If you saw pictures of female miners carting coal around, or loading trucks, would you exclaim ‘How appallingly Victorian!’ or ‘How fantastically modern!’? It was not till some years after the Second World War that ‘pitbrew girls’ ceased to do the heavy and dirty work of separating out dross from coal; many of them became canteen workers instead. Joe Gormley was, and is, firmly against the idea of any ‘modern young ladies’ trying to secure coal-face jobs. He was outraged by the women carrying coal in baskets on their heads whom he encountered on his visit to India in 1975.
As one would hope, there are a number of fascinating fragments of social history in this autobiography. In Joe’s family in the interwar years, underwear was unheard of: no wonder the rich said that the working class stank. In almost every paragraph the authentic banalities of the British working class stumble through: for a childhood misdemeanour Joe and his pals ‘got a proper ticking-off’; in his household ‘literally every penny counted’; and, down the pit, ‘a thermos flask would have been an expensive luxury.’ But few readers will be much interested in such isolated details of social history: the autobiography of a public figure is valued for the insights it provides into his personality and career, for its ‘revelations’, above all, concerning the major crises in which he was involved, and perhaps also for any words of wisdom offered on the problems which currently beset his nation.
Let me get the biographical details out of the way first. Of Irish descent, with an intermixture of Welsh, Joe Gormley was born in 1917 in Ashton-in-Makerfield, mid-way between Wigan and St Helen’s in Lancashire. He was brought up a Catholic – though, as he puts it, true to the trite tone of Chapter One, ‘I don’t believe you have to go to church every Sunday to be a good, or even a religious, person.’ The girl he married, product of a mixed marriage, was also Catholic. Both her mother and his were the political activists in his family background, having been founder members of the women’s section of the local Labour Party. He went down the pit at the age of 14, moved as far afield as Staffordshire, then back to Lancashire; as a specialist miner he was not called up during the Second World War. Interested more in politics than union affairs, he became a member of the Labour Party, and was active in the local Labour Clubs: however, his first major achievement and first taste of his own powers of leadership came when he persuaded conveyermen, cutters and borers to stage a walk-out in order to demonstrate that the colliers could not always have everything their own way. In the late Fifties he had his eye on the Ince constituency, but the sitting member clung on until 1964; he was nominated for Burnley, but lost the nomination by three votes. Then the Secretaryship of the Lancashire area of the NUM fell vacant: ‘it was too good a chance to turn down.’ Gormley organised his campaign so effectively that he not only won the vote but aroused cries of ballot-rigging from his Communist rival, Jim Hammond. Gormley immediately resigned, calling for a new ballot: an investigation exonerated him from any irregularities; and his election was confirmed by a substantial majority. Along the way, he managed, in a pub argument, to land a hefty punch in Hammond’s gut – the macho image is a recurrent one. Events seemed to conspire to pull Gormley along a trade-union path, although he continued to have hankerings after politics. Election to the National Executive Committee of the NUM in 1957 was followed by the General Secretaryship of the North-Western area in 1961; though he reached the National Executive of the Labour Party in 1963, it was, of course, as a representative of his union. Just at that point in time when industrial relations were undergoing a seachange, with large-scale official strikes, often with an apparently political element, replacing the wild-cat unofficial strikes which had been the prime concern of earlier decades, Gormley was elected President of the NUM by a fairly close margin over Mick McGahey. This was June 1971, exactly 40 years after Gormley had first gone down the pit. In theory, the President and General Secretary of the NUM are equal in status: who has played first fiddle has depended very much on personality. Gormley was determined that he, rather than General Secretary Laurence Daley, would be the leader.
On the question of the first confrontation between the miners and the Heath Conservative government, that of 1972, Gormley has nothing very startling to reveal. Throughout the 1960s the miners’ wages had steadily slipped behind those of other industrial occupations. While he might not be able to do much about closures and redundancies, he was eager to secure the best possible deal for the men who remained within the industry. Thus, in the autumn of 1971 when the Heath government was endeavouring to impose a ceiling of 8 per cent on all pay increases, the mine-workers put in claims which in some cases ran as high as 47 per cent; the Coal Board responded with offers which averaged out at 7 per cent. Gormley tells us that by chance he met Derek Ezra, Chairman of the National Coal Board, at a social gathering, and said to him, entirely unknown to Laurence Daley or the Executive: ‘The figure you will have to settle at is in the region of three and a half quid’ (representing about 15 per cent). From 1 November an overtime ban was imposed, with the expectation that production would be reduced by 15 per cent. Failing a satisfactory offer from the Coal Board, a national mining strike began on 9 January 1972. Because of the stockpiles accumulated by the Coal Board, and also because so many power stations had been adapted for oil firing as well as coal firing, the strike did not bite as deep as had been hoped. Gormley supplies the interesting detail that it was Ray Buckton who took the initiative in suggesting that ASLEF might be enlisted in preventing the abnormally high supplies of oil flowing out of Thames Haven towards the power stations. The success of what came to be called ‘secondary picketing’ (including the famous events at Cadeby, where miner Fred Mathews was fatally crushed by an articulated lorry, and at Saltley) forced the Government first to declare a state of emergency and then to appoint the Wilberforce Inquiry: almost all along the line the Inquiry came down in favour of the miners.
Still more colourful are the events of 1973-74 when renewed confrontation between the miners and the Heath government ended in the resignation of the latter. On the major issue Gormley is very insistent: ‘I want to lay to rest forever the ghost of the belief that it was the miners who brought down Edward Heath.’ All one-sentence formulations of historical events are inaccurate, even when encapsulating an essential truth. So it is with Gormley’s ‘It was not the miners, but Ted Heath who brought himself down.’ The crisis came because a new assertive phase in the miners’ history, with a confident leadership determined to more than compensate for the setbacks of the Sixties, coincided with a government set in its belief that the accelerating inflationary trend could only be contained if strict wage limitations were imposed. Ted Heath fell because he failed to recognise that he could not impose his policy against the determination of the miners: thus it is true both that the miners brought him down and that he brought himself down. The Wilberforce wage settlement ran till the end of February 1973, by which time there was a legal limit upon all wage increases of one pound plus 4 per cent. The miners’ leaders were after considerably more than this. On 12 November came the overtime ban; on 1 January 1974, the three-day week; on 9 February the all-out miners’ strike; and at the end of February the election which Heath called and lost.
The important particular point insisted on by Gormley (very warm in his references to Heath, who, he says, was ‘badly advised’) is that Harold Wilson was to blame for the all-out strike. At that time of strict statutory pay limitations, the dodge was to find special reasons (such as the notorious ‘unsocial hours’) which could lead to more money being paid without there being a formal breach of the pay code. At a meeting with Willy Whitelaw (then Employment Secretary) Gormley made the suggestion of extra money for ‘waiting and bathing time’. Gormley’s view is that Whitelaw’s attitude showed that the Government would have welcomed this means of giving the miners more money and thus averting the strike. Unfortunately, he mentioned the idea the next day to Harold Wilson, Leader of the Opposition. Wilson’s reaction, according to Gormley, was: ‘Well, of course, Joe, you do realise you’re pulling the Tory Government’s irons out of the fire for them?’ The next afternoon in the House of Commons Wilson presented the idea as his own, thus, as Gormley sees it, effectively closing the Government’s escape route and precipitating the strike.
What had been possible the night before was now quite impossible, and I will never forgive Harold Wilson for it. It was completely despicable, because he knew it would inevitably set the miners on another collision course with the Government. If Harold and company wanted an election, they should have forced it another way, by parliamentary methods, rather than using the Union. It was wrong to use us just as much as it was wrong for the Tories to argue that we were acting politically, when the truth was that it was the politicians who were acting politically.
The third major crisis in which Joe Gormley was involved was summed up in a Times headline of February 1980: ‘Miners v. Tories: the supreme test that faces Mrs Thatcher’. After weeks of argument Gormley wrung from the Government practically all the concessions he was demanding: more money for the industry, a ca’ canny policy on pit closures. The Daily Express tried to blame the outflanking of the Government on a secret meeting held between Gormley and Jim Prior. Prior issued a furious denial, but Gormley now reveals that three weeks earlier than the time alleged by the Express, he had indeed had a brief private meeting with Prior. Probably it did not matter much anyway – the logic of both power and argument was with the miners. Most recently there has been the case of Gormley’s article in the Express putting the arguments against a national strike, despite the Executive’s decision in favour of one. (Gormley makes something of a point that it is inaccurate to call this a unanimous decision – knowing that the decision would go against him anyway, he preferred not to call a vote at all!) The Express approached him on Tuesday, 12 January.
It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make. I had always believed in the integrity of NEC decisions, and I had always seen my job as representing these decisions to the best of my ability, regardless of whether I agreed with them or not. On the other hand, certain members of the Executive had always, during my term of office, argued that they had the right, within their own Areas, to oppose Executive decisions with which they didn’t agree.
What’s more, I felt hamstrung by the Executive. There I was, the President, elected by the whole membership – not just a few – and apparently unable to put my point of view to the members. So I decided to go ahead and do it, believing that the members, almost by default, were being denied an opportunity to think the matter out. I might, I thought, perhaps be able to steady the vote a little bit.
A pity, perhaps, that it had to be the Express: but then an awful lot of miners read it.
It may be that much confusion would be avoided in British political discourse if we had a popular analogue of the French word travaillisme. Gormley’s ‘socialism’, he says, was always ‘a gut belief’; it had nothing to do with books, or intellectual arguments; but he finds it natural to accept totally the principle, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ ‘I have fought all my life for the time when my members, and people as a whole, are not worse off when they retire, or when they are sick, or when they are disabled, or when they are, through no fault of their own, unemployed. That is what democratic socialism, to me, should be about.’ What words of wisdom, if any, has this socialist to offer on contemporary problems? On energy policy, a great deal. A National Energy Policy, with heavy investment, for example, in the extraction of oil and synthetic gas from coal, is long overdue: it is ‘extravagant and stupid to allow the normal market forces, and the tricks of the men in advertising, to play about with such an important national commodity as Energy’. Although ‘the miner goes to work every day of his life under the threat of annihilation,’ Gormley believes that coalmining, much in its present form, will have to continue for at least three decades. Miners are proud of their arduous and dangerous calling: ‘Why put us on the dole queue when we are capable of producing good coal?’
Gormley traces the present decline in the fortunes of the Labour Party firmly back to Jack Jones and the switch of the big trade-union battalions from their former allegiance to the Centre-Right to support for the Left in the Party. He believes firmly in a separation between the industrial and the political activities of the Labour movement: that is why he would prefer to see the centre of gravity in the selection of party leader resting in the Parliamentary Party. Believing that Conservatives and Labour will retain the bulk of their traditional support in a future election, he regards the SDP simply as a sapper of the Labour vote. He does not consider that the succession to the Presidency of Arthur Scargill portends any great movement to the left on the part of the mineworkers. He comments upon the dominance of middle and upper-class elements in the higher ranks of the Labour Party. Gormley himself blames fate for his involvement in union rather than Parliamentary affairs. Narrowly conventional, distressingly authoritarian and distinctly naive though Joe Gormley undoubtedly is in many of his attitudes, he has genuinely, as he would put it, experienced the working-class experience, and he has shown true qualities of leadership. He is another of those lost leaders whose absence sees the Labour Party in its current sorry state.