Lawrence Daly: Leader of the NUM who led the union through the strikes of 1972 and 1974

Lawrence Daly, the former General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, has died, aged 84. From an era which spawned great working-class orators Daly was up there among the best and his commanding presence demanded respect wherever he went. Those who disagreed with him found it easier to keep their mouths shut and their opinions to themselves. Few dared argue with him because it interrupted his intellectual verbal flow.

Like his comrade Mick McGahey, the former NUM Scottish President, listening to Daly was a compelling experience, particularly on licensed premises, where the great man preferred to grant journalists an audience. Like books and articles that can justifiably be described as "a good read", Daly was "a great listen". It was a tragedy for the man himself, and his many genuine friends in the Labour and trade union movement, that alcohol played a sad part in the autumn of his union career.

During the exciting trade union years from 1968 to 1984 his charm and wit were a cutting edge to the NUM's recognised industrial muscle. In spite of his short, bald, bullish appearance and grinding Scots accent he was attractive to women, and many found his charm irresistible, particularly when he launched into a revue of Burns' love poems.

Born on 20 October 1924 in Fife, of primary school stock, Daly was self-taught, like many of his generation, and did not enjoy school. He chose a mining career at the age of 15 and joined the Young Communist League, following closely in the footsteps of his father, James, who had been a founding member of the Communist Party in 1922. He was a classic union firebrand from the minute he scraped together his first bag of anthracite at Glencraig Colliery, and refused to bow the knee to management.

He became branch secretary at his pit at the age of 21, moving swiftly into the nerve centre of mining politics in the Scottish coalfield. He was appointed a part-time lodge official at Glencraig in 1946, became chairman of the Scottish NUM Youth Committee in 1949 and a workmens' safety inspector in 1954, a post he held until 1964. He was elected to the executive of the Scottish Area of the NUM in 1962 and it was during this spell when he honed his powers of speaking to perfection. In 1956, after the Russian invasion of Hungary, he was one of many British Communist hardliners who freed themselves from the doctrinaire shackles and threw off the yoke of what he termed "voluntary mental servitude" to the Red leadership in Moscow. With friends he formed the Fife Socialist League which won two council seats, and gained himself a respectable 5,000 votes in the parliamentary election of 1959.

He defeated a communist in 1962 to become General Secretary of the Scottish region of the NUM and, three years later, riding a militant ticket opposing pit closures, he was elected General Secretary of his national union, replacing the legendary Will Painter. The significant factor of that election was that Daly, well-known for his Communist Party background, had defeated the popular Lancashire moderate miners' leader Joe Gormley (later elected president of the NUM in 1971). Gormley was furious, because he had been regarded as an odds-on certainty for the job. Gormley had prided himself on his moderate reputation within the British coalfield, particularly his native Lancashire, but had not reckoned that Daly's opposition to pay restraint and prospective anti-union legislation had won over so many miners. In December 1968, the secret pithead ballot for NUM General Secretary declared that the 70 per cent poll had given Daly 115,531 votes to Gormley's 105,501. Gormley admitted later that he was "shattered" by the result.

Daly was delighted to take a rise out of National Coal Board (NCB) officials who criticised him. One of them clearly did not know Britain's road transport system in the north and observed: "our industry's troubles started when that bastard came down the M1 motorway." The NCB executive was unaware that, firstly, Daly did not drive and secondly, the M1 motorway did not stretch in those days beyond Leeds, never mind to Scotland.

Joe Gormley admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that "on his day Daly was a good speaker." But he added: "Lawrence Daly is not an extrovert. I think that in many ways he is more of a political dreamer than I. I'm a realist." Dreamer or not, Daly was without doubt at his best, both physically and mentally, before, during and after the national miners' strike of 1972, the first since the great strike of 1926. Daly was furious because the miners, by 1971, had fallen from near of the top of wages league table to 17th position, getting a paltry £27 a week.

Daly felt that low pay for mineworkers was an insult to their class. He told a special union conference at Congress House, London (headquarters of the TUC) on 21 October 1971: "The entire trade union movement has its eyes on the miners today. We are in the vanguard, because a whole number of other unions, large and small, are awaiting the outcome of the miners' struggle and the miners' settlement, because they know that if we cannot break through the Conservative wages policy they may be left isolated and beaten down, as the postal workers were earlier this year. So we are fighting not only for the interests of the miners and their families, we are fighting for the rest of the trade union movement, and on the basis of our struggle I believe it is possible to create a broad unity in the trade union movement that will smash Conservative economic policy and help to pave the way for the defeat of the Tory government and return a Labour government which will introduce economic policies that can receive the full support of the trade union movement."

This persuaded the union's national executive to swing to the left over pay and pit closures. Gormley remained president, but became a moderate leader of a militant union. Daly's brilliance paved the way for leftists like Arthur Scargill, who soon emerged on the national scene. Daly was chastised by Gormley for saying he wanted to bring the government down, but Gormley was forced to concede that other unions were looking to the miners for leadership in the national pay fight.

Daly organised the 1972 industrial action with efficiency and aplomb, and argued the men's case at the Wilberforce Inquiry with passion. His exchanges with lawyers representing the employers have now become leftist folklore, while Daly and his team were said to have drunk No 10 Downing Street dry while negotiating the final settlement.

Two years later there was an action replay, with the miners' national strike of 1974 bringing down Ted Heath; when the coal dust had settled Harold Wilson was installed in Downing Street for the third time. In 1971 Daly was elected to one of the NUM's coveted two seats on the national executive of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). He remained on the TUC general Council until 1981 and was awarded the Congress Gold Badge that year.

Daly did not care whom he insulted in conference halls or in the bars afterwards, but always accomplished his mission with good grace and a smile. During the Wilberforce Inquiry into the 1972 pit strike Daly took umbrage when the NCB chairman Derek Ezra pointed out that miners and their families enjoyed concessionary coal worth £2.30 a week. Daly said: "'When I made references to your £20,000-a-year salary I was by no means taking into account, either for you or other members of the Coal Board, the various perks you receive in your job."

In spite of his natural Scottish aggression and union militancy, Daly respected the law, and urged peaceful picketing. He said in a note to all NUM Area Secretaries: "Picket-line disturbances inflict upon the good name of the union and its members and we cannot afford them if we want to keep public sympathy on our side."

After a road traffic accident in which he was seriously injured and lost a relative, he became a sad and isolated figure in the trade union movement and he defied medical opinion by turning more and more to the amber liquid which he and his pal McGahey described as "communion wine." Anyone foolish enough to ask either of them what they wanted in their glass received the reply "another whisky."

By the time the Yorkshire miners' leader Arthur Scargill, a militant and former communist, arrived on the national scene in 1982, Daly had been swept into a corner by the union hierarchy, who kept him out of the limelight at home as much as possible while allowing him freedom with public speaking engagements on behalf of the union abroad.

It rapidly became clear that Scargill had no time for the old warhorse. Scargill, who became a powerful speaker himself, was never a raconteur and could not match Daly's intelligence and wit. Something had to give, and Daly was eased out with a retirement package before Scargill's showdown with Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Daly was so popular on the railway network, where many a commuter was given an involuntary lecture on trade union history, that staff at his local railway station signed a farewell greetings card.

For many months afterwards Daly continued to haunt his favourite drinking establishments near NUM headquarters in Euston, London, and continued his celebrity status as a pensioner, including summer trips to Labour Party conferences and the annual Trades Union Congress. He lived in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, and entered a nursing home.

Terry Pattinson

In the 1960s, when he was secretary of the Scottish NUM, Lawrence Daly, living in Kirkliston, was my constituent and candid friend – he was very candid indeed on political issues and Labour Party affairs, writes Tam Dalyell. And, of all the anti-Vietnam orators, Michael Foot and John Mendelson included, Daly was the most powerful. I will never forget his tour de force at the eve-of-poll rally for my candidature in West Lothian's gen election in 1970. He described Ha Tu and Cam Pha, Vietnamese hillside mining towns, bombed into the Stone Age by the Americans. He described how he addressed Vietnamese miners in a great cave, lit with hand-held torches, alongside his friend Tariq Ali. Had it not been for his car crash and consequent ill-health, I believe that the whole history of the miners strike would have been different.

Lawrence Daly, born 20 October 1924; General Secretary, National Union of Mineworkers, 1968-1984; married 1948 Renée Baxter (four sons, one daughter); died Luton 23 May 2009.

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