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Recharging the batteries
Weekly Worker 519 Thursday March 11 2004


March 6 saw the first show in the Banner Theatre’s national tour to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the miners’ Great Strike at the Potteries museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Around 300 packed into the museum’s ‘forum’ hall for an afternoon of music and speeches.

The undoubted highlight of the day was the Banner Theatre itself. Jilah Bakhshayesh, Dave Rogers and Fred Wisdom interspersed their folky performance with images from the strike, and interview extracts with participants. To say this was moving is to do it a great injustice, as the comrades did an excellent job of conveying the power and passions roused by the strike to the audience.

This was followed by a number of speeches. Brigitte of North Staffs Women Against Pit Closures started the ball rolling by noting how the 57 varieties of British Marxism put aside their sectarian differences to unite around the miners. Tony Benn’s speech dwelled on his experiences of the strike and liberally peppered his account with amusing anecdotes. The main political thrust of his contribution was a justification of his vision of a parliamentary socialism, evoking the ghost of the 1945-51 Labour government as a positive illustration of what can be achieved.

Bringing this section of the day to an end, NUM secretary Steve Kemp began his speech by thanking the women of the mining communities for their unflinching support. The union was forever in their debt, he said. He then discussed his experiences of the strike, and pointed out how its consequences are still with us today. He ended by calling on those present to support the miners - be it in the shape of the NUM’s new phase of struggle with the fat cats of UK Coal, the continuing work of miners’ welfare organisations or showing solidarity with striking miners in the USA.

The bulk of contributions from the floor were of direct relevance to the economic issues facing miners. For example, one ex-miner highlighted the scandalous situation where the industry’s pension fund had been plundered by successive governments to pay for mining-related accidents and diseases. He likened it to the miners paying compensation to themselves. Another noted how Thatcher had decreed that the NUM was required to fork out £15 per week strike pay, but had made payments impossible owing to the Tories sequestering the union’s assets. By his reckoning, the government now owed every striking miner hundreds of pounds. In reply, Steve Kemp promised to take these issues to the executive, and Michael Mansfield QC (who had drifted in at the end of the speeches) gave his backing to any resulting campaign.

The second set of questions addressed political issues. Comrade Mandy of Manchester SWP challenged Tony Benn on his parliamentary strategy, noting how parliamentary support for the miners had been thin on the ground and parliament had backed the war in Iraq. Another SWP comrade raised the issue of political representation and managed to get a crafty plug for Respect in. Tony Benn replied that this issue deserved to be openly and widely discussed in the labour movement. Though he personally favoured a ‘reclaiming Labour’ perspective, he understood why some people were seeking to build an alternative outside of the party, and why others felt voting was a waste of time.

Mike Mansfield picked up on the theme of apathy. When you are angry with the main parties, “is it really apathetic to choose not to vote?” he asked. In the absence of an alternative, comrade Mansfield’s politics was ‘issue-driven’ for the time being.

At this point the day was brought to a close with the passing round of a donations bucket, and WAPC activists took to the stage for a rousing rendition of ‘The women of the working class’. I am sure I was not the only one whose batteries felt recharged by the event.

Phil Hamilton

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