Public outrage shakes the Tories

Issue 

By Frank Noakes

CHESTERFIELD, Derbyshire —"The campaign for peace and justice begins here tonight", left-wing Labour Party MP Tony Benn told a crowd of 10,000 protesters in the market square on the cold Saturday night of October 17.

At the rally, called in opposition to the Tory government's planned slaughter of two-thirds of the coal industry, miners, their families and supporters listened to a platform including a Conservative Party MP, the local vicar, the Salvation Army, the mayor and Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers. All denounced the government. Earlier in the day, more than 20,000 signatures opposing the pit closures were collected in the small regional town.

The scale of the closures shocked and outraged public opinion. On Sunday, 3000 people marched in the Tory heartland of Cheltenham, the blue rinse set marching alongside the Socialist Workers Party and churchgoers.

Britain's notorious tabloid press joined the "quality" media in lambasting Michael Heseltine, the minister responsible (irresponsible according to majority opinion), and Prime Minister John Major. The pro-Tory Sun newspaper ran a front cover: "This is how much Heseltine understands the suffering he is about to cause" — the rest of the page was blank. The Daily Mirror blazoned across its front page: "March for the Miners", urging people to join the 50,000 strong march and rally, held on October 21 and organised by the NUM. The Mirror has consistently campaigned against the NUM over the years.

Behind the closures is the desire to fatally wound the NUM and at the same time prepare British Coal for privatisation.

Enough Tory backbench MPs had pledged publicly to cross the floor of parliament to defeat the government's enabling legislation. By Monday, October 19, the government acknowledged its crisis in a climb down that offered 21 of the pits a temporary stay of execution.

The next day, Major was forced to further concede a thorough review of the government's energy policy. Earlier, on October 16, the government did a U-turn on interest rates, reducing them by 1% in a bid to buy off Tory dissidents.

Roy Lynk, leader of the Union of Democratic Miners (formed in opposition to the miners' strike of 1984-5 and supportive of the government), retreated to the bottom of a mine in a one-person protest. Others claimed his action resulted from his desire to bers. He later confirmed his intention of standing down as president, "to jump before I'm pushed". Complaining of "the obvious contempt the government and British Coal have got for moderate trade union leaders", Lynk even said he would return his Order of the British Empire.

The Trade Union Congress organised a long overdue rally for jobs, the only significant action undertaken by the usually servile TUC leadership for many years.

Even the Labour Party began to sound more like an opposition. At last it had a chance to disagree with the government and tap into public sentiment. Labour leader John Smith failed to seriously harm Major, but there were some spirited attacks on the government that clearly found their mark.

The context of the outrage over the coal plan is a country sliding into depression. Every night the TV news runs like a catalogue of job losses, business bankruptcies and mortgage repossessions. Manufacturing industry is being obliterated, and construction is almost at a standstill.

Unemployment is officially 3 million, unofficially 4.5 million and accelerating. Those brave enough to predict an end to the recession are cautiously saying 1995. A recent study claims that at the end of the early '80s recession, it took a further four years for unemployment to peak. On those figures unemployment, currently increasing at 8000 per week, could continue to rise to the year 1999.

The perception has been that the Tories are sitting on their hands as the economic crisis worsens; and here perception and reality meet.

Major, claiming to have heard public opinion on jobs and the economy, pledged that the government would put "recovery first". This contrasts with his previously stated aim of achieving zero inflation. Inflation of 1-4% is now the target.

The Tories believed that the ideological battle had been won; the market and its operations were beyond question. It was enough to invoke the market, Michael Heseltine thought, for his political misjudgment to dissolve harmlessly. Until recently he had every right to believe so. On economic issues, the Labour Party has been the Tories' identical twin — Major saying recently in parliament that, on matters economic, the House of Commons had become an echo chamber. As for the Liberal Democrats, they campaigned in the general elections as the original party of free

enterprise.

But the market was already being questioned in the wake of what has become known as Black Wednesday, September 16, when the government threw a billion pounds at the stock market in an unsuccessful attempt to shore up the pound. Millions of television viewers witnessed, with disgust, young men in red braces in their trading rooms gleefully making small fortunes at taxpayers' expense.

Now, commentators are increasingly citing Japan and Germany as examples of interventionist governments and talking up a mixed economy.

These cracks in the "free market" edifice should not be exaggerated. The Tories are not going to fall over this issue, although some ministers may get moved sideways. And, although the TUC did more than shrug its shoulders for once, it is still a long way from flexing its muscles.

But Benn was right. The campaign to save miners' jobs represents a break in the political situation. After 13 years of Thatcherism, the union movement is certainly cowed, but not defeated. Ordinary people are questioning the infallibility of the market and the government has been forced to make an embarrassing concession to popular pressure.

The fight for the future of the mining industry, with popular support, could ultimately break the Tories as the miners did in 1974.