Aylesham’s ‘Club Ratling’ hosted a commemoration event on May 5th to recognise the struggle nationally and locally in this former mining village. Had the strike ended in victory and the pits stayed open, there would be more of a choice of locations for this event. As things stand the Ratling was the only option. But here you find a community used to pulling together to make the best of a situation, and what a great spirit there was. Music was provided by the Snowden Colliery Brass Band and later their Male-Voice Choir. Socialists of different tendencies showed up to show respect and support. Two Socialist Workers’ Party members had a stall, letting people know about the annual Marxism Festival and selling a great 12-page special paper with some of their best articles from the 1984-5 period. I was helping out at the Red Stuff Shop stall and selling the latest Kent International Socialists’ bulletin. 47 sold altogether! The Socialist Party, TUC, and RMT also participated, but most of the people enjoying and creating the festivities were the locals themselves. The famous strike is remembered as a loss, but a loss that gave people a glimpse of what might be possible. “Although there was a great deal to celebrate,” said the first of six speakers, Terry Harrison, “this has to be a commemoration rather than a celebration”.
The speakers were: Terry Harrison, the former secretary of Bettshanger National Union of Mineworkers; Claire Hawkins, the Labour parliamentary candidate for Dover and Deal, which includes Aylesham; the Socialist Party and TUC activist Eric Segal; Kay Sutcliffe of the Aylesham Women’s Support Group; Laurence Knight, the former secretary of Snowdown NUM; and finally and most famously, Dennis Skinner MP. Philip Sutcliffe, a member of Snowdown NUM and Kay’s husband, chaired and introduced the speakers.
Eric Segal encouraged us to vote or stand for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), a project he is very optimistic about, and said that we should reject austerity. Significantly, he clarified that it should be rejected whether it’s Conservative, Liberal, or Labour austerity. He could have gone further and criticised the role of Labour’s Neil Kinnock and others around the miners’ strike, and more generally about what it really means to be part of the ‘Old Labour’ that the far-left adores so much, but I suppose it wasn’t in the spirit of the day. Segal used his platform to commemorate the past and share his memories of the strike but also to speak about important campaigns for the near future, calling for the nationalisation of the drug industry.
Kay Sutcliffe focussed on the role of the Aylesham women’s support group and how it wasn’t
just whole towns and villages that were wrecked, but individual families and relationships too. An interview with her can be found in the third issue of the Kent IS bulletin ‘Solidarity’.
Claire Hawkins’s father and grandfather were both miners. Her memory of them was of two men who both had difficulty walking and breathing. She talked about how the pit closures led directly to the village’s inability to afford to keep other facilities open: a secondary, two other community centres, and their only pub. The statue of a miner and his children ought to be the focus of the area. Instead, the buildings remain abandoned as an ugly, much more visible monument to Thatcherism.
Most of Dennis Skinner’s talk focussed on the speeches he gave around the country during the strike. He described the miners’ strike as both “agony and ecstasy”. He singled out one particular march which featured the banners of my trade unions beside the NUM, all of which he recognised. Except for one in the distance, coloured pink and purple. Skinner asked what organisation they represented and someone told him it had the words “Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners”. He wondered why they in particular would support those on strike and what being gay had to do with anything. Soon enough he realised: “They already knew what it was like to be persecuted!” Later on people joked about the archaic language he used to talk about ‘the gays’ but, honestly, it was the only part of the day that had me close to tearing up.
It seemed odd to have so much of the left represented there and have no Green Party presence. Perhaps the Greens supported the mine closures due to the environmental impact of coal mining. This is an excuse that Thatcherites still make, as if they care about climate change. But of course the problem was not solely the effective end of an industry in the UK; it was the unemployment and destruction of communities and local economies. Closing the mines to lessen the impact of global warming could maybe be justified if there was a plan to provide the miners with some other job with safer conditions. There was no possibility of this being guaranteed under Thatcher’s ideals of the free market and “every man a capitalist”.
It really was a special day. You’re in a community hall, the ‘Club Ratling’, in a village where it seems everyone is a socialist. It wasn’t a farcical affair where hundreds of lefties had to be bussed in: they were already there! Because of their lived experience, the need for an alternative to capitalism is so obvious and uncontroversial that Eric Segal could confidently close his speech with a call of “Forward to socialism!” And because of their lived experience they know who is at fault: not immigrants or queers, but the ruling class.
But it some ways it’s deeply demoralising to go to an event like this. You leave this safe space and you’re back in the world of Ukip billboards and islamophobic headlines in The Sun and suddenly, not everyone in the world is a socialist. This hit home for me why this anniversary event was crucial but also how important it is to not talk inwards and only argue with those with whom we already basically agree.