Peter Heathfield 1929-2010

As General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Peter Heathfield, who has died aged 81, was at the heart of its leadership during the miners’ strike of 1984-85. He was a member of the NUM’s so-called troika, along with its president Arthur Scargill and vice-president Mick McGahey: of these two, Heathfield was closest to Scargill, and their partnership provided the basis on which the union’s president fought his battle. While the relationship between Scargill and the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, determined the outcome of the strike, which changed Britain’s political climate, Heathfield’s role was crucial to its conduct.

When the Conservative government announced its intention to close 20 pits, Heathfield backed Scargill from the start of the strike in March 1984, and, like his president, rejected a coalfield ballot. Yet everyone who knew Heathfield believed that he harboured inner doubts about Scargill’s strategy. However, Heathfield’s loyalty to Scargill, and the men on strike, was total and unremitting, whatever his private thoughts. The end result – a return to work in March 1985 with no new agreement with the National Coal Board (NCB) – left Heathfield in absolute despair, a condition of mind from which he never really recovered. In 1992, at the age of 63, he retired early from the general secretary post of a severely depleted NUM.

Heathfield was an active Labour party man, a local councillor in Chesterfield, and in 1963 was only narrowly beaten for the parliamentary candidacy in the old Ilkeston constituency. Heathfield spent 18 years working at the coalface before being elected to a full-time union post in 1966. He then made rapid progress, becoming vice-president of the Derbyshire NUM in 1970. Three years later he was elected Derbyshire area secretary, the top post in the region, and when Scargill ran for the NUM national presidency in 1981, Heathfield was tipped as a serious challenger – but stood aside to avoid any leftwing competition against Scargill, who was 10 years younger.

Heathfield was a man of immense charm, with remarkably few enemies either on the left or right of the political spectrum. In his trade union he was always seen as a realist and a pragmatist. He is survived by Sue, three sons and a daughter.

• Peter Heathfield, trade unionist, born 2 March 1929; died 4 May 2010