One hundred years ago, a group of miners from South Wales published a radical economic and political pamphlet which ‘received a blaze of publication’ in The Times and other national newspapers. It was the topic of a special house of commons debate and ‘became a household word’ in the coalfields of Britain, according to miners’ historian R Page Arnot.
As the pre-First World War British elite trembled in the face of widespread labour unrest, the struggle for women’s suffrage and the Irish independence movement, HG Wells warned in the Daily Mail that the country was ‘in a dangerous state of social disturbance… the opening phase of a real and irreparable class war.’
The conflict was especially intense in South Wales, where over 30,000 miners had taken part in the unsuccessful 1910-11 Cambrian Combine Strike.
There were riots in the town of Tonypandy. Then home secretary Winston Churchill deployed troops to quell the uprising.
Frustrated by the moderate conciliation policies (for some, the class collaboration) of the union leadership, a group of miners set up the Unofficial Reform Committee.
Made up of radical unionists such as AJ Cook and WH Mainwaring, and the fearsome Marxist agitator and orator Noah Ablett, after lengthy consultations and drafts the committee published The Miners’ Next Step in Tonypandy in 1912.
A wide-ranging document, the manifesto’s immediate demands were for a minimum wage and a seven-hour working day. It also pushed for the union organisation to be restructured into one national union directly controlled by its members to make strikes more efficient and effective.
Politically, the pamphlet was strongly influenced by the then-fashionable militancy of syndicalism, calling for ‘open hostility’ to be installed between employers and miners. The pamphlet ‘positively yearned for strike action’, notes Paul Foot in his 2005 book The Vote.
Progressives today will likely be drawn to the section headed ‘Are leaders good or necessary?’ Pre-dating the debate between Jo Freeman and Cathy Levine in ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ and ‘The Tyranny of Tyranny’ by more than five decades, a central concern of The Miner’s Next Step was the concentration of power in a small union leadership.
‘All leaders become corrupt, in spite of their own good intentions’, it baldly stated. How? ‘They… become “gentlemen”, they become MPs and have considerable social prestige because of this power.’
As any increase in the power of the rank and file ‘lessens the power and prestige… the leader then has an interest – a vested interest – in stopping progress.’
For the authors, ‘the order and system’ a leader strives to maintain ‘is based on the suppression of the men, from being independent thinkers into being “the men” or “the mob”.’
Hilary Wainwright, co-editor of Red Pepper, has a strong interest in this section of the document.
‘What struck me when I first read The Miner’s Next Step was the stress on trade union members as independent thinkers rather than “the masses” or “the rank and file”. This understanding of collectivity as relationships between individuals as creative social subjects underpinned their concept of solidarity’, she explains. ‘“Sheep cannot be said to have solidarity”, they said. Solidarity is about “unity and loyalty… to an interest and a policy which is understood and worked by all.” Surely an idea as relevant now as it was then.’
The pamphlet opposed the nationalisation of the mines because the authors believed the government would still run the industry ‘in such a way as… to extract as much profit as possible’.
In contrast, the authors proposed the introduction of industrial democracy through workers’ control of the mines.
Employers were to be ‘eliminated’ and managers elected. ‘On that vote will depend in a large measure your safety of life and limb, of your freedom from oppression by petty bosses, and would give you an intelligent interest in, and control over your conditions of work’, it explained. ‘Any other form of democracy is a delusion and a snare.’
Looking back today, The Miner’s Next Step can be seen as the high-water mark of industrial radicalism in South Wales and beyond. In 1913, the attempted radical reorganisation of the union structure in South Wales was rejected in a ballot. More widely, Labour MPs in parliament were hostile to the syndicalist ideas contained in the pamphlet. Nationalisation – not workers’ ownership and control – became the policy of the national miners’ union in 1912, and became government policy in 1947.
Dr Alan Tuckman, senior lecturer in human resources management at Nottingham business school, notes that ‘while not always the most exciting read’, The Miner’s Next Step ‘is of far more than just historical interest.’ He believes ‘the authors present arguments which have direct lessons for the contemporary labour movement where many now argue their only salvation will be in militant defence of workers’ interests, as well as linking with others resisting government cuts, such as the Occupy movement.’
Firstly, Tuckman argues, the document challenges the idea ‘there is no alternative’ because it ‘clearly spells out the basis of an alternative society run democratically through direct participation.’ Secondly, he notes, ‘it is a model of how to articulate this alternative on the basis of real issues impacting on people in the real economy rather than from some abstract ideal.’
Although largely unsuccessful in the short-term, the Diggers, Ranters and Levellers in the 1640s and the Chartists in the nineteenth-century are exciting examples of radical revolt in British history which continue to inspire today. The Miner’s Next Step deserves to join these agitators and revolutionaries as a beacon of radicalism for contemporary social movements. But to do so, firstly it needs to be remembered.
And, most importantly, it must be read!