Labour betrayal came up in the next question. Galloway argued that had the TUC led the 12 million-strong labour movement into battle behind the miners we - the organised working class - would have won. But as it stands, shutting down the mines destroyed not only a vast support industry but also the world leading expertise it had built up, which in turn set back the capacity to research the clean coal and carbon capture technologies we need today. Currie took a slightly different tack. Yes, there was a problem with leadership - but it was on the miners' side. Scargill was determined to prosecute a political struggle against the government regardless of members' wishes. She noted that on a 90% turn out, some 83% of miners in South Derbys voted to work. Nationally, she conceded that Scargill probably would have won a ballot of the entire union but he decided not to. Responding to this, Loach said that while there was no national ballot, area by area voted to come out (the problem of course with such an argument is local ballots could as much legitimate working through the strike as walking out).

Moving on slightly from mining, the panel was asked if the main political ideologies (i.e. socialism, conservatism, liberalism) were now dead dogs? Hencke argued a point echoed here and elsewhere many times - that there is a consensus among mainstream politics for prioritising public spending cuts. In other words, the cost of bailing out the banks will be some 290,000 jobs. He argued a radical re-think was necessary to avoid the kind of social devastation we saw left in the wake of the miners' strike. For Loach the main problem in politics today is that of political representation, and the current consensus is a direct result of the strike: "If your political system does not reflect real divisions in society then you can't have a democracy", he thought. For Nattrass, unsurprisingly for him the biggest problem in politics was that all the parties were in hock to Europe (yawn). Currie challenged Loach to get his "broad left" together and stand in elections to see how many votes they will get. She said she'd like to see an adoption of a national plan. She said France under Georges Pompidou adopted a farseeing plan that asked what the country would need 30 years hence, and therefore developed its rail infrastructure, Airbus, Ariane and nuclear power. Britain needs to do the same (of course, she failed to reflect that the actions of the government she was a member of were fundamentally at odds with such a perspective).

This marked something of a reflection on Britain's economic future. Nattrass acknowledged that the closures were a disaster and argued that UK coal was now the cheapest in Europe - it makes sense for the pits to be reopened, especially with the new green technologies we have now (as a climate change denialist, he dismissed the problem of carbon emissions out of hand). Galloway said he'd be more comfortable with nuclear being in Britain's energy mix if you didn't have to dress up like a spaceman every time you went to work. Countering some comments Currie made earlier about the undesirability of subsidised industry, he replied that it's not a choice between subsidy and no subsidy, it's one between supporting socially useful industry or paying out billions in unemployment benefits.

Moving on to policy priorities, Galloway said that in the event of a hung Parliament and Respect winning three seats, his conditions for supporting a minority government would be a national house building programme, state-directed investment in manufacturing by the banks currently in
de facto public ownership, and the withdrawal of British troops from overseas. For Nattrass he would hang all politicians as traitors and continued his tired theme of 'oh noes, it's teh Europez'. Unsurprisingly Currie channelled "Dave" and argued for attacking the deficit and introducing flat taxes (this apparently would bring more cash into the treasury's coffers). Hencke was for cracking down on tax dodgers, and Loach was for taking back privatised industries but this time under *democratic* public ownership.

Overall the evening was a tremendous success, and highly entertaining too. Aside from Galloway's inappropriate references to Currie's affair with John Major (I wonder if he'd have repeatedly brought up an opponent's sexual history had it been a man defending the Tory case) there were two issues that failed to get an airing. The first is the problematic nature of coal from the standpoint of climate change. Carbon capture and storage technology is
very much in its infancy. The way some of the panel was talking you would think this problem has been resolved - it really could have done with some informed input on this issue. Second was the free pass Labour got. As Currie noted, it's all very well talking about the legacy of the Tories but what have Labour done in the last 13 years to reverse it? The answer is of course that in many ways Blair and Brown have deepened the process of deindustrialisation by carrying on with a neoliberal programme and more or less ignoring the aspirations of the trade unions. As far as I'm concerned, they have done much to be ashamed of.


cerebus said...

Interesting that Currie favours some sort of Industrial planning. Wither liberalism?

Richie said...

And lets not forget, according to Currie the youth of today would never work in a mine, were they still open, even if millions are unemployed!

EddM said...

Shameless populism from Ukip.

Sounds like Ken Loach was on good form at least.

Phil said...

Aye, Richie. Though I do admire her guts for daring to defend the Tories in front of ex-miners and lefties, AND not let the repeated allusions to her sexual history get to her, she came across as a patronising arse to the young blokes sat at the front. Little did she know that they too were all Trots and lefties.

Also, I reckon if the pits reopened round here they would be swamped with job applications.