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An excerpt from Tony Cliff's Patterns of Mass Strike which describes the impact of the 1972 miners’ strike and the background to a wave of rank-and-file militancy and solidarity from across the working class

Let us start by giving a short sketch of the 1972 miners’ strike. From the beginning each mining area was consigned a part of Britain to picket: London and south-east England to Kent and the Midlands NUM; south-west England to South Wales; East Anglia to Yorkshire; and south and north Scotland to Scotland with help from Northumberland and Durham if necessary.

An extremely high proportion of miners – some two-thirds according to some accounts – were engaged in picketing a very large number of establishments. Vic Allen writes: ‘It was estimated that 500 establishments were picketed on a 24-hour basis by an average of 40,000 miners each day. Altogether 200,000 miners had been involved in strike duties.’[1]

Malcolm Pitt, President of the Kent NUM, describes in a detailed way how the Kent miners met their responsibility of providing picket cover for the largest concentration of power stations, docks and railway depots in Britain. In a graphic way he shows that throughout, power workers as well as railway workers and dockers were very cooperative with the miners:

At the meeting of the London Combine Power stewards on the night of Wednesday, 19 January, the power workers agreed to work towards liaison committees at local level between power, gas and mineworkers. Mass meetings were to be called in the power stations ...

At a mass meeting in West Ham power station, the power workers drew up a six-point plan which included: a total ban on overtime; a refusal to handle any movement of coal either between power stations or from the railhead;

and a decision to stop work should any new coal reach the boilers ...

Similar decisions at other power stations meant that the Tory government was facing a war on two front in the most vulnerable section of the industrial structure.

Meanwhile, the Kent miners had been deployed throughout the London area, and twenty-one power stations were under picket, as well as important coal depot at West Drayton, West Ham, Dagenham, Neasden and Fulham. From the first day on the picket line, the Kent miners turned back from the power stations all deliveries of fuel, including oil ...

At Hackney power station, on the night of Wednesday 2 February, three oil tankers drove straight through the pickets. The picket had stood across the entrance to the station with their hands lifted up in a gesture to stop, but the lorries, escorted by cars, had driven straight at them and into the station, narrowly avoiding serious injury to the pickets.[2]

So the Hackney power workers responded by pulling the switches.[3]

The impact of the picketing was massive elsewhere too.

On 22 January Kingsnorth was reported to be within forty-eight hours of closure. Battersea was a mere 25 per cent productive and, without acid, would have to close. On the 25th West Ham reported two days supply of coal, Hackney four days supply of oil. Croydon had two out of six ‘burns’ shut down, and only ‘little oil left’. Brimsdown was two-thirds shut-down. On the 26th Battersea reported that the power station would close down if it did not receive acid within the next twenty-four hours. On the 27th Purfleet reported that two burners were out, one ‘on the blink’, and two very low. If there were no oil by the weekend, the station would have to shut down ...

Battersea had ceased the generation of electricity, and Brimsdown was down to two days supply of oil. On Tuesday 1 February, West Thurrock reported that two burners were shut down, and two out of the remaining three were in a bad condition. On 3 February, Hackney was shut down by the power workers in protest against the invasion of three oil tankers. On 5 February, Kingston reported that the station would close at any time, and Barking that the station had only eight days supply of coal, only enough oil to last until Sunday, and was generating no power to the grid.[4]

The story was similar in Scotland, South Wales, Derbyshire and Yorkshire, and very soon the picketing of the power, stations was hitting the economy – very hard. Towards the end of the strike 1,400,000 workers were out of work and 12 power stations were closed.[5]

One centre of struggle where the solidarity of non-miners with the miners was demonstrated very powerfully was the Saltley Coke Depot. The two thousand miners led by Arthur Scargill could not stop the coke lorries after days of picketing. On Tuesday 8 February Scargill approached the East Birmingham District Committee of the AUEW. It responded by bringing its members out in support of the miners. The T&GWU and the Vehicle Builders followed suit. On Thursday 10 February, 100,000 Birmingham trade unionists came out and 20,000 marched on Saltley. To use Scargill’s words: ‘The picket line didn’t close Saltley, what happened was the working class closed Saltley.’[6]

The 1972 miners’ strike can be summed up very briefly: it was in effect a rank-and-file strike.

Background to the 1972 miners’ strike

The level of activity and solidarity of both miners and non-miners during this strike cannot be properly understood without a look at the background of the preceding years.

The run-up to the 1972 strike was exactly the opposite of the 1926 strike – a long period of rising workers’ militancy on a large scale. This was based on the two decades after the war when shop stewards’ organisation went from strength to strength. For a whole generation workers did not experience serious defeat comparable with the bitter and exhausting defeats of the twenties. Workers’ living standards improved continuously. The struggle for improved pay and conditions was led by shop stewards’ committees and similar rank- and-file organisations. The workers developed a new tradition of ‘do-it-yourself’ reformism, that expressed their growing self-reliance and self-assertiveness. Throughout the period unofficial strikes dominated the field of industrial relations. As many as 95% of all strikes were unofficial.[7] The strikes were by and large of short duration and ended in workers’ victories.

The 1950s were years of increasing wealth and full employment. British capitalism, however, was trapped in a deepening, if not so obvious, contradiction: its prosperity went hand in hand with the long-term decline of the British economy vis-à-vis the world economy. Intermittent crises demonstrated this. Movements towards economic expansion involved deterioration in the balance of payments which in turn led to a loss of confidence in sterling, and to foreign exchange crises. ‘Stop-go’ was the rule.

This situation led one British government after another to try and impose an incomes policy. In 1962, for the first time, the Macmillan government introduced a pay pause which was largely voluntary. In 1965 the Labour government operated a stronger and more detailed form of control over pay, through the National Board of Prices and Incomes to which a total of 170 prices arid incomes references were made. To start with the incomes policy was voluntary, but in 1966 statutory elements were imposed. In the sterling crisis of July 1966 a complete statutory freeze on pay was imposed. This was followed by a series of measures giving ministers the power to delay the implementation of individual pay agreements for varying periods while these were investigated by the NBPI. In the event of an adverse report by the Board further delaying powers could be employed.

A continuous rise in prices moved workers to greater and greater resistance to the government’s incomes policy. By 1969 the government was forced to abandon most of the statutory apparatus, and rely instead on voluntary agreements alone.

When elected in 1970, Ted Heath entirely repealed the incomes policy and dissolved the NBPI. He intended to rely on an increased level of unemployment, greater resistance to public sector pay claims and the proposed Industrial Relations Act. When it became clear the strategy was not working, the Tory government in 1972 returned to an incomes policy with even stronger statutory control than the Labour government one.

The workers reacted. To the extent that incomes policy was effective, it dammed up claims from several groups, particularly in the public sector, that had fallen behind those in the private sector. The period was also one of sharply rising prices, first as a consequence of the devaluation of sterling in November 1967, and then from the increases in world commodity prices which were to dominate the early 1970s.

In 1969 a prolonged and ultimately successful major strike of local authority workers took place. Other workers went on strike the same year: lorry drivers, Ford workers, dockers, miners, teachers. This really was a wages explosion, and it was called so. In 1970 other big strikes and industrial actions took place: by local government manual workers, Vauxhall workers, miners, electricity workers and teachers. In 1971 Ford workers, electricity workers and post office workers came out on strike; in 1972 miners, dockers and building workers.

From 1966 onwards governments, both Labour and Tory, moved towards a policy of imposing a new legal framework of industrial relations. Wilson was forced to retreat in 1969, when In Place of Strife was killed by union resistance. When returned to power the Conservatives introduced an Industrial Relations Act that became law in 1971. Agitation for strikes against the Industrial Relations Act led to a one-day unofficial strike in December 1970 involving 600,000 workers, primarily from the motor and printing industries.

In February 1971 a march against the Bill attracted 130,000 workers; in March some 2 million workers came out on strike against it. As political strikes are not officially counted as strikes, one has to rely on estimates for their size. One such estimate is that the strikes, official and unofficial, against the Industrial Relations Act in 1970-71 involved twice as many workers as the entire year’s industrial disputes.[8]

A new method of industrial action took hold on a large scale – factory occupations. It started in August 1971 with 8,500 workers of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders undertaking a work-in. It was followed by over 200 occupations of factories, workshops, shipyards, and offices during the following 18 months.

Colin Crouch summed up very well how government intervention – incomes policy, industrial relations legislation, the push towards productivity deals, etc – forced workers to generalise their own struggles: ‘In part it has been the very reforms designed to reinstitutionalise local action – incomes policy, reforms to bargaining structures and payment systems, productivity bargaining, and industrial relations reform – which have broken the local isolation of militant action and given it wider repercussions both economically and politically. The growth of shop-floor militancy initially produced a government response which forced industrial relations to become intensely politicised.’[9]

This was the background to a period in which the NUM pursued a generally conciliatory policy towards the Labour governments of 1945-51 and 1964-70 and passive compliance towards the Tory governments of 1951-64. Throughout the thirteen years of Tory rule pits were systematically closed. The NUM leaders, as well as the members, believed that an end would be put to these closures when Labour took office. But in 1964-70 the Labour government massively reduced the labour force in the pits. During thirteen years of Tory government, 1951-64, the number of miners declined by 175,600; while during the six years of the Labour government it declined by 211,900 to a mere 305,100 workers.

The NUM leaders no more opposed Labour’s wages control than they did pit closures. Again and again miners were trapped by the Labour government’s incomes policy. In 1948 miners’ wages were 29 per cent above the average pay of workers in manufacturing industries. By 1960 it was 7.4 per cent, and by 1970 miners were earning 3.1 per cent less than the average worker in manufacturing. Added to this, in 1966 came the impact of the National Power Loading Agreement. The NPLA ended piece work and secured the equalisation of wages throughout the coal industry, so that for example, the miners in South Wales would be paid the same rate for the job as the miners in Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire. The NPLA was gradually implemented between 1966 and 1971: ‘The effect of NPLA was to equalise pay, but in doing so, low pay was “nationalised” and the unforeseen effect of NPLA was to “nationalise” dissatisfaction over wages throughout the NUM’.[10]

The angriest miners were in Yorkshire. Up to the 1960s pit closures were confined mainly to peripheral coal fields which learnt to live for a decade with this phenomenon. Yorkshire – the largest Area coal field – felt the full impact in the mid-1960s, and it had a tremendous psychological effect on the miners. In 1967 alone 9 pits were closed in Yorkshire. Furthermore in 1967-68 the miners there were in the unique position of having their wages held back twice: once by incomes policy, then by the implementation of the NPLA. There were large unofficial strikes in Yorkshire in 1955 and 1961.

The 1955 strike was concerned with inadequate price lists and the tardiness of their revision. It began at Markham Main (Armthorpe) and spread quickly so that after a few days there were 44,660 miners on strike.

The 1961 strike, though starting in North Yorkshire, was centred in the Doncaster area where the Brodsworth branch called on the Doncaster Panel to call a strike over piece rates, which the Panel duly did. The strike largely failed to spread despite the efforts of flying pickets, although Doncaster itself stayed out for some three months.[11]

Of even greater impact was the explosion of miners’ frustration in 1969. The issue round which the strike broke out was the working hours of surface workers. On the morning of Monday 13 October, every pit but one in Yorkshire was idle. The remaining pit came out by the Tuesday: ‘The strike spread from Yorkshire, its main base, to Scotland, South Wales, Derbyshire, Kent, Nottingham and the Midlands until it involved 130,000 miners from 140 pits. It lasted from 13th to 27th October, 1969. It spread despite poor communications between the Areas.’[12]

Another unofficial strike, this time round wages, broke out in 1970. Again the Doncaster Panel was at the centre of it. The strike spread from Yorkshire to South Wales and Scotland – altogether 103,000 miners went on strike.[13] Andrew Taylor writes: ‘The importance of these strikes was that they were organised by the branch leadership via the Panel system.’[14]

The rising rank-and-file pressure shaped a new leadership in the Yorkshire NUM. Between 1947 and 1973 the area was controlled by the right. As late as April 1968 a Yorkshire area conference of the NUM voted against industrial action over pit closures by a show of hands. The decision of the conference was put to a branch vote which approved it by 1,671 votes to 210.[15] Still, for many years there were groups of militant miners burrowing away. It is interesting to note that in the Yorkshire Area Vice-Presidential elections in 1961, Jock Kane, the Communist, received 23,797 votes, not far behind the right-wing winner, Jack Leigh, who got 29,797 votes.[16]

In 1967 the Barnsley Miners Forum was founded. It met monthly and acted as a ginger group of branch lay officials. It played an important role in standing up to the right-wing leadership of the Yorkshire NUM, and initiated the 1969 and 1970 unofficial mass strikes.

In 1972, however, the miners won not only by their own efforts but by the help they received from other workers. These groups, above all, were the power workers and the Birmingham engineers. What was the experience of power workers prior to 1972 that made them so willing to aid the miners’ strike industrially?

In September 1967 the Prices and Incomes Board, in reply to a request for a 5 per cent wage rise put forward by the unions in the electricity supply industry, offered 3.7 per cent, with heavy new productivity strings attached. The workers responded by threatening a strike. In a few stations it even came to actual strike action, and they won a wage rise of 10 per cent.[17]

Again, power workers participated in the wages explosion of 1969, and, through unofficial activity, again got a 10 per cent wage rise.[18] In 1970 they came back for another bite at the cherry. At various unofficial meetings up and down the country in the summer of 1970, the demand came from the rank and file for a payrise of £10 a week, without string. In November the unions put forward a claim for £5.80. The employers responded with an offer of £1.75, raised later to £2. The unions therefore began a work-to-rule and ban on overtime. Frank Chapple explained that one reason for refusing arbitration was that ‘it would undoubtedly have led to strikes and loss of all control of our members in industry.’

The effects of the work-to-rule were felt immediately, indeed in some areas even before it had officially started. ‘The worst power cuts since the fuel crisis of 1947’, declared the Financial Times, which listed firms and industries across the country which were hit by power cuts. On the second day, peak-period power cuts totalled 31%. All through the week the effects of the supply workers’ action were brought home to the entire population, as lights went out, machines stopped and factories closed.[19]

A vicious propaganda campaign, much worse than that against the miners in 1984-85, was launched against the power workers:

The stories of power workers and engineers being threatened and assaulted were increasing in number. Doctors and dentists were knocking power workers off their lists all over the place, publicans and shop-keepers would not serve them, a power-workers’ social event was given a bomb-scare, etc. There were abusive phone calls by the hundred, bomb threats and kidnap threats. Saturday brought reports of bricks through windows, paint splashings, tyre slashing, and a Norweb fitter beaten up in the Street in broad daylight ... And on Sunday night, on the David Frost show, a power worker was physically assaulted in front of a lynch-mob audience.[20]

The hysterical campaign served the union leaders as an excuse to call off the work-to-rule. The Wilberforce Court of Inquiry was set up, and after a few days came up with a report that gave nothing beyond the £2 basic, a few small changes, to shift and holiday allowances, plus a productivity deal in the form of a lead-in payment, selling jobs for extra money. In 1971 the labour force went down by 13%, while the average wage rose by 20%.[21]

Many power workers rejected the lead-in payment during 1971. The main area of resistance was the South East where 25 out of 50 stations rejected the scheme. There were also isolated groups of workers dotted about the country – from Edinburgh to Newton Abbot – which did the same.

A few days after the beginning of the 1972 miners’ strike, power workers were engaged in a campaign for a wage increase for themselves. The Power Workers’ Combine, an unofficial national organisation of shop stewards in the industry, met on 14 January to discuss what action to take in support of their claim. And ‘On Monday 24 January, the power workers at West Ham, West Thurrock, Woolwich and other power stations in Britain started an overtime ban in advance of the official national overtime ban planned to start on 1 February. However, in negotiations with the government and the Electricity Board, the union leaders agreed to put off the national overtime ban until 7 February.’[22]

(The national ban did not take place. The power workers’ claim was settled.)

Birmingham engineers, the majority of them car workers, also came to the aid of the miners in Saltley. What was the level of their industrial militancy in the preceding years?

The heart of the car industry was the BMC (British Motor Corporation), centred on Birmingham-Coventry. In the words of two economists who studied the completely unofficial BMC Combine Committee in that period:

The Committee is primarily concerned with the rates of pay in the separate plants, particularly with piece rates. The knowledge of the higher piece rates or earnings in some plants acts as an inducement to those stewards in the plants with lower piece rates or earnings to catch up. Thus, although the individual incentive rates in the various plants were not centrally controlled by management and permitted variations in average earnings between plants, the unofficial Combine Committee created pressure to equalise the earnings upwards in all the plants in all the regions.

Given the leading position of the BMC workers and their stewards in the motor industry, and the leading position of the motor industry in the engineering industry, BMC workers have more strikes than other firms in the motor industry. In a very real sense, they act as the vanguard of the wages movement.[23]

It is quite instructive to look at the Department of Employment Gazette report on prominent stoppages in 1970. There were five such stoppages in the motor car industry and 11 in other engineering plants in Birmingham. All the Birmingham strikes were aggressive – in the great majority workers demanding a significant rise in pay.[24]

In 1971 the story repeats itself. There were nine prominent stoppages in the motor car industry in Birmingham, and four in other engineering plants. Again, as in the year before, but even more so, the strikes in Birmingham were aggressive – to improve pay.[25]

Industrial solidarity action by one group of workers to aid another depends on the self-confidence of the group in the face of their own employers. Given the offensive and generally successful nature of the Birmingham carworkers’ own struggles, they were therefore specially willing and able to aid the miners when they were called upon to do so.

Three basic factors shape the main features of any strike: (i) the relative confidence of workers in the face of their employers, (ii) the relations between the rank and file and the trade union bureaucracy, and (iii) the depth of sectionalism dividing the workers. All three are interrelated and all are relative.

The 1972 miners’ strike showed the miners very confident and aggressive vis-à-vis the NCB and the government; the rank and file relatively independent of the trade union bureaucracy, and sectional divisions, whether amongst miners or between miners and other workers, minimal. However, these were not absolutes. If the rank and file were absolutely independent of the bureaucracy, and sectionalism absolutely missing, the strike would have turned into a proletarian revolution.

At the end of the 1972 strike the NUM bureaucracy did assert its control. This must be grasped if one wants to understand the developments that took place later that prepared the wound for 1984-85.

When Phase II of Heath’s Incomes Policy was introduced on 1 April 1973, limiting wage rises to £1 plus 4 per cent, the NUM did not oppose it. Now it was the turn of gas workers, civil servants, teachers and hospital ancillary workers, probably encouraged by the victories of miners, dockers, car workers, the year before, to go into battle. However, the attempts of these groups were not successful.[26]

Then came the miners’ strike of 1974, which clearly showed the stranglehold of the NUM bureaucracy. It was radically different to the 1972 strike. On 12 November 1973 the NUM imposed a complete overtime ban. In response, next day, the government declared a State of Emergency, with the aim of preserving fuel stocks. On 1 January 1974 a 3-day week was imposed. This aimed to save coal and turn public opinion against the miners. On 7 February a general election was announced for 18 February. On 9 February the miners started their strike. The NUM leaders, Vic Allen writes,

wanted to avoid the spontaneity of 1972, the relative autonomy of local strike committees and the confrontations. This time they wanted to control the strike from the national centre so that they could determine tactics and regulate its scope. They planned from the outset to contain the strike and, in so far as it was possible, to give it a respectable image.[27]

The National Executive Committee of the NUM made formal arrangements for the strike at its meeting on 5th February. In the first instance, it tried to make sure that the control of the strike would be centralised in its own hands. It stated that the administration of the strike should not be controlled by pit level liaison committees but by Area Liaison Committees comprising all sections of the Union in consultation with the National Strike Committee ... It also laid down that picketing should only take place after it had been authorized by the National Strike Committee. These regulations were aimed at curbing spontaneous picketing decisions involving the use of flying pickets and secondary picketing activities.[28]

The National Strike Committee prescribed that ‘there would be no more than six pickets at any site at any time’. Certainly there were complaints from rank-and-file miners about the instruction to limit the pickets to six. But when such complaints reached the Yorkshire Area Executive, all they could say was: We know that this might damage enthusiasm, but be assured, there are very good reasons.’[29] Scargill, now President of the Yorkshire NIJM, abided completely by the ruling.[30]

The main reason for the line of action imposed by the NUM leadership was their desire not to embarrass the Labour Party during the general election campaign. Ted Heath lost the election, and this led to the miners winning their case.

Had Heath won the election, in all probability the miners would still have won the strike, but for that they would have had to change their tactics radically, to become more aggressive, organise mass picketing, etc. Other workers, non-miners, showed as much readiness to give industrial solidarity in 1974 as they did in the previous strike. To take just one example: the power workers, both the EEPTU led by Frank Chapple, and the EPEA, led by John Lyons, offered their full cooperation to the miners.[31] And shop stewards in BSC Anchor Works at Scunthorpe held meetings with the Doncaster Panel to discuss how to close the works.[32]

In the years 1968-74 there was an unstable balance between the political generalisation on the employers’ side – incomes policy and industrial relations legislation – and the industrial militancy on the workers’ side. Such a situation cannot last for long. The unstable equilibrium can lead to one of two outcomes: to political generalisation of the industrial militancy, or to the decline of sectional militancy. In fact the unstable equilibrium in the following few years was destroyed by the policies dominating the British working class – Labourism – the nature of which is summed up in the banner of the Kent NUM: a miner outlined against a pithead and looking towards the Houses of Parliament. This is the essence of what Labourism represents in the relations between industrial action and politics. The logic of this dichotomy between economics and politics is that if workers have a claim that brings them up against a Tory government, there is the alternative of a Labour government. But if the claim brings them headlong against a Labour government they have no alternative but to retreat.

 

[1] V.L. Allen, The Militancy of British Miners (Shipley 1981), p.200. One should treat these figures with a heavy dose of salt; even so there is no doubt that the picketing involved a higher proportion of workers than in 1984/5 and was much more extensive.

[2] M. Pitt, The World on our Backs (London 1979), pp.151-3.

[3] Ibid., p.159.

[4] Ibid., pp.163-5.

[5] Allen, op. cit., p.212.

[6] A. Scargill, New Unionism, New Left Review, July 1975, p.17.

[7] Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations – the Donovan Report (London 1968), p.19.

[8] M. Silver, Recent British Strike Trends: A Factual Analysis, British Journal of Industrial Relations, January 1973.

[9] C. Crouch, The Intensification of Industrial Conflict in the United Kingdom, in C. Crouch and A. Pizzorno (eds.), The Resurgence of Class Conflicts in Western Europe Since 1968 (London 1978), p.253.

[10] A. Taylor, The Politics of the Yorkshire Miners (London 1984), p.88.

[11] Ibid., pp.176-8.

[12] Allen, op. cit., p.156.

[13] Ibid., pp.163-4.

[14] Taylor, op. cit., p.309.

[15] Ibid., p.67.

[16] Ibid., p.178.

[17] T. Cliff, The Employers’ Offensive (London 1970), p.209.

[18] C. Barker, The Power Game (London 1972), p.34.

[19] Ibid., pp.36-7.

[20] Ibid., p.46.

[21] Ibid., p.54.

[22] Pitt, op. cit., pp.157-8.

[23] S.W. Lerner and I. Marquand, Regional Variations in Earnings, Demand for Labour and Shop Stewards’ Combine Committees in the British Engineering Industry, Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies, September 1963.

[24] Department of Employment Gazette, May 1971.

[25] Ibid., May 1972.

[26] Health ancillaries were also important in May 1974 when they were joined by nurses, taking their first ever strike action, in an effort to secure a major improvement in pay. The strikes were quickly followed by an award which granted large increases. The teachers were involved in a very active campaign for the London Allowance, and this was followed by the highest award teachers had ever won – the Houghton Award of some 30 per cent.

[27] Allen, op. cit., p.240.

[28] Ibid., pp.247-8.

[29] Taylor, op. cit., p.252.

[30] Allen, op. cit., p.252.

[31] Taylor, op. cit., p.252.

[32] Ibid., p.254.

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Tony Cliff

Tony Cliff

Born in Palestine to Zionist parents in 1917, Ygael Gluckstein became a Trotskyist during the 1930s and played a leading role in the attempt to forge a movement uniting Arab and Jewish workers. At the end of of the Second World war he moved to Britain and adopted the pseudonym Tony Cliff, later founding the International Socialists, and the Socialist Workers Party. Cliff’s works are available on the Marxist Internet Archive. For more on Cliff’slife see his autobiography ‘A World to Win: Life of a Revolutionary’ and Ian Birchall’s  'Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time'