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Question of Leadership, A (1980)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

A discussion amongst a group of steelworkers and other trade unionists, including miners and car workers, shortly after the steelworkers had been defeated in the 1980 steel strike, the first national strike in the industry in more than 50 years. They were the first victims of the recently elected Thatcher government's anti-union strategy which, the film's introduction explains, consisted of deliberately picking fights with specifically selected trade unions, starting with relatively weak ones and then moving on to the stronger.

The strike, which lasted 13 weeks and closed both nationalised and private steel works, occurred because the steelworkers were offered a two-per-cent pay rise when they were claiming 20 per cent and inflation was running at 18 per cent. Eventually they settled at 11 per cent, plus another four and a half per cent in return for new working practices and productivity deals, but the steady downsizing of the industry continued apace, with steelworks closing, short-time working being imposed on much of the workforce, and many steelworkers taking redundancy pay.

The discussion revolves around the Tories' industrial strategy, the brutality shown by the police towards the strikers and their supporters, the steady decline of the steel industry, and the negative role played by the trade union leadership during the strike - in particular their hostile attitude towards inter-union solidarity and workers' efforts to turn the strike into an overt challenge to the Tory government and its policies.

The majority of those who speak in the debate are rank-and-file trade unionists, although space is also given to two officials of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (ISTC, the steelworkers' union), one of whom, Sandy Feather, becomes engaged in a heated exchange with steelworker Bernard Connolly.

Note: The programme was originally scheduled to last an hour, but 12 minutes were cut in order to accommodate a 'balancing' discussion at the insistence of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. This involves Bill Sirs, General Secretary of the ISTC, and George Wright, General Secretary of the Wales TUC, as well as two of the participants in A Question of Leadership, Bernard Connolly and British Leyland shop steward Alan Thornett.