Issues & Ideas | 4th November 2014

Neoliberalism won when the miners’ strike of 1984-85 failed

“People talk about the war, the feeling of the country at wartime, and everybody’s… […]

Photo: Getty

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“People talk about the war, the feeling of the country at wartime, and everybody’s… and that’s very much what it was like in a microcosm.”

“The atmosphere… if you see any of the photos… ah, it was just awesome.” “We’d moved from a defensive position where we were being attacked by Coal Board, to an offensive position.”

So say three former miners in one of the more optimistic moments of Still The Enemy Within, a stylish, sincere and eye-opening documentary on the 1984-1985 miner’s strike.

For those born after the strike, the film offers a window into another time, when unions were the foundation of many communities, rather than just an uncomfortable millstone around the neck of every Labour leader since Tony Blair.

The story is told through a web of contemporary interviews, documentary footage and scene-setting re-enactments. It starts engagingly if slowly, as you are gradually introduced to the half a dozen or so miners who will tell the narrative. The filmmakers don’t rush the story or paint in too broad a brush – they let the miners capture the small moments that made the strike:

Released to mark the 30-year anniversary of the strike, it could have been timed for the forthcoming general election. The rise of Ukip is a story of industrial decline, as our profiles of Thurrock, Great Grimsby, Heywood & Middleton and Rochester & Strood have detailed.  The film is a reminder of the way British industry collapsed in the past few decades, or at least morphed into something very different.

The film is not overtly political, although you are left wondering whether any party or leader still represents the men – and women – in the film. You sense that the families are all Labour, but, as Owen Jones suggested after the screening and has in print since, there is no longer any party, by which he meant Labour, making the case for unions.

Labour was “founded to give working people a voice”, and long “sustained by a trade union movement”. Now Ukip has come “600 votes away from taking a working-class Labour seat”.

By allowing national industries to fail, Labour became indistinguishable from the Conservatives.

How did that happen? This film captures the moment when Labour’s working-class foundation was crippled. The producers purposefully ignore the party, with only a parting shot of Kinnock suggesting there was a Labour party in 1984, choosing to focus on the miners’ story rather than the political consequences, but one can still find the start of an explanation in the story.

By accepting a neo-liberalism that allowed national industries to fail, Labour became indistinguishable from the Conservatives. Winning back the interest and support of their working class base will take more than well-intentioned, but highly abstract and underdeveloped, plans to reform political economy.

Still The Enemy Within was directed by Owen Gower, produced by Sinead Kirwan and Mark Lacey, and made in association with Dartmouth Films.