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!
Peace News is the newspaper for the UK grassroots peace and justice movement. For more information please visit www.peacenews.info.
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant