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
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
Another week on, and the scenes of 200 000 marching for the miners had been
replaced by the image of a single ex-miner with a gun trying to occupy the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 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