Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Any pre-election threat of industrial action presents an immediate target for Conservative politicians and their media allies.

Add to the mix a pledge by the Labour Party to row back on ever-tightening legal restrictions on trade union activity, and within an instant Conservative-supporting newspapers are warning of an imminent repeat of the 1979 Winter of Discontent – the year that 29.4 million days were lost due to strikes.

An image of Jeremy Corbyn’s face superimposed on a 1979 photograph of heaps of rotting garbage piled up in Leicester Square appeared in the Sun at the time of his election as Labour leader in the summer of 2015.

Margaret Thatcher’s interventions to strengthen police tactics during the 1984-85 miners’ strike have been well documented, but her official papers reveal she put pressure on police forces in Scotland as well as in England and Wales.

Revisiting her cabinet papers is timely given the imminent publication of John Scott’s review into the impact of policing on community relations in the Scottish coalfield.

Scott’s review was established by the Scottish government in June 2018 to re-assess the “unprecedented strain” placed on policing and community relationships and the “extremely challenging situations” faced by individual officers.

My own re-examination of the Thatcher cabinet records underlined yet again how the government’s public stance – that “no instructions” were issued to chief constables during the strike – is contradicted by the content of secret and confidential documents.

Two months into the strike, at the height of picketing in Scotland, and after violent scenes outside the Ravenscraig steel works, the Prime Minister wanted some immediate answers.

“Don’t panic” is the advice to car workers from Len McCluskey, the Unite union general secretary, as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt step up their Brexit No Deal preparations, amid further evidence of the precarious nature of the British automotive industry.

In response to questioning on the Andrew Marr Show (30.6.2019) about warnings that jobs and investment in the car industry could take a 20 per cent hit in the event of the UK leaving the EU without an agreement on October 30, Mr McCluskey insisted six times that there was no need for car workers to panic.

But when Marr pointed to a YouGov opinion poll of trade union members that showed that 65 per cent of Unite members wanted to remain, Mr McCluskey denied that was the case.

While post-Brexit job losses continue to mount in the wake of the accelerating downsizing of the British car industry, the workforce lacks the support of a coherent or cohesive voice speaking up on their behalf.

Motor manufacturing is just one of many industrial sectors where employees are being let down by the failure of the labour and trade union movement to mount a vigorous campaign to safeguard future employment.

Instead of a jointly agreed strategy identifying where jobs are being lost – and then explaining how they might be protected – the largest unions seem to have coalesced around the fallback position of simply rejecting a no deal exit rather than facing head on the impact of Leave or Remain.

Uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the European Union is without doubt the greatest current threat to job prospects in the automotive sector and a wide range of other industries.

The sight of Labour MPs from former mining constituencies expressing a readiness to accept cash for their localities in return for a vote in favour of Brexit is a haunting reminder of how easily the Conservatives bought off miners in the past.

Offers of ever-higher redundancy payments enticed many miners back to work during the 1984-85 pit strike, and finally it was these cash incentives that helped secure Margaret Thatcher the victory she craved.

Almost a decade later, when Michael Heseltine pushed through the massive 1992 pit closure programme, he was convinced the £1 billion he had secured for redundancy pay-offs would again prove irresistible – and he was proved correct.

Once again, we see how the offer of Conservative cash – this time for investment within their constituencies – is again proving all-too tempting.

John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, in Nottinghamshire – a constituency that he says was “devastated pit closures” – is the most vocal supporter of Theresa May’s ploy of offering cash investment opportunities to former mining areas in recognition of Labour MPs voting in favour of her EU withdrawal agreement.