In 1984 the UK’s National Union of Mineworkers began a nation-wide strike in protest at planned coal mine closures around the country. The Thatcher government responded with measures that were not only tough but frequently brutal and often illegal. The dispute polarised the opinion of the general public as well as the LGBT community.
Organised LGBT support for the miners began with a collection at the Gay Pride March in London in June 1984. Shortly thereafter, a meeting of gays and lesbians was organised at the University of London Union, with a speaker from the South Wales National Union of Mineworkers.This led to the formation of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM).
Membership was broad-reaching; some members came from specific political groups such as the Communist Party, the International Marxist Group (IMG), the Labour Party and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Others – myself included – were aligned to none of those but simply supported the miners cause (and, more generally, opposed the barbarism of the Thatcher regime).
Somewhat miraculously, given the history of Left political groups, this broad coalition worked together. No one sought to hog the limelight nor were events ‘claimed’ by one particular group or another.
In September 1984 a second LGSM group was established, this time in Lothian in Scotland. Then Lesbians Against Pit Closures was set up in London, partly as a reaction against the male-dominated LGSM. By January 1985 there were eleven LGSM groups around the country.
My own involvement began while I was still living in Nottingham, working as a volunteer typist in the local strike headquarters. (I’d heard that the strikers were looking for a typist. They’d asked the local Women’s Support Group, presumably on the assumption that this was a female role. They were a bit shocked when I turned up – so much so that there was some detailed interrogation to confirm that I was indeed there for the typist role. Even then it took a couple of days for them to get over their embarrassment and actually give me some typing work to do!)
Nottinghamshire mineworkers had traditionally been more conservative than those elsewhere; a trait going back as far as the General Strike in 1926. In consequence, a lot of them continued to work through the strike. And that set the scene for the county to become a battleground between working miners and striking miners, striking miners and police.
Striking miners were bussed in from around the country to support those local miners who were on strike. They were billeted at the homes of supporters across the area, with many staying in Nottingham itself then being shipped out to the various local picket lines.
With each passing day, Nottinghamshire took on more and more characteristics of a police state. Police roadblocks were set up on roads in the vicinity of local coal mines. Vehicles were stopped, occupants questioned as to their destinations, vehicles were searched, paperwork of all descriptions – from newspapers to leaflets – examined and confiscated, and occupants were even questioned about which political party they voted for. On one occasion a friend of mine was ordered to open the boot of her Mini car (about three feet wide and nine inches deep) on the grounds that she might be concealing pickets in there!
This was all entirely illegal but such activity was par for the course by then. Margaret Thatcher had made it clear that political opposition was to be put down at any cost: she had even labelled the striking miners “the enemy within”.
Nonetheless the strike rolled into it’s second year, sustained by immense levels of public support (regardless of what the tabloids wanted people to believe). The gutter Press, unsurprisingly, took its usual hysterical approach. Leading the charge, as always, was Rupert Murdoch’s rag The Sun, which summarised the alliance of miners and the LGBT community as “Pits and Perverts”!
In response, LGSM simply appropriated the slogan for a benefit at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. Headlined by Bronski Beat, the Pits and Perverts gig raised £5,650 for the mining community in Dulais, South Wales.
I arrived in London shortly thereafter and began attending London LGSM meetings at a pub called the Fallen Angel in Islington. Occasionally we joined picket lines at London power stations in an attempt to stop the delivery of highly dangerous aviation fuel that was being used in the absence of coal. But the greater majority of my activity was rattling a collection bucket on the pavement outside Gays the Word bookshop in Bloomsbury.
We played a cat and mouse game with the police. The bookshop manager was quite insistent that we had the right to stand on the footpath. The police, of course, weren’t really interested in the niceties of the law. To them we were simply a bunch of perverts collecting money for a bunch of dangerous subversives. Therefore any form of intervention was justified – legal or otherwise.
They’d threaten to arrest us and we’d all step inside the shop and wait till they left. Then we’d return to our spot and our activities until the next visit. And so it went for the remainder of the strike.
Of course it wasn’t just the police who abused us – we got that from our own ‘community’ as well. I can’t remember getting any stick from lesbians but I certainly remembered a few queens who either felt we were being naive in supporting working class homophobes or who simply looked down on working class people in general.
I never got to visit any of the communities we supported – although having come from a mining village myself, I didn’t feel that to be any great loss. I do know that on at least one visit romance blossomed between a member of our delegation and one of the miners. Needless to say this resulted in endless jokes about ‘having sex with miners’.
The reason LGSM supported specific communities was because the Thatcher government had sequestered the funds of the National Union of Mineworkers. This meant that any funds donated directly to the NUM would simply be inaccessible. In consequence, support groups – LGBT or otherwise – were encouraged to ‘adopt’ specific communities and work directly with them.
By the end of the strike LGSM had raised more than £20,000 through a range of activities including collections, jumble sales and benefit gigs. As well as the gig at the Electric Ballroom in London, another LGSM benefit was held at the Hacienda in Manchester (see below).
Sadly, the strike ended without victory for the miners – I remember a particularly depressing LGSM meeting on the day the strike was called off. However, the links that were forged between the two communities were well established by that time. As South Wales miner David Donovan had said at the Pits and Perverts gig:
“You have worn our badge, “Coal not Dole”, and you know what harassment means, as we do.
Now we will pin your badge on us, we will support you. It won’t change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems. We know about blacks, and gays, and nuclear disarmament. And we will never be the same.”
I don’t think anyone realised just how strong and significant that support was to be. In my next post I will detail how it played out.