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The Collieries of Wales



Dennis Skinner

Sailing Close To The Wind

Quercus. Hardback £20, also available as eBook.

Ebook ISBN 978 1 78206

Book ISBN 978 1 78206 156 4


Anyone who has ever seen Skinner speak recently, heard his passion, his quick fire wit, and uncompromising delivery will be amazed the man is 82, has undergone a triple heart by-pass, survived cardiac arrest and bladder cancer. He was starting work down the pit at the age of 16 the day before I was born, and I’m no spring chicken. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Dennis is his unswerving conviction through thick and thin that the Labour Party is the only parliamentary means of changing society. He has this despite living through decades of betrayal, back stabbing, double speak and the virtual end to internal democracy within the party and any vestiges of socialist vision. Though not dead yet he is a dying breed. I’ve shared countless platforms with Dennis over the years the last one in March at the Hatfield Main Colliery 30th 84/5 strike anniversary. Miliband being the constituency MP was invited and spoke, one would never believe the two men were in the same party.

These are Dennis’s reminiscences, he says he was pressured by popular request to write them down and put them into book form, though writing is not his forte. It’s true the book doesn’t have the same passionate flare as his spoken anecdotes or speeches and the opening pages are a bit of a plod, but the book picks up with his entry to parliament. Then we see that, ‘straight from the shoulder’, ‘no holds barred’ delivery, as ‘the beast’ emerges from the pages. As a resident of ‘the palace of varieties’ as he calls Parliament he refused all of his parliamentary career to play by the custom’s and niceties. He never has engaged in Pairing, the inter-party game whereby if one MP isn’t in the house, his opposite number on the other side will also not turn in, to keep the voting ratio equal. Dennis calls this “a racket” and “paid absenteeism”. Back in 1970 the debate was on Family Income Supplements. A Tory MP before the debate approaches Skinner and suggests they pair. “Why do you want to get off?” he answered “Yes”, well just go Dennis implied. Off the Tory went for his meal and evening out while Dennis stayed and voted reducing Heath’s majority. The Labour whip, Mellish was furious with Dennis when he discovered what had happened, it had put the whole racket in jeopardy and Labour MP’s enjoyed their early ride and twagging it as much as the others. I didn’t say I would pair he explained, just didn’t want to spoil the Tory’s nice evening.

Skinner refuses to accept junkets and free trips and delegations abroad. He observers that these ‘delegations’ and trips are usually to warm, scenic, locations not slums and places of desolation. ”Anyway I find it no hardship to refuse to go on holiday with Tories. The very idea appals me.” He also stays out of the parliamentary bars.

On the floor of the commons, Dennis perfected the art of ‘talking out’ bills and reactionary legislation by tabling motions and amendments and taking up all the allocated time thus causing the bills to fall. “In one significant week we kept the Tories up for four continuous nights...” The other bedrock of his parliamentary code is not to accept patronage “I’m a democrat, preferring elections to appointments. It’s why I was one of the minority of Labour MPs who voted against Ed Miliband axing elections for the Shadow Cabinet and chief whip in opposition.”

Dennis makes his disapproval of the EU quite clear, as well as the way in which ‘free movement of labour’ has been used to bring in workers from Eastern Europe vulnerable to wage and conditions exploitation through foreign agency recruitment, to the detriment of the existing workforce. “The so called free movement of Labour in Europe is a myth. The desperate men in camps in Calais, living in squalor and hoping to stow away in a truck to find safe haven in Britain, might be classed under the free movement if any label can be attached to their misery. But many of the workers from East Europe are brought to Britain by employment agencies. The agencies only have to pick up a telephone and there’ll be another 300 or 400. Shut the agencies and value the trade union ethic and we’ll eradicate the tensions between communities.” Dennis sites the Tories attacking trade union rights and protections as the cause of the downward spiral which pits workers from abroad against workers already here. He makes the point that UKIP would attack terms and conditions and trade unionism even more. UKIPs opposition to the EU isn’t his.

“The desire to improve he lives of working people in Britain is why I am resolutely against the Common Market, the ultimate capitalist club. I was against it well before Nigel Farage and that mob started UKIP……My objection in principle is about its implementation of the free movement of capital and labour, the undiluted capitalism at the heart of the project. Employers undermine wages and employment conditions, shifting production to lowest cost countries. I believe in intervening in the market and the regions. The movement of capital drags labour with it.”

“Life isn’t fair and we can make it fairer both in terms of opportunities and results. If we think of life as 100 metre race, some people are born on the starting line with concrete boots of poverty, while a few are born wearing the latest trainers only one step from the finish.”

Dennis’s socialism confronts ‘new labour’ and its leadership at regular intervals, it is, he says an occupational hazard. Toward the end of 2012 he received a critical letter from the whips. They wanted to know why he voted against the coalition’s welfare cuts programme when Labour had ‘decided’ to abstain. Would he put his response in writing? He replied in a Christmas card “Just to let you know my principles conform to the way I voted on all issues”.

“I’ve never shared this eagerness of prime ministers to take us to war. I’ve voted against them all: Falklands, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the one we stopped Syria. I’m an internationalist...I cheered the anti-colonialist movements of Africa, and India, but I don’t support Imperial adventures.”

As for Skinners famous exclusions for his directness there are many.” I don’t think Gow had a clue about what was going to hit him. He jumped up on a point of order when I called the Duke of Devonshire a ‘benevolent despot’.

The deputy speaker ruled I’d gone too far and requested I amend the expression. “I am prepared to withdraw the ‘benevolent’ bit.” The chair insists, and Dennis responds with the Devonshire’s history, including being responsible for putting down Watt Tyler. Ultimately he compromised with “a descendant of a benevolent despot”.

Another time he accused Tebbit of lining his pockets by privatising British Telecom as Trade and Industry Secretary, he had left and he took a job as a non-executive director of BT. “I was ordered to withdraw it, I couldn’t- it was true..” Dennis says he has lost count of the number of times he’s been thrown out, but quotes a few more examples for good measure...

Skinner’s encounter with Blair couldn’t have started more acrimoniously. Having gained the super safe seat of Sedgefield, he and Blair were invited to speak at a ‘lessons of defeat’ rally in the constituency.

Blair’s lesson was New Labour, and the acceptance of Thatcherism. Dennis quotes from Blair’s autobiography The Journey. “So...your new MP, supposed to be Labour (particular emphasis on word ‘Labour’) whose experience in Labour politics (again much emphasis on ‘Labour’) up to now includes (here reading from a piece of paper with extraordinary thespian timing and skill ) Durham Choir School (private school hated by the local proletariat) Fetters College, Edinburgh- the Eton of Scotland I’m told (in an aside) not that I’d know (much laughter and applause); St John’s College, Oxford (said with an especial sneer) and the Bar (here applause) – and not the one you buy a pint in (uproarious outburst of laughter) but the one full of lawyers (pantomime hisses); your new Labour MP thinks our grandparents didn’t know what they were talking about; that it’s time to disown them; that now’s the moment when we tell them- many of whom never owned so much as a wireless never mind a black and white TV- that they don’t belong in Thatcher’s Britain…Well let me tell you, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair ..my grandparents were poor, it’s true, were humble folk I admit it; were I dare say, a little old fashioned in their principles of loyalty and solidarity, but THEY WERE DECENT PEOPLE AND PROUD OF BEING WORKING CLASS”

He spares no punches on hypocrites either, being a stanch republican he refuses any junkets with the Queen down the Mall or anywhere else, he expects that his fellow republican will act likewise but they don’t always.

Tony Benn once shocked me by expressing his admiration for Thatcher as a conviction politician. Not so Dennis “ No figure in my 40-plus years in Parliament encapsulated the poison and nastiness of the Conservative Party more than Margaret Thatcher. The record of what she did to Britain-deliberately breaking people, communities and industries to impose her brand of casino capitalism, impoverishing a swollen group at the bottom as she rewarded her City friends-was unforgivable. Thatcher ruined millions of lives…systematically in her war on decent, working people.” “Thatcher was a touch unbalanced. She thought she was more regal than the queen. After the pit strike of 1984-5 she took to wearing what I can only describe as an Elizabethan collar. I said then she was on her way. Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first send mad.”

Winding up his amendment against by passing PM Questions in order to attend the royal cortege of Thatcher’s funeral he made a telling speech which is also a suitable way of ending this review

“It’s not about personalities, it is all about class. We must never forget that. We should remember where we come from. I remember my own family-with nine kids, who did not have two ha’pennies to rub together-and that is still embedded in my soul. That is why I speak as I do. I do not want to change. I never will. That will not get my hands on the dispatch box, but that is not a luxury that has ever bothered me to get. ..I believe we have to look after those people who do not have two ha’pennies to rub together. That should be what motives us every day of the week, including at Prime Ministers question time. When the Labour Party understands that as we do here today it will be better for it.”

Of course the sad truth is they didn’t actually understand it then, because they voted for the adjournment, or if they did it wasn’t important to them, playing the game was. Dennis is a principled honest man in a gang of thieves, he is perhaps one of a dying breed though he and they are not dead yet, this book testifies to that.

David Douglass