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Mick Hume

The meek inherit nothing

In a year from now, you may well have no job. And even if you have one, you may be paid less than you are today. So what are you going to do about it?

The 200 000 people who marched in London on Sunday 25 October must have felt that they were doing something about it. But they were led up the garden path. Never has so big a demonstration made such little lasting impact.

They came out in their thousands in the rain, not just to oppose the planned pit closures, but to register their bitterness over unemployment and the economic slump. There was talk of the weakened Tory government being brought down by this huge display of 'people power'. 'Smile, the junta is collapsing' was how one much-photographed placard summed it up.

Then, nothing. The popular rising over the miners issue finished as suddenly as it had begun. Within a week, it was as if that mass demonstration had never happened. The only thing which was collapsing was the infrastructure of the 10 pits which British Coal had gone ahead and closed. The closure of the other 21 pits on the hit-list had merely been postponed for a few short months.

Another week on, and the scenes of 200 000 marching for the miners had been replaced by the image of a single ex-miner with a gun trying to occupy the doomed Markham Main colliery in South Yorkshire. His desperate solo protest was a grim symbol of how the miners had been left isolated and defeated, despite the wave of public support.

Why did the biggest demonstration seen in years turn into a case of 'now you see it, now you don't'? How could such a popular protest be so easily contained by such an unpopular government? A lot of people clearly wanted to have a go. But they have been misdirected down a dead-end by the political approach which the campaign adopted.

The latest attempt to defend the miners has failed because it was influenced by the Meek Tendency in British politics, so that the campaign was organised around the politics of appearing pathetic. Unless we come to terms with this mistake, it is likely to be repeated as others look for ways to defend their jobs and pay against the axe being wielded by the government and employers.

The Meek Tendency insists that those whose living standards are attacked should not hit back with anger, but rather should ask for a little compassion. They should respond not as fighters, but as victims; as charity cases seeking to shame the authorities into making some concessions.

The consequence of adopting the politics of appearing pathetic is that you must forget about calling for a solidarity struggle, and set about asking for public sympathy instead. Strikes and other sorts of aggressive action are out. Petitions, token days of protest and well-behaved walks around Hyde Park are in.

The politics of appearing pathetic can seem attractive because they offer the easy option. Following the Meek Tendency's line is definitely the shortest route to creating the appearance of apopular campaign.

Anybody can see that it is far easier to get thousands of people to sign a petition asking for a moratorium on pit closures and an inquiry than it is to start a campaign of industrial action against redundancies. It is obviously a lot more comfortable to join a respectable protest campaign, which is being patronised by the newspapers, than it is to be pilloried in the tabloid press as left-wing loonies and militant wreckers.

There is one slight problem with the politics of appearing pathetic, however; they don't work. A campaign led by the Meek Tendency cannot beat the government and the employers in the battle for jobs and pay. But it can dissipate the anger of those who want to do something about the havoc being wreaked by the slump. That is what happened to the initial wave of public support for the miners.

The recent revolt against the pit closures was fronted by rebel Tory MPs like Elizabeth Peacock, Bill Cash and Winston Churchill, and by Tory papers like the Sun and the Daily Mail. They set the 'respectable', Meek Tendency tone of the protests, patronising the miners as keepers of a Hovis-advert heritage and victims of a national disaster, who deserved some more charitable treatment.

Eager to ingratiate themselves with such establishment opinion-makers, the Labour Party and the trade unions fell in behind this moderate approach. The result was the huge but downbeat march in London, which ended with a muted rally at which everybody from Paddy Ashdown and a priest to a representative of the Confederation of British Industry asked for mercy for the miners.

And what was achieved by this inoffensive style of campaigning? In practical terms, nothing. Those pits are still set to close next year. In political terms, the results are even worse.

An outburst of popular anger against the crisis-stricken Conservative government has been constrained within terms set by disaffected Tory MPs and newspaper editors. These people could not care less about the jobs of miners or any other workers. They backed the government to the hilt against miners fighting redundancies in the 1984-85 strike, and have since said nothing while more than 100 000 jobs have been cut in the coal industry. They simply picked up the latest pit closures announcement as a convenient stick with which to beat John Major and Michael Heseltine in their internal Tory Party rows.

When they had achieved their aim of getting the government to repackage its policy, the Tory rebels just dropped the miners' issue and moved on to the next intra-establishment battle over Maastricht. The thousands of angry people who had been used as a stage army by a handful of Tory MPs were left with nowhere to go next. Without a fighting political focus of its own around which to organise, the campaign to defend the miners simply evaporated, and an opportunity to hit back was lost.

When the terms of a campaign are dictated by the Meek Tendency, it will always end in disaster like this. Petitions, opinion polls and polite protests cannot defend jobs and wages against a government which, whatever other U-turns it might make, remains determined to protect the profits of British capitalism at our expense. No group of workers, whether miners or nurses, has ever won anything worthwhile from the authorities through the politics of appearing pathetic and appealing for public sympathy.

Roy Lynk, leader of the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM), had a sudden insight into the way capitalist politics work when he heard the October announcement about pit closures. Lynk had previously been rewarded for his strike-breaking services to the government with an OBE. Now he was to be rewarded in a very different way, by having his Notts coalfield decimated. This just shows, said the shell-shocked Lynk, that if you behave like a moderate 'they treat you like a soft touch'. Which is another way of saying that the meek inherit nothing.

The approach favoured by the Meek Tendency won't protect jobs and pay, yet it is still supported by many people because they can see no alternative. So, when it became clear that the few dissident Tories had 'won' no more than a temporary reprieve for the threatened pits, one Grimethorpe miner interviewed in the press could only conclude that what was needed was more Tory MPs like Mrs Peacock.

The prevalence of these conservative attitudes among miners, who were once Britain's leading trade union militants, bears testimony to the death of the old labour movement. The TUC might still be able to issue a press release calling a march to Hyde Park. But the contrast between the militant, tightly organised trade union demonstrations of the past and the passive, shambolic ramble of 25 October confirms that the TUC is now an empty shell.

The old trade unions have become little more than friendly societies, issuing financial advice and special-offer insurance to their members. They will even sell you insurance against redundancy; the idea that the unions themselves were supposed to be our insurance against being sacked has long since been forgotten. Even Arthur Scargill's National Union of Mineworkers now eschews industrial action and tries to court public opinion instead - the approach pioneered by its old enemy, Roy Lynk's UDM.

The death of the official labour movement means that, even when people are as angry as they were over the miners, their anger can quickly be dissipated by a handful of Tory rebels. Many feel alone and powerless in their protests. Yet we have the power to do something positive, if we can throw off the politics of appearing pathetic, and get organised together for a proper fight with the government and the employers.

Our collective fighting strength is the only defence we have against the wave of cuts in jobs and pay. To be effective, any campaign will need a cutting edge of industrial action that can hit them where it hurts. It is no good looking to the old labour movement to lead such action; we might as well ask the churchman on the Hyde Park platform to summon up an act of God to save us. Instead, those of us who can see the need for more than a mass walk in the rain are going to have to take matters into our own hands.

If we don't get ready to fight now, we could all be for the chop. That is the blunt message which needs to go out loud and clear as the Tories try to put many more in the same boat as the miners. This is no time for acting like sheep, disaster victims, vicars or any other members of the Meek Tendency.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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