Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Partisan pasts: Left-wing approaches to recording the 1980s – Diarmaid Kelliher

by Lucy Robinson

A long time ago I looked at Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners for my Phd.  Although I included LGSM in my book Gay Men and the Left I had always felt that it was an important story of the relationship between the politics of sexuality and the history of the Miners’ strike that needed to be told.  When I read Diarmaid Kelliher’s recent article ‘Solidarity and Sexuality’ I was delighted that someone had done it so well.  I was even more delighted when Diarmaid agreed to write a contribution to the Observing the 80s blog.


Diarmaid Kelliher is studying for a PhD in Geography at the University of Glasgow. His research focuses on London support groups during the 1984-5 British miners’ strike, and he has recently published in History Workshop on London Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.


I have been reading some debates on using archives for subaltern history recently as part of my research on support groups during the 1984-5 British miners’ strike. One aspect that stands out for me is a focus on how elites dominate not just the material recorded in archives but also the creation and governance of archives themselves (I am thinking, for example, of Pandey’s essay ‘Voices from the edge’). Clearly the kind of sources available for different places and times varies widely – but it does seem to me that this idea of ‘the archive’ as an elite creation is at best only part of the story for approaching 1980s Britain. In Theatres of Memory(1996) Raphael Samuel argued for a broader understanding of the way in which history is constructed. He attacked professional historians for fetishizing archival research while ignoring its conditions of existence, insisting that history was ‘a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance, of a thousand different hands’ (p. 8). Samuel seemed particularly interested in the politically ambiguous ‘heritage’ industry – perhaps surprisingly, as the History Workshop movement in which he was so prominent is an example of what I am more interested in: a more explicitly radical, left-wing form of remembering and recording the past.


The History Workshop produced book on the miners’ strike, The Enemy Within: Pit villages and the miners’ strike of 1984-5 (1986), is a great example of this. It came out of a History Workshop conference held in February 1985 (a month before the strike ended) and – as well as analysis primarily from Samuel himself – includes letters between supporters and miners, transcripts of a speech at a union meeting, interviews, and reports from various people active during the strike. Though not simply celebratory, there is no doubt that the book’s sympathies lie with the miners. The History Workshops were, as Anna Davin and Luke Parks recently described them, ‘devoted to the  study and development of “history from below” for use as a weapon in left-wing political campaigns.’ In Histories and Memories(2006), Tony Kushner argued that the establishment of UK Black History Month in 1987 emerged from the dual context of anti-Thatcherism and ‘history from below’. While Kushner focuses on migrant histories, I think this dual context is useful for approaching aspects of history/archive-making in this decade more broadly. For example, it was also in the 1980s that the Hall-Carpenter archives were founded to document the history of gay activism and life in Britain, developing from the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. One of the largest early grants came from the Labour Party run Greater London Council (GLC), which also helped fund the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in which the archive was based for a few years. Before it was abolished, the GLC was an important example of ‘municipal socialism’ – an attempt at a broad but radical left opposition to Thatcherism. Part of this project involved supporting initiatives such as Hall-Carpenter.


More directly related to my own work, I have done research on Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) during the 1984-5 strike, a group that raised funds primarily for the Dulais area in South Wales. Some material on the group is held at the Hall-Carpenter Archives (at the LSE since the late 1980s) but the largest amount is at the Labour History Archive and Study Centre in the People’s History Museum in Manchester. This raises two related but distinct issues around ‘political’ archives. The first is the institution that hosts it – The People’s History Museum developed from the National Museum of Labour History which was founded in the mid-1970s and dedicated to labour and working-class history. The Working Class Movement Library also has some material on the group – an institution which started life as the personal collection of Communist Party members Eddie and Ruth Frow before settling in its current Salford home in 1987. These are clearly then historical institutions with a political impulse from the left which should be understood as quite different from more official bodies such as the National Archives. But LGSM also provides an example of a grassroots activist group constructing its own archive. The LGSM secretary Mike Jackson seems to have been particularly involved in keeping the minutes of their weekly meetings, correspondence, leaflets, press clippings etc. which were eventually given to the National Museum of Labour History. Among at least some of the activists there was an early recognition in the group that what they were doing was ‘historic’ and for the need to record it. After the strike this archive was organised into an exhibition to promote what they had done to support the miners: the activity of recording, preserving and promoting after the dispute was therefore part of the political activity of the group.


The miners themselves were notoriously conscious of their own history, with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) playing a role in promoting this awareness. Throughout 1984-5 there were frequent references back to the 1970s and 1926 strikes. In the 1970s Kent NUM financially supported miner-historian Malcom Pitt‘s book on the regional NUM and its role in the 1972 strike  The World on Our Backs (1979). The title page on my copy of the book reads: ‘Kent Miners’ Edition. Not for sale to the public.’ In 1979 Francis and Smith published a history of twentieth century coal mining trade unionism in South Wales, The Fed, commissioned by the area NUM. In a later edition (1998) the authors recalled the work being blamed for repeated strikes in the South Wales coalfield in the early 1980s before the national strike. This, as Francis and Smith suggest, was possibly exaggerating the effect of the book – but nevertheless the sense of tradition and history was important in the struggles of the 1980s. The preface to The Fed, attributed to the General Secretary, President and Vice-President of the South Wales NUM, summed up what they felt this historical knowledge should do: ‘We trust that this volume will assist our members in gaining a better understanding and appreciation of past sacrifices so that they, and succeeding generations, may strive more vigorously for the socialist society our forebears struggled valiantly to attain’.


There were a range of other endeavours in the period which weren’t framed in terms of ‘history’ but aimed to record non-elite lives and opinions and were clearly politically partisan. Examples can be found in alternative journalism and film-making. In terms of the miners’ strike, Tony Harcup has written about the ‘alternative press’ as an early form of citizen journalism during the dispute. He looked at the coverage of the strike found in Leeds Other Paper and highlighted a strong tendency to go to the coalfields and interview people, giving space to those ‘typically rendered “voiceless” in much of the mainstream media: that is, the “ordinary” men and women involved in the strike in the villages, on the picket lines, in the kitchens and in the support groups’ (p. 31). This echoes the typical concerns of ‘history from below’ with its emphasis on recording/uncovering the voices of  people ignored in mainstream accounts. You can see this at work in some of the material on this website. In the ephemera section there is a pamphlet called ‘For as long as it takes!’: Cowie miners in the strike, 1984-5:it’s a clearly partisan account but a large proportion of it consists of interviews with the miners and their families in Cowie during the year.


One great source for looking at Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners was the documentary they made of the group, All Out! Dancing in Dulais. A leaflet in their archive describes this being shown alongside videos made on women’s and black support for the miners. There was a whole range of grass-roots film making going on, the best known being The Miners Campaign Tapes released a few years ago on DVD by the BFI. Similarly to the alternative press, the tapes were explicitly left-wing and on the side of the (striking) miners – they emerged out of independent film workshops that developed particularly through the 1970s. The tapes were a contribution to spreading the message of the strike and raising funds, but they also helped record the voices of the ‘ordinary’ people involved (as well as Labour politicians and NUM officials).


For someone researching the history of the political left in the 1980s with a broad attachment to the ‘history from below’ tradition, then, it is clear that a similar impulse was at work in a variety of contexts at the time. This film-making, journalism, self-archiving and so on, is part of what provides us with such rich material for thinking about the 1980s – giving us access to the lives of people who otherwise may well have remained hidden. But more than this, it was done with a strong sense of this being an important form of left-wing political activism, and is therefore itself part of the story of radicalism in the period.

  1. Saturday, May 24th, 2014