This is our truth, tell us yours
In days gone by the General Secretary of the NUM’s Northumberland region would hold court in a pub in on the outskirts of Ashington, his slippered feet resting on a beer crate. Around him would be a coterie of men, branch officials and delegates who bore the jokes of their colleagues that their overalls were pristine with the casual arrogance of men who knew that they had achieved their positions because the membership trusted them.
The jokes of the membership about pristine overalls and branch secretaries who’d never go underground again unless the crematorium was outlawed were borne with good grace and the knowledge that the local officials had been selected for their ability to fight the management, not their skills with a pick in a tight place.
The NUM was shaped by the experiences of its members and its officials. If you started in the pit on Vesting Day in 1947 you would have been trained and worked alongside men who had experienced the General Strike, the horrors of the hungry thirties and the coalat all costs years of the second world war, when young men were conscripted to work in the pit. You’d also have lived through the great contraction of the fifties and sixties, as small pits and difficult places were abandoned for easy opencasting and longwall machine cutting. In a forty year career you might have manned the flying pickets to Saltley, and finished up facing down Thatcher’s cavalry at Orgreave. You might even have say behind the welfare desk during the strike and explained repossession to men who would never go underground again because their pit was toclose for no better reason than because the government willed it.
Back in my student days I happened to read a book by Manny Shinwell, who was MP for Easington. In it he talked explicitly about the way in which the government in the 1950s managed industrial policy to make sure that the new factories of the Durham and Northumberland coal fields were targetted at women workers; the transfer of much of Marks and Spencers clothing production abroad, away from the north east, was decades away at the time, and the coal industry paid such poor wages that traditional factory work would leave the pits under-supplied with men. So the north east got shirt factories, to make sure there were men to go down the pit.
For NUM officials, educated by men who’d been through the interwar years, a conspiratorial, hardnosed, ready for the worst way of working was the norm. When my uncles went down the pit after World War Two they didn’t need telling how hard it could be as a miner; they grew up in an impoverished household after their father was effectively banned from the pits for union activity in 1935. In a valley which only had pits they would have been paupers but for the secretive, supportive operation of the union’s benevolent fund.
If you’re following the Ian Lavery story, and you don’t know why the miners unions had secretive benevolent funds, you don’t know the whole story. The tradition of the region or the national union funding the general secretary’s house was not a perk, but a pragmatic response to the reality that officials who came off the tools, and made a nuisance of themselves, would never go underground again if management had their way. My uncles, and my dad, grew up in a house funded by the union, because the employers wouldn’t allow mygrandfather to earn an honest livng underground. On vesting day, my grandfather was turned away at the gates; he was too old, and too long out of the pit, to be allowed back in.
The institutional memory of the NUM is that their officials will always be turned away at the gate, that if they ask men to pick up the task of being their advocates and leaders, they must take responsibility for their maintenance and upkeep and insure them against the exclusions and petty punishments that are management’s usual stock in trade.
In that context the purchase of a home for the general secretary,or the funding of his mortgage, is not unusual.
It’s also completely foolish.
We are all, if we let it happen, prisoners of our past. We behave in patterns that are about history, not the present. The NUM in Northumberland has behaved exactly as it always has done, without recognizing that a changing world required different responses.
Ian Lavery, whose friends insist he is not as stupid as he sometimes appears, could not have become general secretary of the Northumberland NUM without doing business with men who, spiritually, were at home with their feet in slippers resting on a beer crate in a pub where their membership came to ask for advice and help. If he were wiser, he could have been the perestroika candidate who transformed Northumberland NUM into a community organization.Instead he made choices that were about preserving the NUM’s structures and historical practices, not its objectives and future.
Small wonder then that he looks like a rabbit in the headlights. No-one, none of his team, none of his predecessors, planned for a world in which transparency extended not just to their membership, but to anyone who wanted to make a political point. Naive, perhaps, but the NUM needs to learn another lesson from its past. NUM leaders who aspire to political office have not always prospered. Ian Lavery is not unique in that. Just as the NUM has left the industrial stage, so its methods and ways of working have also become the stuff of the past. It may be too late for the NUM and Ian Lavery, but every union needs to think about whether their practices and structures are relics of the past, or pathways to the future.