A still from Pride, the 2014 film about the Lesbians and Gays Support The Miners campaign.
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What today’s activists can learn from the Lesbians Against Pit Closures campaign

Their triumph came through recognising that although their own oppression was important, it didn’t mean they couldn’t recognise others’ struggles as well.

“I loved it. I had a very emotional response to it,” says Wendy, when I ask her about the Bafta-nominated film Pride. She’s a member of the group whose story it tells: Lesbians and Gays Support The Miners (LGSM), the London group of activists who banded together to support a Welsh mining community through the 1984 strike. From the time I’ve spent talking to its members, I gather that Wendy’s response is common. The film is close to their hearts, perhaps because the majority of events it depicts are true.

But there’s one aspect of the story it doesn’t do complete justice. It presents Lesbians Against Pit Closures (LAPC), the women-only campaign formed by some of LGSM, as little more than a punchline. “What part of this space is unsafe?” asks one incredulous character when his comrade says the lesbians need their own group. Neither Wendy or Leonie, the other LAPC activist I spoke to, are bitter about this. “In real life,” says Wendy, “when I told people about LAPC they often snorted with derision, so [the film] was accurate!”

But their role in the campaigning and activism which surrounded the miner’s strike needs recognition. As Leonie states, it “can provide a model for how effectively different people can organise as one, and how empowering it can be for women to organise on their own.” Women activists today face abuse and death threats simply for voicing our opinions: this story is one we need to hear.

LAPC came into being when a number of LGSM members decided they needed a women-only space. The society of the time dismissed their voices and casual misogyny was rampant. Even within the friendliness of LGSM they could feel talked over. Ray Goodspeed, an LGSM member, admits frankly: “The men in the meetings were generally like men in most meetings.” A space of their own was one way of getting past this.

There were practical reasons too. Some like Wendy found it difficult to be confident in as group as large as LGSM, where things could become “party-political”, while others just found it easier to organise alongside friends: Leonie got involved with LAPC partly because “they were often in the clubs, cafes and bars where I had spent time”. Their aim, whatever the reason for it, was simply to create an atmosphere where women were able to organise.

They had similar methods to LGSM: rattling buckets outside bars and clubs to raise money for the miners and putting on two women-only benefits. As one member explains in the LGSM-produced film All Out! Dancing in Dulais, they also tried to “involve other people in what we’re doing”, collecting in spots other than gay-friendly ones, and going outside supermarkets with their buckets.

Campaigning wasn’t always easy. Leonie says “outside the supermarkets we were often shouted at”, but the supportive atmosphere provided by a women-only space meant this could be dealt with and brushed off.“If you can laugh about it together, that takes some of the pain out of it,” says Wendy. “I learned to ignore people who treated LAPC with derision, which toughened me up.”

Support didn’t just come from other members. Although they organised separately, LAPC’s aim was anything but segregation: it was total solidarity with the miners. They attended pickets, and organised a day at a Kentish Town community centre for themselves and mining women, many of whom were experiencing the same battle to overcome a sexist society. LGSM too were still allies, as were people from other groups organising on their own terms - people of colour, disabled people, other women, gay men. “I met people from other groups who became life-long friends,” Wendy says. “Through them I gained strength and insight into their struggles.”

This is the key to understanding what the lesson is modern activists can learn from LAPC. It’s not simply their method of organising within a “safe space” which sets an example, although that proved a brilliant way of giving women the confidence to voice opinions and gain experience as activists. Their – and LGSM’s – triumph came through recognising that although their own oppression was important, there was no reason on earth which meant they couldn’t recognise others’ struggles alongside their own.

That mindset from groups like LAPC, LGSM and others, meant that despite the miners’ defeat, 1984 ended with new bonds forged. 1985 saw the National Union of Miners block vote at Labour conference to commit the party to gay rights legislation for the first time.

Solidarity may seem difficult to find now, with the left and indeed feminism splintering into various ways of hand-wringing, but the women are adamant about how important it is. When asked if she still supports causes other than her own, Leonie states proudly: “Solidarity with people outside of my own ‘groups’ is even more important than it was during the strike. If ever there was a time where people needed to stand up for fairness, it is now.”

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.