Book review: Making Cultures of Solidarity: London and the 1984–5 Miners’ Strike

reviewed by Jay Emery

27 Oct 2021, 4:56 p.m.
Jay Emery

Making Cultures of Solidarity book cover

Book review: Making Cultures of Solidarity: London and the 1984–5 Miners’ Strike

by Diarmaid Kelliher and reviewed by Jay Emery 

Abingdon: Routledge, 2021; 250 pp.: 978-0-367-35520-3, £50.00 (hbk)


Just when the rich historical seams of the 1984–85 Miners’ Strike looked to be nearing exhaustion, Diarmaid Kelliher delivers a book hewn from sources beyond the British coalfields, in the streets, cultures and organising spaces of London. The fractious 1984–85 Miners’ Strike left scars in coalfield communities that have not fully healed and precipitated widespread closures of collieries on which mining communities depended. As Making Cultures of Solidarity artfully shows, the strike also has broader meanings and mythologisations bound up with national and global economic and political processes. In this context, Kelliher’s research examining the solidarity relationships between London and the coalfields ‘pushes against the assumptions built into many accounts of this history and offers important insights more broadly into the labour movement and left in this period’ (p. 199). Overall, extensive and meticulous archival and Oral History research is weaved into a detailed, qualified and often empowering story of translocal and intersectional class solidarity and schism.

As the opening chapter highlights, emergent historically-attentive research on the decomposition of class politics from the 1970s emphasises approaches that recognise the intersections of race, gender and sexuality within both the working-class and labour movement. Making Cultures of Solidarity advances this project empirically and conceptually by articulating how cultures of solidarity in relations between London and the British coalfields was produced and stymied. Explored in chapter one, conceptualisation of solidarity is often taken for granted. With reference to London and the coalfields, Kelliher notes four adjacent concepts helpful to understanding how solidarity is produced and sustained: translocalism; intersectionality; mutuality and temporality. Departing from these orientations, the book examines the antecedence, generation and formations of solidarity over seven expansive empirical and analytical chapters. Though a few key voices are perhaps over centred, all the chapters are of great value and worthy of discussion for Urban Studies scholars.

Chapter two traces the formation of solidarity between London and the coalfields that emerged from the 1960s. The more condescending elements of the mythology surrounding solidarity movements and the 1984–85 Miners’ Strike push a narrative of progressive metropolitan interest groups finding common cause with a social conservatism located in isolated mining areas. What Kelliher documents is a dialectical solidarity and reciprocity evidenced by translocal connections predating the strike, reframing the ‘relationship between London and the coalfields as a more equal one of mutual solidarity’ (p. 21). Spaces of the labour movement were crucial in the generation of this mutual solidarity. Kelliher documents many illustrative examples, for instance, the picketlines at Grunwick in 1976–78 where miners came to support a largely female and South Asian workforce. Also crucial to sustaining these relationships were processes of commemoration and celebration. Again, Kelliher draws on multiple examples where ‘activists sought to challenge exclusions – of race, gender, and sexuality in particular – within labour organising’ (p. 38). Though these stories are not regularly recognised, such intersectional cultures of solidarity within and between activist and trade unionist organising in London are hardly surprising. London was itself an industrial (and deindustrialised) city often elided in contemporary political and cultural representations of the metropolis.

Significant to urban scholars, chapter three details London’s urban histories of trade unionism and deindustrialisation through the docks, power stations, car plants, printworks and NHS workers of the 1970s and 1980s. Foregrounding London’s contemporary geographies of urban inequality, the chapter emphasises how the ‘sense of a shared threat, both in terms of job losses but also in the deeper transformation of work and community, could create powerful connections between London and coalfield areas’ (p. 48). Stressing the translocal interdependencies of industrial Britain, shared threats were sharpened by industries located in London relying on coalfired energy. Class and labour solidarities across places became harder to cultivate when these dependencies began to weaken through energy transitions and deindustrialisation. However, the multiple forms that translocal solidarity took were not all fractured by 1984.

Focussed on the spatiality of translocal solidarity, chapter four ‘highlights how strike activists relied upon, and developed, networks of support that directly connected people from distant places’ (p. 72). As Kelliher (p. 72) notes, ‘London had its own material infrastructures that enabled solidarity to be organised’. The spaces in which support for the strike was organised and mobilised were not always harmonious. Often, bookshops, rallies, labour and trade union offices and the streets were ‘networked spaces’ where politics of race, gender and sexuality were contested between groups in solidarity with striking miners but in tension on more intersectional issues of social liberation. In tangible ways, mutual support for the strike opened up space for dialogue and alignment on progressive causes, in part leading to the suppression of such organisational and solidaristic spaces by an antagonistic state.

Chapter five delves further into intersectional forms of solidarity, providing a ‘more granular analysis of how shifting understandings of the intersections of race and class developed through solidarity relationships’ (p. 103). Of particular import, the analysis effectively challenges assumptions surrounding racial dynamics of social justice campaigns by examining the activism of Black Londoners during the strike that ‘highlighted concrete ways in which alliances could be forged and commonalities articulated’ (p. 113). Again, Kelliher treats the subject attentively, qualifying claims by highlighting the fractious internal racial politics of trade unions.

Chapter six applies this careful approach to the relationship between the London-based Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) and a South Wales mining community, describing the ‘diverse networks and spaces in which solidarity was embedded and the nature of the new connections forged’ (p. 122). For Kelliher (p. 122), ‘the experience of LGSM emphasises the space opened up by the miners’ strike for forging new solidarities, but also the potential tensions’ arising from the emergence of new social movements. The chapter includes an insightful historical discussion on intersections of sexuality and class through the lenses of community and geography, highlighting how places, in this case London, are inscribed for outside with sexualised denigrated meanings.

Chapter seven, ‘which focuses less closely on London’ (p. 147), nevertheless helps further nuance the experience and limits of solidarity movements attached to the Miners’ Strike by reminding us that there were conflicts within the movements and that support was not forthcoming by a majority of the public and some trade unions. However, importantly, the chapter also makes the case that the cultures of translocal and intersectional solidarity did not spring and flow spontaneously. They were consciously and purposely made by human networks in space.

This is further evidenced in chapter eight. Moving focus to the post-strike period, chapter eight moderates some of the more apocalyptic claims attached to the failure of the Miners’ Strike, as well as classed assumptions of an exclusively metropolitan London, by exploring industrial disputes in engineering, printing and among health workers. These disputes highlight ‘that workplace conflict did not simply disappear after the miners’ strike’ (p. 178). Still, the 1984–85 Miners’ Strike has remained a watershed event in labour history. On one hand, this is reflected in how it has been immortalised in cultural memory and artistic representations. On the other, such representations have helped immortalisation, and Kelliher uses the chapter to critique the ‘useable pasts’ of the strike that blur the lines of victory and failure.

Ultimately, though, the strike failed in its primary aims to save jobs and communities. Kelliher does not attempt to revise this history, instead using the more personalised conclusion to discuss lessons to be learned and the afterlives of solidarity. For these reasons of contemporary salience, Making Cultures of Solidarity should not be limited to audiences solely interested in the histories of London or the Miners’ Strike, though the book is an important addition to these literatures. The text is an engaging and thorough urban history that offers critical empirical and analytic contributions to how urbanities have been constituted by intersectional class and labour relations. The myriad examples of events, movements and groups are compellingly storied to emphasise their entanglements. Relatedly, Kelliher contributes historically-informed knowledge for renewing an urban class politics rooted in translocal and intersectional solidarities that are actively made through networks and in space. In troubled times, Making Cultures of Solidarity is restorative. It should emerge as a key text across career stages in a more historically-attentive Urban Studies that recognises the crucial roles that organised labour and its dissolution play in understanding urban social infrastructures, and how translocal and intersectional cultures of solidarity can be (re)made toward just urban futures.


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