Obituary: Lord Gormley

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The Independent Online
Joseph Gormley, miner and trade-union leader: born Ashton-in-Makerfield, Lancashire 5 July 1917; member National Executive Committee, National Union of Mineworkers 1957-82, General Secretary North Western Area 1961-71, President 1971-82; member National Executive Committee, Labour Party 1963-73; OBE 1969; member TUC General Council 1973-80; created 1982 Baron Gormley; married 1937 Ellen Mather (one son, one daughter); died 27 May 1993.

JOE GORMLEY was President of the National Union of Miners during one of the most critical and colourful periods of Britain's industrial history.

He was one of the last of a breed of union chiefs who had enough industrial muscle to change the course of political history. He led two miners' strikes - in 1972, and 1974 - and was largely credited with bringing down the Heath government. When the electorate was given the chance to decide between Ted Heath and the miners, the voters chose Joe. All his life he had 'fought for wages' as he put it, and was not a natural working-class revolutionary.

He was one of seven children and had gone down the pit at 14, where he learnt the 'pain and poverty of the mining communities'. A moderate wrongly dubbed a 'right-winger', he spent most of his battles as NUM president fighting the well-organised Left within the NUM. He worked his way to the top of his union's hierarchy the hard way, defeating Communist and far-left candidates at local level.

In his first national trial of strength he was defeated in 1968 by the Scots firebrand Lawrence Daly for the post of General Secretary. He gained his revenge on Daly three years later when he trounced the Communist Mick McGahey for the job of president. Gormley made sure that the president's post was the most important one and virtually made Daly impotent in office. Although he respected McGahey as a person and as a negotiator he was determined never to let his beloved union fall into the hands of the ultra Left. To achieve that aim he masterminded an age-retirement rule-change so that McGahey could never become President. Gormley deliberately stayed in office while McGahey passed his 55th birthday, and McGahey never rose higher than Vice-President.

The Left never forgave Gormley for that, but Gormley's skilful political manoeuvring merely paved the way for the emergence of the militant Yorkshireman Arthur Scargill. Gormley said later: 'I didn't realise it at the time but I let a monster out of the bottle.'

In turn McGahey got his revenge giving his blessing, and that of the well-organised Yorkshire Communist Party, to Scargill as a future president. Scargill, an ex-member of the Young Communist League, succeeded Gormley on 1 April 1982.

Gormley never admitted it publicly, but he was against both the 1972 and 1974 strikes which put miners back to the top of the pay league. He preferred the art of negotiation and compromise to a full-scale punch-up. Once he realised, however, that his members were on the warpath over wages, he refused to allow the left to take the moral high ground. He told me: 'Nobody in this union must be seen to be more militant than me. I do not want the Left to win anything.'

The wily Joe, therefore, became a folk hero twice within two years. The miners, then 240,000 strong, emerged from the strikes with dignity and money.

Gormley was too clever to have fallen into Margaret Thatcher's cleverly prepared trap in 1984 once he realised that he could not have won a national strike. With an obvious reference to 'King' Arthur Scargill, Gormley said: 'Any fool can lead men out on strike, but it takes a leader to get them back.'

His negotiating skills let him down once in the mid-1960s when he helped lodge a pay-claim for 12 shillings and sixpence a week. To his astonishment the National Coal Board gave in willingly and handed over the lot without a struggle. Said Gormley: 'The executive got a right kicking from the lads over that. We should have asked for more and it taught me a lesson.'

He went on to enjoy a decade on the executive of the Labour Party and had many battles with the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Barbara Castle, over their attempts to introduce union laws in their Bill 'In Place of Strife'. He resented the tag 'moderate', saying: 'Those of us termed moderates I feel are nearer to the lads in the pits.'

Gormley was an advocate of the closed shop and against women going down the pits. He said: 'I don't care if a man lapses his union membership. It simply means that he won't get down the mine.'

Joe Gormley was born in Ashton- in-Makerfield, a village between Wigan and St Helens, Lancashire, in 1917. His was a classic rags-to-riches story, complete with 'clogs and ferrets' and a bullying father who beat his mother when drunk. When he joined the NUM's national executive at the age of 40 he was the only working miner on the National Executive Committee.

The emergence of Scargill as a political force inside and outside the union distressed him greatly. At his farewell dinner at Workington, Cumberland, in 1983, he warned that his union would fall apart if the far Left took control. He despised Scargill and his politics and the feeling was mutual.

Gormley was generous to his staff as well as his members and allowed London headquarters staff to double their wages with hefty overtime payments. He was not a socialist hypocrite and enjoyed a union-owned mansion in Surbiton, Surrey, along with a union-owned Jaguar. He loved betting on the horses and took brandy with his coffee as early as 10am.

Downing Street respected but feared him. As late as 1981 he forced the Government into a U-turn over pit closures, damaging the parliamentary prospects of the energy minister David Howell in the process.

The ex-NCB chairman Derek, now Lord, Ezra, was a member of the Joe Gormley fan club. The NCB enjoyed a decade of industrial peace, during which pits closed without a fuss and surviving miners enjoyed massive pay packets.

Gormley had a mischievous sense of humour. Such was his charisma that one national newspaper believed him when he said he had been approached to be chairman of the National Coal Board. In fact, he had telephoned the newspaper from a bar in Spain and was merely pulling the leg of the industrial reporter in question.

Historically Joe Gormley will be remembered as a man who forced a Tory government out of office. In the mining communities he will be remembered with love and affection - as a man who gave them the glimpse of the good life.

His parting shot to the newcomer Arthur Scargill was: 'No leader comes to office blessed with complete wisdom.'

(Photograph omitted)