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Coal Not Dole

06/22/2014

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Rock on Tommy. The happy sound of Radio One 275 and 285. Yer can’t beat a bit of Bully. Platini, Giresse and Tigana. Blackwash. Zola Budd. Karma Chameleon. You cannot be serious. Here we go, here we go, here we go….

The sights and sounds of spring and summer 1984. Some good, some not so good. But aside from Manchester United captain Bryan Robson being chaired off the pitch at the final whistle on that delirious March night against Barcelona, the most vivid, life changing, memory of the year for me was the miners’ strike. From early March through the remainder of the year striking miners and their families stood proud in their fight to save their jobs and communities. They were unbowed in the face of a government that was prepared to throw everything at them. Including lies.

Thirty years on and hundreds of us congregated in a field in Catcliffe, South Yorkshire just down the road from the worst stitch-up in the history of industrial struggle. The Orgreave Mass Picnic & Festival was held almost thirty years to the day since the infamous Battle of Orgreave when mounted police wielding batons charged into miners picketing the Orgreave coking plant.

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There were speeches by the likes of Barbara Jackson of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, former National Union of Mineworkers official Ken Capstick and Michael Mansfield QC. In addition there was music, poetry, theatre, banners, photography, kids in Argentina shirts playing football (Strikers Only, 3 shots for 50p), a bouncy castle and a beer tent (pint of Scargill Stout anyone?). The speeches drew on similar themes of pride in a valiant fight and the parallels with the current fight to save the NHS from privatisation, the fightback against the bedroom tax, the Occupy movement and the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.

The same morning, as I chomped on my cereal, a BBC reporter was at Hyde Park Barracks reporting on preparations for the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony. The talk was of how more than a thousand soldiers were due to take to the streets of London in a display of army drills, music and horsemanship. A rather different form of uniformed horsemanship was on display at Orgreave thirty years ago. Sadly the coverage of that display was one of the BBC’s darkest days.

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The year long miners’ strike was more than just an industrial dispute, it was a clash between opposing views of how to organise society. One that valued community and cooperation opposed by one that prioritised economics and the bottom line. Within weeks of the start of the strike in March 1984 more than 165,000 miners were on strike. The Tories and the National Coal Board had provoked the strike on their own terms and reckoned that it would be over in weeks. But as the strike spread beyond Yorkshire into Derbyshire, Lancashire, Kent, South Wales and Scotland the Tories were taken by surprise and ordered thousands of police from all over the country into mining areas in a paramilitary style operation designed to break the strike. They were supported by the media who launched an unprecedented attack on the miners and the NUM leader Arthur Scargill in particular.

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Orgreave was a pivotal moment in the strike. Supplies of quality coking coal were running low at British Steel’s huge plant at Scunthorpe and Arthur Scargill called for mass picketing of the Orgreave cooking plant near Sheffield. Sadly the call went largely unheeded by local area NUM officials and the picketing was spasmodic rather than daily. Nevertheless from late May to mid-June there was a series of confrontations at Orgreave as picketing miners tried to prevent convoys of lorries taking coal to Scunthorpe.

On 18th June 1984 around five thousand miners gathered at Orgreave on a lovely warm summers day. They were confronted by a similar number of police with riot shields and backed by dogs and horses. Having corralled the miners into a field close to the coking plant and surrounded them on three sides, without any warning, mounted police charged into the miners attacking them with batons. Dozens of miners were injured as they ran for safety, some in fear of their lives. It was a display of unprovoked violence not seen in a British industrial dispute since before the first world war. “We have to make it clear that violence is totally unacceptable in our society” announced Thatcher at the Tory Party women’s conference only days before.

Eventually the miners were able to regroup and fight back with anything that they could lay their hands on. Ninety five miners were arrested and charged with riot which carried a possible life sentence. The charges were eventually thrown out by the courts as it became apparent that, like Hillsborough, the police had colluded in the preparation of false statements. The miners were represented by the lawyers Michael Mansfield and Gareth Peirce and Mansfield described Orgreave as “the biggest frame-up” in history. Later on in the day, our licence fee funded public service broadcaster, the BBC, disgracefully edited their coverage of events to show the police being attacked by miners before they charged.

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Most of the footage of the strike was taken from behind police lines but there was some wonderful photography on display at the picnic from the likes of Martin Jenkinson and Martin Shakeshaft that provides a very different viewpoint including the infamous one of a mounted police officer about to whack Lesley Boulton, a member of the Sheffield Women’s Support Group, with a truncheon as she appealed for help for an injured miner. This photograph has become a symbol of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign’s fight for justice. The OTJC was formed in November 2012, inspired by the success of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, and is fighting for an independent public inquiry into the events at Orgreave and to get truth and justice for the miners and their families.

The programme for the Orgreave Mass Picnic included a list of people and organisations who sponsored the event; mainly trade unions. Sadly in the same week that Ed Miliband was only too happy to be photographed holding a tacky free World Cup copy of The Sun, Dennis Skinner the longstanding MP for Bolsover and himself a former miner and NUM member was the only one of our elected representatives prepared to show their support for the Orgreave Mass Picnic. The Sun newspaper made it very clear which side of the miners strike it was on. Printworkers at The Sun, to their great credit, refused to handle an October 1984 copy of the paper that described striking miners as “the scum of the earth” and prevented the paper from being printed for two days.

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On the same day that crowds gathered in London to celebrate a birthday that isn’t a proper birthday for the biggest individual recipient of taxpayers’ money in the country, I was proud to stand in a field in South Yorkshire with hundreds of other people and pay tribute to the miners and their families who took on the full might of the state apparatus and very nearly succeeded. There was no pomp and ceremony. There were no television cameras this time. Instead there was considerable pride and hope for the future. A timely reminder that through collective action a better world is possible. And, in the form of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, the fight goes on.

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