“From Orgreave, to Hillsborough, to Grenfell, the state has facilitated & enforced a system that has actively militated against the interests of working people, at times to lethal effect.”Sam Browse
On the 18th June 1984, in the midst of the 84/85 miners’ strike, NUM pickets gathered at the Orgreave coking plant just outside Sheffield. The police – who usually attempted to keep pickets as far from collieries as possible – guided the striking miners to the “topside” field, south of the plant. The field was closed off – at one end, a police cordon six officers deep blocking access to the coking plant; at the other, a railway embankment; and the sides of the topside patrolled by dogs. The only escape was a narrow railway bridge leading to the village of Orgreave.
When the picketers had been ushered into the enclosure and after the usual routinized pushing and shoving at the cordon, the violence began. The lines opened and mounted police charged the miners. Riot police burst through, indiscriminately setting about the picketers with truncheons. Striking workers, beaten bloody, attempted to flee the field, but were chased down by further waves of mounted officers. In the aftermath of the ambush, 55 miners were charged with riot – an offence with a potential life sentence – and a further 40 with unlawful assembly.
A year later, following farcical legal proceedings in which police testimonials were proven to contain outright lies and evidence simply “disappeared”, the prosecution dropped what had become an increasingly threadbare case. Even today, however, not one officer has been charged or even faced disciplinary action for their conduct outside the coking plant. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign has demanded an end to this injustice, calling for an inquiry into what happened at the coking plant.
Diane Abbott has rightly committed the Labour Party to supporting this demand. There is a direct line running from the violence of the topside on that June day in 1984, to the crisis of living standards engulfing people today, 35 years on. It was Margaret Thatcher who laid the UK foundations of the neoliberal system that led to the 2008 financial meltdown, economic stagnation and human misery that followed. To implement that system required a break with the social democratic consensus that preceded it, and one of the main barriers to that was the organised working class. Defeating the unions became a strategic priority.
This was especially true of the NUM. After it had defeated the Heath government in the 1973-74 strike, Conservative Party strategists devised a plan – named after its chief architect, Nicholas Ridley – to ensure it would never happen again. Their explicit aim was to weaken the union by stockpiling coal and employing non-union labour, better placing it to win a subsequently staged confrontation with one of their most powerful adversaries.
As Arthur Scargill presciently said in his address to the 1984 Labour Party Conference, the fight of the miners was the fight of all working people. Orgreave was part of a wider strategy to discipline and demoralise the trade union movement and impose the Thatcherite dream of a free market non-society. The brutality meted out to the workers by police represented the sharp end of this political project – the implementation of Thatcher’s so called “property owning democracy” came at the cost of bruises, blood and broken bones, leaving wounds in mining communities that remain open to this day.
A regular refrain of journalists and politicians has been to lament the voters in former mining towns and villages “left behind” by globalisation and economic development in the rest of the UK. But the metaphor is wrong. The truth is, they were held back by the Thatcherite political settlement that dominated British politics until 2015 and Jeremy Corbyn’s triumph in the Labour leadership election.
Under this new leadership, the Labour Party’s aim is to implement an irreversible shift in wealth and power to the many from the few. From Orgreave, to Hillsborough, to Grenfell, the state has facilitated and enforced a system that has actively militated against the interests of working people, at times to lethal effect.
Labour’s support for a full inquiry into the events of Orgreave is vital not only to correct the historic injustice inflicted on miners at the coking plant, but to reshape fundamentally the state’s relationship to the people it should serve. Only a Corbyn-led Labour government is capable of delivering this shift in power – a transformation all the more necessary if we are to entrench permanently our radical, socialist agenda for government.
Sam Browse is a member of Sheffield Central Labour Party and a campaigner with The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.