Pits, perks, and the end of Scargill?

Firebrand former miners' leader is fighting to stay in his own union
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The Independent Online

In a field in Kingsnorth, Kent, a group of eco-warriors gathered in a semi-circle around the squat figure of Arthur Scargill. It was Climate Camp in 2008 and Scargill was there, of course, to extol the virtues of coal power.

It was a message his audience of students and environmentalists, there to campaign against the opening of a coal-fired power station, did not particularly want to hear.

His hair was thinner, his cheeks fatter and, given that the crowd numbered a handful as opposed to the thousands he was used to addressing, the megaphone was no longer necessary. But Scargill's willingness to plant his flag in hostile territory showed he has lost none of the pugnacity which won him fans and many enemies during the miners' strike of 1984.

He will need this fighting spirit in abundance for his latest battle. This week it was announced that Scargill, 72, no longer qualifies for full membership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the union he used to lead. Officially the reason is simple: he no longer works as a miner or for the union, so he no longer qualifies for full membership and the voting rights which go with it.

But behind the scenes is a bitter dispute which has divided the tiny NUM, which during the strike had about 180,000 members and now has barely 1,600.

On one side is Scargill and his supporters, who are furious that the man who once embodied the union and everything it stood for should be required to leave in such ignominious circumstances.

On the other is the current leader of the union, Chris Kitchen, and members of the executive committee who say that Scargill is abandoning the socialist principles for which he has always been known.

The row began last year when Scargill took the union to the Trade Unions Certification Officer claiming that a candidate he had supported in the National Executive Committee had been unfairly penalised by the rules. Scargill won and the NUM was forced to re-run its national elections. But there was a sting in the tail.

The Certification Officer also ruled that the NUM's membership policy also contravened the rulebook – something the NUM claimed they knew was the case but had been prepared to turn a blind eye to. Membership, it said, should not be given to those not working as a miner or for the union. Scargill would have to relinquish his full-membership status and have it reduced to that of an honorary or retired member.

One might imagine that having to tender the resignation of easily their most famous and arguably their most influential member would be a sad day for the NUM.

But it appears that a number of the union's members have grown disillusioned by the man who once claimed to adhere to such collective principles that he paid any fees received from media interviews to the Socialist Labour Party.

Since resigning as president of the NUM in 2002, Scargill has continued in the role of honorary president. He still maintains an office at the union's headquarters in Barnsley. He is paid a salary of more than £30,000 and the NUM pays £33,000 a year for his flat in the Barbican area of London.

Until recently he was receiving allowances for his fuel and telephone bills. Those were stopped after the NUM conference in June, and the union is now deliberating whether to continue paying for his flat and salary. Mr Kitchen said: "It seems ludicrous that he is drawing more money per year than what the official members are drawing, given that he retired in 2002."

Scargill will no doubt fight any plan to take away his salary and flat, just as he did when his other perks, believed to be worth about £5,000, were withdrawn earlier this year.

In June Scargill told BBC Radio Sheffield: "They agreed I should rent a local authority flat during my period in office and following my retirement that would carry on until my death. There are many people who have two homes."

He dismissed the suggestion that it would be taken from him as "a smear story put about by elements of the NUM who have a different view to me about the direction the union should be going".

And members of Scargill's coterie are equally scathing about the decision to remove the membership of the man once hailed as King Arthur. Ken Capstick, a union official for 30 years, said it was "a witch-hunt" and that the decision was made "on extremely spurious grounds".

Mr Scargill rarely speaks to the media, which is perhaps understandable given that in 1990 the Daily Mirror published a series of articles claiming that he had used £70,000 of donations to the NUM to pay off his mortgage. The story was incorrect and later prompted a public apology from the tabloid's then-editor, Roy Greenslade.

But his silence means there has been no public response to the latest headline-grabbing story about him. Given his outspoken nature it is perhaps unthinkable that the man who so charismatically encapsulated the feelings of the working class in the days of the Thatcher government should slip away from the public eye so quietly.

What is even more unthinkable is that he should be forced to leave the union with which he is inextricably associated under such a cloud.

Mr Kitchen agrees that Scargill's plight is unfortunate, albeit for different reasons. He said: "I accept that it is sad that it has come to this, but unfortunately the image he has spent a lot of time building up is now being called into question."