The Forgotten History of the UDM by Steven Daniels

Thatcher and Privatisation:
The Forgotten History of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers

By Steven Daniels (University of Liverpool)

 

With the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, much has been made of in recent press of a return to the politics of the 1970s, in which trade unions dominated the political agenda. Similarly, at the last General Election, the Labour Manifesto promised to re-nationalise major industries, such as the railways[1]; whilst actually nationalised services, such as the NHS, seemingly face neverending accusations of privatisation.[2] Corbyn’s Labour Party even openly discussed re-opening coal mines, before deciding against it.[3] When discussing trade unions, nationalisation, the perils of privatisation, or the coal industry, the name that inevitably comes up is the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

During the 1970s, the NUM was unquestionably the single most powerful trade union in the country, a force that could bring down governments, as Edward Heath discovered in 1974. Their power went unchecked until the rise of Thatcher and Thatcherism, and their crushing defeat in the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. Today they are barely a shell of their former selves, and their membership has tumbled from 920,000 to less than 100.[4]

A rival to the NUM
When exploring the history of the strike and after, a name that is often forgotten is the Union of the Democratic Mineworkers (UDM). Set up as a rival to Arthur Scargill’s NUM in the dying days of the strike, it was mostly comprised of miners from Nottinghamshire and South Derbyshire who felt that the NUM no longer represented them or their interests. Nottinghamshire miners voted against strike action, yet were still picketed mercilessly for 12 months, with violence and intimidation common.[5] The UDM was designed to restore order and democracy back into the hands of the workers, to be a union which would not be dominated by an extremist leadership.[6]

Following the strike, they represented a substantial chunk of Britain’s mining workforce (23,000 out of 88,000 by September 1987[7]), and had at least some representation in virtually every pit in the country. For many NUM supporters and Scargill loyalists, the UDM will always be a scab union, a byword for betrayal, another nail in the coffin for the coal industry and the NUM.[8] Indeed, the final deep coal mine in Britain, Kellingley, closed in December 2015 after nearly three decades of pit closures; each one declared too uneconomical to keep open, a drain on public finances that various government believe the taxpayer should and would not tolerate. [9],[10]

Yet, what often dogged them from their creation until their slow death (not too dissimilar to the one experienced by the NUM) was that they were in Thatcher’s back pocket, eager to do the bidding of the government. This was always denied by the UDM and their leadership, in particular President Roy Lynk, who was eager to maintain an image of his union being progressive and pace-setting, eager to engage with the government-owned National Coal Board (NCB, later renamed British Coal) to seek solutions, rather than resort to strike action as a first resort.

Most of all, Lynk was eager to maintain the UDM’s image as an independent trade union.

How eager was Lynk to maintain this image? So eager that, in the three meetings Lynk, the UDM, and Thatcher had between 1986 and 1989, Lynk would always request they be kept secret, lest it tarnish his reputation with his members.[11]

Close ties with Thatcher
Some 30 years later, the secret is out. Newly released files from the National Archives in London reveal that many of accusations levelled against the UDM may have been true, and that Lynk and the UDM had closer ties to the Thatcher government that previously thought. With each meeting, the UDM leadership was reassured by Thatcher that they were free to approach her at any time; and that guidance, support, and training was to be provided to them. Notes between ministers make regular reference to how the UDM was being given preferential treatment where possible.[12]

But, in particular, these new files have made three startling revelations regarding the relationship between the government, the coal industry, and the UDM.

The first regards uneconomical pits. Notes prepared by civil servants for Thatcher’s January 1988 meeting with the UDM reveal one of the many ways the government, via the NCB, gave the UDM an advantage. Handwritten notes revealed preferential treatment for the UDM, and that certain pits would have closed earlier had they been in NUM areas. That it was an UDM-controlled pit helped buy it extra time – Cadley Hill colliery, which closed two months after the meeting, is singled out as a pit which was given a stay of execution on this basis. Similarly, “some marginal pits are being given great encouragement to reach profitability”. Another civil servant was concerned about this, fearing it may give the image that the NCB had “bent over backwards” to support the UDM.[13]

The second regards rival unions. The established narrative within wider literature is that the UDM existed solely to challenge the NUM, which represented rank and file miners. However, the UDM sought to extend its influence into other areas, by attempting to lure away clerical workers and canteen workers. When it came to the NACODS union, which represented deputies who carried out underground safety work, Thatcher and the UDM both sought to remove them as a potential barrier to progress, and tried to strike a deal. In their January 1988 meeting, the UDM offered to train its members as deputies, thereby neutralising NACODS as a strike threat. The UDM asked Thatcher to relax legislation surrounding the training of deputies and, crucially, to ask that any new pits to be opened (such as the Asfordby pit which was in development at the time) were done so under a “single union” policy, presumably with no NUM members to be offered jobs, no doubt as a precursor to boost UDM membership. [14]

The third is perhaps the most explosive. Recall how the UDM was keen to promote itself as a members union, not one dominated by leadership like the NUM. Prior to 1994, the coal industry was nationalised[15], much like the NHS is today. Like most NHS staff, most coal miners favoured this arrangement, and vehemently opposed privatisation. It was probably the only matter the UDM and NUM membership agreed on. Yet, in their July 1989 meeting with Thatcher, Lynk revealed what he and senior UDM leadership truly desired. The minutes of the meeting note:

“Mr Lynk…wished to clarify the UDM’s position on coal privatisation. The Union’s public position had to be one of opposition. But privately the union leadership supported privatisation and saw it as an opportunity.[16]

That the leader of a major trade union representing a substantial portion of the workforce favoured privatising his own industry would be a major scandal today, and would have crippled the UDM as an organisation had it been revealed in 1989.

Given the major divisions that still exist in former colliery towns and areas, these revelations will likely result in one of two extremes. For some, they will provide justification for beliefs held for decades regarding the true nature of the UDM. For others, they will feel robbed and betrayed yet again, first by their industry, and now by their union. As more information from this crucial period in trade union history is revealed, more controversy, and more closure is bound to follow.

The content of this blog is based on research undertaken at the National Archives by Steven Daniels, a political historian based at the University of Liverpool. He tweets as @stevandan and is a co-organiser of the 2018 Thatcher Network conference. References to this post should cite Steven Daniels as the source of information.

Bibliography
[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4494728/Labour-manifesto-plans-return-Britain-1970s.html

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/nhs-latest-senior-doctors-hospitals-underfunding-accelerate-privatisation-agenda-conservative-a7808591.html

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-politics-34398851

[4] http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/now-down-just-100-active-10653263

[5] Letter from Roy Lynk to J. Hewitson, COAL 31/464, National Archives, London, 25 November 1985

[6] Letter from an “ardent supporter of the UDM” Barbara Spencer to Margaret Thatcher, EG 26/247, National Archives, London, 30 August 1986

[7] “Brief for Prime Minister’s Meeting with UDM 25 January”, EG 26/248, National Archives, London, 21 January 1988

[8] http://www.num.org.uk/page/History-NumHistory-The-Struggle-Goes-On

[9] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-york-north-yorkshire-35803048

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/business/ng-interactive/2015/dec/18/the-demise-of-uk-deep-coal-mining-decades-of-decline

[11] Letter from Peter Walker to Margaret Thatcher, PREM 19/2801, National Archives, London, 1 October 1986

[12] Report by David Norgrove on meeting with Margaret Thatcher and the UDM, PREM 19/2801, National Archives, London, 3 October 1986

[13] “Brief for Prime Minister’s Meeting with UDM 25 January”, EG 26/248, National Archives, London, 21 January 1988

[14] Report by Paul Grey on meeting with Margaret Thatcher and the UDM, PREM 19/2801, National Archives, London, 3 October 1986

[15] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/british-coal-drives-loss-down-to-pounds-238m-last-results-before-privatisation-highlight-the-heavy-1425902.html

[16] Report by Paul Grey on meeting with Margaret Thatcher and the UDM, PREM 19/2801, National Archives, London, 26 July 1989

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