Three years ago, sat in a cinema in Huddersfield, pretty much the last thing I did in the town before moving home to South Wales, I waited in anticipation to watch a film called Pride. As the only person from Wales in the small audience, I had certain expectations that probably were not shared by those in the room with me. Nevertheless, with a certain trepidation as to how poorly my home, and my people, would be treated on the big screen, I settled into the movie. From the off, with Mark Ashton hatching a plan to collect for the miners, with a visual of Arthur Scargill, and the cute but jilted partner from last night hoping forlornly, the film was different from any I’d seen up to that point. There was an off-beat humour and a real sense of place. The South Wales that emerged was authentic – up to a point – and South Walians represented as well as they have ever been shown on screen. As the recreated 1985 gay pride march ran into the credits, I could sense the tears. I never cry in the cinema, so that was a new sensation entirely. (Curiously, it’s humour that I enjoy the film for now, rather than the raw emotion, but that could be to do with how many times I’ve seen it!)
The film treats the politics of the moment lightly, subtly, and with many of the stark differences on the Left – and within LGSM – ironed out. One would not know the depth of Mark’s political enthusiasms, for instance, apart from throw away lines such as “Commie!”. The film is unashamedly about the potential of the Left, of course, but is to some extent lacking in the specifics – it’s not Battleship Potemkin. No, for those of us who had read Hywel Francis’s writings about the 1984-5 miners’ strike, published in places like Marxism Today or in Llafur, the story of LGSM was well known. The level of detail that’s now in the wider public domain was not there, but the story was. I think that’s important to stress – and if you listen to Sian James, Dai Donovan, Hywel Francis, or Christine Powell, speak about 1984 they make that point themselves. LGSM are there on the amazing film Splendid and Smiling Women, which is a cult classic of labour historians of the South Wales Coalfield, and so on. In many ways, this is a story hidden in plain sight.
A book is never the same as a film or television programme, and that is to the benefit of Pride: the book. In much greater detail than was possible on screen, the participants tell their own story. Nuances emerge that you would not know about from watching the film, particularly around the politics of the period, about gay culture, and most especially about the relationship between LGSM and Lesbians Against Pit Closures (LAPC). I think this is to be welcomed because it restores to the story the fact that LAPC were not just difficult feminists who lost sight of the ‘bigger picture’ but a group who genuinely recognised that as lesbians they had a secondary struggle of their own. The most revelatory passages of the book deal with the internal dynamics between the communities of the Neath, upper Swansea and Dulais valleys, LGSM and LAPC. The relationship between LGSM and the women of the valleys was especially warm, but, as the book illustrates, there were more complicated relationships with the lesbians. To some extent, and that extent deserves to be explored, this mirrored strains within the women’s liberation movement where the broader questions of women’s liberation were tested by the specifics of lesbian liberation.
Now, there are some problems with the book. On a minor level, there’s the misspelling of Siân James’s name all the way through, but I’m sure that’ll be corrected in any reprints. More problematic, for me, are the passages relating to Labour Party politics, then and now. Neil Kinnock has become something of a bogeyman of the left of the Labour Party, particularly those allied with the Bennite Left. One need only look at the humorous, but serious, twitter posts about Kinnock from LGSM themselves. Kinnock, it is often forgotten, began his career as a firebrand of the left and a key part of the Tribune group that circled Michael Foot in his struggles with other leading figures in the Labour Party to succeed Harold Wilson – figures such as James Callaghan, Roy Jenkins, Denis Healy et al. More broadly, Kinnock sided with Leo Abse in his hostility to devolution and was an opponent of British entry into the common market voting against in the referendums of 1975 and 1979. (Abse, by contrast, was a pro-European on the basis that it would stymie regionalist tendencies.) And Kinnock was an early supporter of gay rights, albeit always, like Harold Wilson, with one eye on electoral politics. For instance, in the early 1970s, the Newport branch of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality approached him to find out whether he supported their cause and their campaign to lower consent to achieve parity. Kinnock replied that he did but would prefer not to be the sponsor of a bill in parliament himself. Wilson had said something similar about the 1967 reform – the right thing to do, but electorally complicated.
By the mid-1980s, with Foot and then Kinnock in charge of the Labour Party, the issue about Labour’s commitment to gay rights was fast coming to a head. In the course of the 1970s, the Liberals, Plaid Cymru, and the Communist Party, had all committed themselves to campaigning for gay rights, as did the SDP; a pressure group – the Gay Labour Group – had been formed within Labour in 1975, too, and several trade unions began to place gay rights on their platforms. But many of those unions, as Pride: the book illustrates, were white collar, they included local government officers and their union NALGO, for instance, but not heavy industrial ‘traditional’ labour – the steelworkers, miners, and dockers. Traditional labour spoke, sometimes, but not always, with deliberately homophobic views. Even in 1985 at the fateful Labour conference when the party eventually voted to accept a gay rights platform, it was a Welsh Labour councillor who stood up to declare homosexuality an illness; and as late as 1994, when Edwina Currie’s campaign for equal consent came to the floor of the Commons, many Labour MPs from the Valleys either abstained or voted against. The danger with the book, in this regard, at least, is that it glosses over this history and prefers to focus instead on Kinnock’s ambiguity – an ambiguity shared time and again by the Labour leadership. For the truth of the latter, we should also discuss the truth of the former. Ultimately Labour’s acceptance of gay rights was consistent with the modernisation process within the party, on the one hand, and consistent with traditional labour’s approach to fairness and egalitarianism on the other.
What the book and the film do very, very well is establish the importance of gay rights – human rights – to the advancement of the Left. This was part and parcel of what it meant to be of the Left in the late-twentieth century and continues to be in our own time. Everyone is part of a minority at some time or another, and minorities deserve to be respected. To say such things is highly political and I think the ultimate value of Pride: the book is to restore the deeply political character of LGSM, of the miners’ strike, and of the actions of that inter-community support and friendship. We may well, as I often do, ask the question of whether LGSM would have had the same reception in a bigger community – the Rhondda, for instance, or the Cynon Valley – but that is to cast doubt, and that is perhaps unfair. After all, smaller lesbian and gay groups in places like Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, and Swansea, all provided support to mining communities in South Wales during the strike, and in the case of the Southampton group that support went to Abercynon. Their stories need to be recovered, if they can, to show just how far the miners’ strike moved from being an ill-fated battle about job losses to one that became about what sort of society Britain should be. And, of course, what sort of political party Labour should be. We’re still deciding what the answers are. This is essential reading for those deliberations.