London — Britain's Conservative government has scored its most important victory so far in the battle to hold down this winter's pay increases.
The coalminers, who had the power to wreck Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's efforts to head off a massive new pay spiral in the public sector, have opted instead for a wage rise of under 10 percent. This is less than the current inflation rate of 12 percent.
The result of the pithead ballot was a massive defeat for the minerworkers Marxist president-elect, Arthur Scargill. He had urged his men to strike for a 24 percent pay rise.
But the 200,000 miners voted by a comfortable margin to reject his advice. Instead, they heeded the arguments of their outgoing president, Joseph Gormley, who made Scargill furious by an eve-of-poll proposal to the workforce to accept the National Coal Board's offer.
For Mrs. Thatcher the outcome has come as a welcome boost to her efforts to restrain public sector pay rises. If the miners had voted to strike, other leading trade unions would have adopted a more militant stance, openly confronting the government as Scargill had proposed.
Although this represents a considerable victory for Mrs. Thatcher, she still has another battle on her hands -- with the nation's train drivers. For two weeks running, the train drivers have used selective strikes to create havoc in rail travel and commuting.
The prime minister has persuaded other railway workers to accept a modest pay settlement. But the drivers have held out, claiming the British Railways board has treated them unfairly.
Mrs. Thatcher's advisers are telling her that if she can prevail against the train drivers as well as winning over the miners, she will add to the impression that public sector pay is coming under control.
Helping her is the fact that the train drivers' action has whipped up strong public resentment, which Mrs. Thatcher has not been slow to harness to her own purposes. And Britain's Labour Party opposition, perhaps sensing that the drivers' cause is unpopular, has been notably muted in its comments on the series of rail strikes.
Mrs. Thatcher won another victory when a court decided to reinstate four ''tea ladies'' who had been sacked by a local authority for refusing to join a trade union. It was the first time such a reinstatement had been achieved under the Thatcher government's legislation setting limits to the rigors of the closed shop.
The prime minister and her employment secretary, Norman Tebbitt, decided last autumn to adopt a tough line on the industrial front, believing that the mood of the British people has swung against strike action.
The miners' vote seems to reflect such a mood. Britain's miners are still one of the country's most powerful industrial groups, even though their numbers have declined in recent years. In 1974 a prolonged coalminers' strike led directly to the ouster of the government of former Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath.
This time a comfortable 55 percent of the miners turned their backs on striking. Only in the leftwing strongholds of Yorkshire and Scotland were there heavy votes for a strike.
In Scotland, where the miners are led by a professed communist, Mick McGahey, the proportion voting for a strike was well down on a pithead ballot conducted two years ago.
Scargill, who had been counting on strong support for his policies in the run-up to his assumption of the presidency in March, was angry about Gormley's advice to rank and file. Gormley, however, was in closer touch with grassroots feeling nationwide. After the vote, he said miners had a higher standard of living these days and therefore could not see the need for a strike.
Mrs. Thatcher took satisfaction from another aspect of the result: an indication that the miners did not like being asked by Scargill to use their votes in a pay ballot to aim a political blow at the government.
In the minefields, where Scargill won won a sweeping victory for the presidency late last year, wives had influence over the pay vote. Many could not see why progress on pay in the last two or three years should be placed in jeopardy by a strike. Others had entered into financial commitments, such as hire purchase agreements, and knew that a long strike would mean defaulting on payments.