Of reds and black stuff

Miners, Unions and Politics, 1910-1947

November 15, 1996

Times change history. The decline of labour has influenced the history of labour. Few today defend the progressive determinism of "the forward march of labour", the benign relationship of expanding organisation and increasing homogeneity of working-class culture and consciousness, the slow but remorseless perfecting of the "natural" unity of the labour movement in the first half of the century. The emphasis of the new history is on diversity and division, unevenness in class formation, the fragility of power, the contingent nature of progress, the importance of political agency in its difficult construction. This volume exemplifies the strengths of revisionism.

The miners were unique in their support for Labour but the party's electoral fortunes progressed gradually and unevenly in the coalfields. Political allegiance did not flow unproblematically from social structure: it required mobilisation of interests through differing political strategies focused on nationalisation, but also on housing, education and welfare. The relationship between the party and the Miners Federation was troubled and complex. Mythically adamantine, the miners were remarkably flexible in their dealings with Labour. Loyalty yielded few concessions yet produced enduring distrust from Labour's leaders. These developments are traced in fine essays by Duncan Tanner and David Howell.

Both emphasise the importance of the interplay of regional contexts and interests in constructing national politics. Chris Williams engages persuasively with visions of Red South Wales and contemporary assertions that industrial militancy reflected political conformity. South Wales was a stronghold of Labourism but one that itself contained capacities for radical struggle and contextualised syndicalism and communism. In a theoretically innovative analysis of the Scottish coalfields, Alan Campbell likewise emphasises political differences and internal struggles. Labourism was dominant but not hegemonic, forced to engage with alternatives before marginalising a sterile Stalinism.

Heterogeneity is emphasised by David Gilbert's study of Nottinghamshire. Many miners lived in socially diverse urban areas, others in the company-controlled model villages of the Dukeries. Working women, high wages and job security nurtured an interwar culture of exceptionalism, redefined in 1984-5. Sociological stereotypes of miners as "an isolated mass" are further punctured in Trevor Griffiths's chapter on Lancashire. Miners were scattered through urban areas, family and neighbourhood were more central to social identification than the pit. Irish Catholics were Labour's most reliable partisans. Lancashire's peaceful coexistence - moderation in the pits, militancy in the union - contrasted with attempts in Yorkshire to fuse the conflicts of pit politics with a union politics that strove to regulate the market through collective bargaining and local government intervention.

Hywel Francis and Nina Fishman discuss the creation of the National Union of Mineworkers and nationalisation. They demonstrate that unity and political success were attainable. They were painstakingly negotiated achievements whose brittleness demanded continual redefinition of collective interests and identities across the coalfields. This did not always prove possible. Yet this important book evokes wary optimism. It demonstrates oppositional movements can be built, unity can be painfully assembled from diversity, the world can be changed.

John McIlroy is reader in sociology, University of Manchester.

Miners, Unions and Politics, 1910-1947

Editor - Alan Campbell, Nina Fishman and David Howell,
ISBN - 1 85928 269 5
Publisher - Scolar Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 320

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