The specter of Britain's year-long coal miners' strike, which ended last spring, came back to haunt the Labor Party today in a way that seemed to symbolize the party's internal divisions.
For nearly two hours this morning, delegates at the annual party conference here rose to heckle and shout their preference between those who believe that the party cannot afford unquestioning support of the trade union movement and still hope to win elections and those who feel that such a victory would not be worth having.
A bitter public debate -- seen live on television screens across the country -- was the one thing the Labor leadership under party chief Neil Kinnock wanted to avoid during this year's conference. In Kinnock's view, the strike itself was bad enough for labor. Scenes of delegates refighting the old battles and talking of class warfare were to be avoided lest they disturb the general electorate, already wary about Labor's leftist militancy and fearful of voting for a Labor government.
That kind of confrontation, however, was the main reason why National Union of Mineworkers head Arthur Scargill, and many other delegates, came to Bournemouth. Support for the miners, Scargill said, was a matter of principle, and "power without principles for a socialist is unthinkable."
In the end, Scargill won the battle. But he appears for the moment to have lost the war for the heart and soul of the party.
The specific issue fought this morning was an NUM resolution calling on the party to pledge itself, should it win the general elections that must be held here before 1988, to recoup the miners' losses. All cases of miners found guilty and sentenced to jail because of activities during the strike must be reviewed. Any miner who permanently lost his job due to the strike must be rehired. All court-imposed fines incurred by the NUM during the strike must be reimbursed out of government funds.
It was the last part that Kinnock and the so-called Labor moderates rejected, on grounds that the party could not endorse retroactive changes in the law of the land for the miners, or anyone else.
"Retrospective legislation is wrong," said one delegate who rose in opposition to a pledge to repay the fines. "It undermines the law. What effect would it have among the people we need to vote for us if we are to win the next general election? However much we have sympathy for the miners, we cannot do this."
Scargill is not a popular figure in the party, and a recent poll showed four out of five members felt he would hinder, rather than help, Labor's chances of coming to power. Many consider him an antidemocratic force, hungry for power at the expense of the miners.
But during today's debate, he was cloaked in the mantle of labor solidarity, and benefited from the responsibility the party majority still feels for the miners' struggle and for the party's roots in the union movement.
"It's not between Arthur and Neil," one elderly delegate from a Welsh mining village said in support of the resolution. "It's between the working class" and the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, who unabashedly set out to crush the union's power.
"I want a Labor government. I want a socialist government," said Ron Todd, chairman of the Transport and General Workers Union, "but I will not betray the national union of my workers to get it."
Others were more radical in their analysis of the strike itself. "The decision of whether or not to break the law is a tactical decision to be made according to circumstances," said one young militant. "We must support people forced to break the Tory law, and not turn our back on them."
Such talk seemed to exasperate Kinnock who, when he rose to speak against the resolution, reminded that court action and convictions against individual miners "hasn't been done under any Tory law. It was done under Common Law . . . . Listen to the facts, for once," he told a heckler.
The miners, Kinnock strongly implied, have been poorly led and still were suffering for it. "How do we help the miners?" he asked. "With a Labor government that will replace the current National Coal Board," the government-appointed board that runs the industry.
Earlier, Scargill had described the conflict as "a class issue" being fought out inside the party itself. "Our movement's been hijacked" away from its original power base within the unionized working class, he said. "This movement ignores that fact at its cost," Scargill warned.
To this, and other comments shouted from the floor, Kinnock responded with a sneer. "Don't let a political party take any note of electoral considerations. That would be class treachery, wouldn't it?" he said sarcastically.
Despite the passion on both sides, however, the debate itself was more symbolic than real.
Enough union and constituent delegates already had promised their blocks of votes, based on the numbers they represented, to insure that the resolution would receive a majority. But at the same time, most knew that Scargill would never get the two-thirds vote necessary to make the resolution part of the Labor electoral platform.
In the end, even the majority was smaller than expected -- 3.54 million in favor to just under 3 million opposed.