“Labour isn’t working” read the Conservative Party slogan for the 1979 general election in which they were ultimately and predictably victorious. This sentiment also underpins The Year of the Beaver, though examined from a very different political perspective. The film documents the 2-year-long Grunwick Strike (neutered by the press as ‘The Grunwick Affair’) from the point of view of those directly involved, and from those supporting the strikers. Its scope is broad, narrating the failures of the Labour Party, the opportunism of the Thatcherites, and the complicity of trade unionists with the government and industry itself.
The documentary is an effective and well-researched oral history of the events, using contemporary news footage, interviews, and articles. As well as being an engaging piece of filmmaking, it fundamentally exists to make sense of the Thatcher era, which it was made in the midst of, but in hindsight helps us to understand the further 7 years of Tory rule after Thatcher’s resignation. This Conservative era reflected 18 years of emerging hyper-capitalism, of factory managers in cahoots with the subservient unions quelling strikes before they got too ‘disruptive’, and of “worker against worker, areas of the country pitted against each other”. Sound familiar?
The Grunwick strikers were seen by many (persuaded by The Sun, The Times, and the TV news) as people who sought “to undermine the British industrial character” at a time of high unemployment and a spiral in the home market. This myth, still touted by the Conservative party and right-wing pundits today, is dispelled elegantly by the filmmakers through their inclusion of the words of many strikers. The majority of them were women from ethnic minorities making less than the national average, processing film at the Grunwick plant. An achingly portentous interview with a miner striking in solidarity states simply “it’s much more effective, stopping the coal.”
The strikers simply sought support and recognition from the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff. The strikers were all struck off from the employ of Grunwick’s while the workers who remained at the plant were given a 15% pay rise if they didn’t attempt to join the union. They experienced police violence and unlawful arrests and ultimately were abandoned by the union, the TUC and by the Labour government.
The Year of the Beaver, though intended to be a polemic on hyper-capitalism, anti-unionism, and the emergence of neo-liberalism in the mid-80s, also acts as a stunning insight into the contemporary Tory party. They too believe that Labour and socialism as a whole cannot and will not work. And like in 1979, far too many are willing to take them at their word.