Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

100 Years on: The Miners’ Next Step

Peace News' Ian Sinclair examines the publication of a ground-breaking pamphlet on its 100th anniversary

June 4, 2012
6 min read

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’.

Electing Managers

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!

Peace News is the newspaper for the UK grassroots peace and justice movement. For more information please visit www.peacenews.info.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths