An example to us all

Published in The New Statesman 13 September 2004

Observations on leadership

While researching my biography of Arthur Horner, the communist general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) after the Second World War, I was allowed access to his MI5 files before their release to the national archives in Kew. They had rich secrets to reveal. Even though Horner remained a communist through to his retirement in 1959, MI5 resisted all suggestions that he was keen on or even complicit in inciting strikes.

In writing about Horner's political career and thought, it has been impossible not to think about the other two Arthurs who were miners' leaders: Arthur Cook during the 1926 general strike and lockout, and Arthur Scargill, who was NUM president during the 1984-85 dispute. Horner was a young man at Cook's side in 1926. He was also the leading communist who organised an effective caucus of leftwingers in the Miners' Federation (as the union was then called). He fired up every delegate conference during that long summer, autumn and winter with the confidence to carry on with the strategy of total war, inflicting maximum damage on the coal owners, despite the increasing numbers of miners going back to work.

In the early 1930s, during ten months in jail for incitement to riot, Horner seriously rethought his ideas about class struggle. Having chanced upon Clausewitz's The Art of War while prison librarian, he concluded that the total war strategy he had advocated in 1926 was incorrect. His later success as a miners' leader was due, in large part, to his creative application of Clausewitz's military principles to industrial conflict. He never led a dispute without having an attainable goal and then applying maximum force at a crucial point to achieve this object. Crucially, he also took care to avoid strikes until and unless he calculated that negotiation had failed and that industrial battle would yield positive results.

Horner provided the principal leadership for the miners during World War II. In close co-operation with Sam Watson of Durham, he worked closely with Ernest Bevin, Hugh Dalton and civil servants to enable the miners to recover lost ground in wages and conditions in return for their active participation in the production drive. As NUM general secretary, he was the architect of the industrial relations system of the National Coal Board. Having closely observed trade unions in the Soviet Union, he took great care to ensure that the NUM retained its independence in relation to the newly nationalised industry. But he also committed the union to a social partnership arrangement of co-operation and consultation.

By virtue of his position at the head of 700,000 miners, Horner should have served on the TUC General Council. But cold-war politics excluded him. As a result, the movement was deprived of the most capable strategist and creative intellect in the postwar cohort of union leaders. The right-wing leaders in the NUM and on the General Council perpetuated the myth that free, voluntary collective bargaining was beneficial to the trade union movement. It was an easy way to counter left-wing arguments that the TUC was class collaborationist. In doing so, they made the fatal mistake of ignoring the state's critical role in preserving the balance between the interests of employers and employees.

Ultimately, this myth was disproved by the conduct of the 1984-85 miners' strike. Under Scargill's guidance, the NUM rejected a possible compromise settlement to their dispute, brokered by the heirs of Horner's social partnership in the coal board management. Had they accepted it, the many Heathites in the Conservative Party would have supported it, and Thatcher's union-busting intentions could have been outflanked. The General Council should have threatened to withdraw their support for Scargill, but it declined to distance the wider trade union movement from the strategy of total war upon which the miners embarked. Both Scargill and the TUC leadership refused to learn Horner's lesson.

Before then, during the London bus strike in 1958, the General Council did remember this lesson. The transport workers' leader, Frank Cousins, wanted the TUC to threaten wide sympathy action, even including a general strike, to support the principles of free voluntary collective bargaining for which he believed the London busmen were striking. When the General Council refused, Cousins speedily retreated. He was unwilling to disturb the TUC's unchallenged position of strength in relation to the Conservative government and the postwar consensus in which unions played so large a part. He understood that the state was critical in maintaining the balance between unions and employers.

Cousins was a tremendous admirer of Horner. Yet it remained for his successor Jack Jones to follow Horner's example in his attempts, along with the TUC leader Len Murray, to build a durable framework of social partnership between unions, government and employers.

Trade unionists today should likewise follow Horner's example by making the most of opportunities that may redress the imbalance between employers and employees. For example, the European Union's Information and Consultation Directive, which the government will enact in British law over the coming year, could restore a measure of democratic consultation to workplace life. I often feel the ghost of Horner hovering behind me at the keyboard. Delegates at the TUC conference should feel the same inspiration and act accordingly to stand up for democracy at work.

Nina Fishman is professor of industrial and labour history at the University of Westminster. Her book Arthur Horner: a political biography will be published by Lawrence & Wishart early next year