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The battle of Orgreave and how it was lost

This article is over 8 years, 5 months old
The events outside Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham over the past two weeks may well come to be seen as the turning point in the miners’ strike. The chance was lost to rejuvenate a strike which has been drifting towards a ‘compromise’ settlement that will allow the Coal Board to continue closing pits. It was thrown away by the leaders of the Yorkshire miners, who sabotaged Scargill’s calls for a mass picket to close Orgreave. Alex Callinicos tells the story.
Issue 1
Police mass to stop striking miners shutting down Orgreave coking plant
Police mass to stop striking miners shutting down Orgreave coking plant (Pic: John Sturrock)

The confrontation at Orgreave was provoked by the management of British Steel’s Scunthorpe plant in consultations with the Tory government.

They had an agreement with the Yorkshire NUM for 15,700 tons of coal a week.

They insisted on using the coal not just to keep their blast furnaces warm (the pretext for the NUM dispensation), but to maintain steel production.

As prime coking coal ran out, both Scunthorpe’s blast furnaces and the quality of the steel produced deteriorated.

The steel bosses then tore up their deal with the NUM and decided to use coke from Orgreave.

The scab lorries began moving coal from Orgreave on Wednesday 23 May. But the Yorkshire miners’ leaders were slow to react.

Then on Sunday 27 May Arthur Scargill appeared on the picket line and called for mass picketing. A week of confrontations began.

By Tuesday of last week the number of pickets had grown to 5,000.

Scargill took personal charge and, under his direction, the police line was almost broken, despite 83 arrests and the use of mounted police and riot shields.

It seemed Orgreave could become another Saltley.

Instead, when Scargill arrived at 7.15 the next morning there were perhaps 100 pickets.

His arrest quickly followed – almost certainly by prior decision on the part of the police – to prevent him playing the same role he had played the previous day.

The eventual total of 800 pickets stood no chance of breaking through.

What went wrong?


South Yorkshire Chief Constable Peter Wright claimed that rank and file miners, chastened by the violence, had spurned Scargill’s call.

The truth is different. Even though the miners’ delegate conference in April decided to put the national leadership in control of the strike, picketing is still organised by the various NUM areas.

Yorkshire pickets receive their instructions each morning from their branch committee.

No elected strike committees have been set up—the fulltime branch officials tend to run the strike at a local level.

Branch officials in turn get their orders from the Yorkshire area headquarters in Barnsley. Every night a sealed letter is sent to each branch telling them where to picket the next day.

Pickets who refuse to obey instructions do not receive petrol money and run the risk of not getting legal help from the union if arrested.

On Tuesday 22 May, the instructions were to go to Orgreave—hence the large turnout.

The next day, however, miners picked up their picketing instructions to find themselves being sent to Nottinghamshire.

The same instructions were issued on Thursday and Friday.

Scargill’s call was sabotaged by Jack Taylor, Yorkshire miners’ president, and the other leaders of area NUM.

It isn’t the first time. Five weeks ago Scargill declared that no dispensations would be given to the steel industry—yet the area leaderships continued to allow coal into Scunthorpe, Ravenscraig and Llanwern.

The result was demoralisation and confusion. ‘What happened on Wednesday—being sent to Nottinghamshire and not to Orgreave—ripped the guts out of me,’ one Yorkshire miner said.

After Scargill’s arrest and the violent scenes on Wednesday, some pickets were prepared to defy their instructions and go to Orgreave. But the numbers were too few to break through.

Nor was there anyone willing to give any direction. After his arrest, Scargill did not reappear at Orgreave.


Miners drifted around aimlessly, penned in by the police, some making ritual efforts to push through when the coal lorries left the plant around 10 each morning. Twenty-nine pickets were arrested on Thursday and Friday.

Many miners were very angry at the lack of leadership. One, speaking for many, said, ‘What we need is organisation. Maybe we can’t get as organised as the police, but we can do better than this.’

Many miners now believe that the strike will be sold out.

Those responsible are not right-wingers.

With Scargill, they established left-wing ascendency among the Yorkshire miners by acting as the rank and file leaders of the unofficial militancy of the late 1960s and the great strikes of 1972 and 1974.

The confidence and strength Yorkshire miners gained swept Scargill into first the area and then the national presidency and many left-wingers into fulltime positions.

This left-wing machine is responsible for the disaster at Orgreave.

In power, Taylor and the rest have come to identify more and more with the interests of the union machine rather than with the miners they are supposed to represent.

Even though they sit on £8m worth of assets, they have grudged the petrol money needed for massive picketing.

The Yorkshire miners’ leaders—and the same is true of their counterparts in Scotland and South Wales, the other main ‘left’ areas – have come to believe that the way to save their members’ jobs is to bolster the local economy.

That is why Jack Taylor in Yorkshire, Mick McGahey in Scotland and Emlyn Williams in South Wales have all allowed coal into local steel plants.


Taylor recently defended this policy. ‘We are not in the game of taking away jobs,’ he said, as if the defeat of the miners is likely to save steelworkers’ jobs.

Many Yorkshire officials are now bitterly hostile to Arthur Scargill because he advocates the methods which brought victory in 1972.

One miner who said he wanted to picket Orgreave, not Nottinghamshire, was told that he must be either a ‘Scargillite’ or a member of the Socialist Workers Party!

But Scargill cannot escape his share of responsibility for what happened.

He has consistently argued that the way to change the union is simply to rely on electing left-wingers to official positions, even though it has led directly to the disastrous leadership in Yorkshire.

And even though it has been clear since early on in the strike that the ‘left’ area leaderships were preventing its effective conduct, Scargill has failed to break with Taylor, McGahey and the rest.

He has not appealed over their heads to rank and file members or given his backing to the election of unofficial strike committees to run the strike.

It is too early to tell whether failure at Orgreave is merely the prelude to a sell-out of the strike.

But one lesson is clear. Orgreave shows how mistaken it is for workers to rely on any leader, however left-wing, instead of building the rank and file organisation capable of taking the initiative independently of full-time officials.

(9 June, 1984)



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