Dennis (Edward) Skinner
Dennis Skinner is one of the few advocates of the class struggle left in the Parliamentary Labour Party. His solidly left-wing outlook is one which has moved out of fashion in the party yet he remains one of the most recognised names and faces in the Party, regardless of the fact that he has never held a front bench position. Skinner is one of only two Labour MPs to enter the House of Commons in or before 1970 who has failed to gain the titles Rt. Hon. (the other being Tom Cox MP). His razor-sharp wit and aggressive manner bring fear among both friends and foes alike.
Skinner has always tried to remain true to working class roots among the Derbyshire coal pits and mining villages constantly citing the lessons learnt in this environment. Born on 11 February 1932, he was raised in, what 'Who's Who' call, 'good working class mining stock'. Most of his immediate family worked in the mines and much the same was expected for the children of miners. His father, Edward, was a miner and his mother, Lucy (Dudley) took in washing. However, Skinner's ability to pass exams enabled him to enter a grammar school, Tupton Hall Grammar School, entering it at the age of 10 after leaving Clay Cross Infants. Yet, on leaving school, he went onto become a miner. Firstly Parkhouse Colliery and then, when this was closed (1962), the larger Glapwell Colliery.
It was on entering the mines that Skinner became involved in Labour Party (joining in 1956) and trade union politics. The solidarity of the mines meant that there was a certain 'expectation' that trade union membership would be sought. He was asked to stand for Clay Cross Urban District Council (1960-70) by those who wished to ensure Labour's majority and Derbyshire County Council (1964-70). Clay Cross is still referred to as 'Red Clay Cross' or 'Skinnerville' to represent its left wing nature. During Skinner's time, the UDC campaigned on a platform of low rents and public spending and did not lose a seat - 'a little bit of socialism in raw capitalism' as Skinner himself described this period.
This party political activity was combined with his trade union activities. He was elected as an area delegate for the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to the Derbyshire council, with a particularly large number of votes, before going on to become vice president and then president of the Derbyshire NUM in 1966. This was a lay position, not a full time official, and involved him chairing their meetings on a Saturday morning. Much of work Skinner undertook in the NUM was on the medical appeal tribunals and as a member of the Scarsdale Valuation Panel, fighting to obtain compensation for miners such as those who had been disabled.
Due to his activity in the NUM, Skinner was offered a place at Ruskin College. The NUM in Derbyshire ran a course, funded jointly with the Coal Board, at Sheffield University which taught the successful applicants, such as Skinner, political theory, economics etc. He successfully completed course and won a scholarship to Ruskin College but did not feel able to accept the offer because of the commitment of Council meetings. He was eventually to attend Ruskin College in 1967 as part of a Parliamentary course to ensure that all Labour candidates were of a certain 'quality'.
Skinner's real political break came when the previous MP for Bolsover decided to stand down in the 1970 election. Skinner was the choice of the NUM as replacement. Their wish to have one of 'their people' had been all the more urgent since the likes of David Marquand had been selected in the neighbouring Ashfield constituency, and his credentials, as far as the NUM saw, were questionable. Skinner still considers his selection to be a 'fluke'. He often tells the story that on the Monday following his election he went down the pit because he thought that an MP had to be sworn in before any pay was received.
Ever since entering Parliament in 1970, he has attempted to abide by a set of rules. He always works a full day; never drinks in the Commons bar; has never been a member of an All-Party group; does not indulge in trips paid for by others; does not eat alongside Parliamentary colleagues in the dining rooms; does not believe in the power of patronage so has never held a position to which he has not been elected; refuses to leave the Commons during the Queen's Speech; and has never been 'paired' with a Conservative MP. This failure to mix with Parliamentary colleagues has always meant that he has remained an outsider.
Skinner demonstrated his popularity in the party by being elected 1978-92 and 1994-98 to the National Executive Committee whereas his relations with the leadership of the party have rarely been favourable. The peak of his influence came with the rise of the left in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and his identification as being a key supporter of Tony Benn. Skinner was also vice-chairman on the party (1987-88). Yet where other former supporters have discovered 'modernisation' Skinner has stayed true to the same set of beliefs. Despite numerous defeats he continues to battle, and does see occasional successes such as the large increases in pensions following a defeat for the party leadership at the 2000 Party Conference. His constant opposition to most of the Labour leaderships' policies since around 1984 has led to a problem of credibility. His solid anti-Common Market views (Skinner is one of the few to refer to the European Union in this way) has been one of his mainstays. His case is built around a perceived threat to the British state by un-elected officials.
There is a wide admiration for Skinner's Parliamentary skills and one of his proudest achievements during his time as an MP remains defeating Enoch Powell's Private Member's Bill which wanted to ban all embryonic research. Whilst his colleagues remained at a loss as how to stop Powell, who had himself cleverly used Parliamentary procedure to increase his chances of success. It was Skinner who used the rules of Parliament to introduce the Bechon and Radnor by-election and then talk out, along with others, the time available to Powell.
His activities away from Parliament seem a world away from his class warrior image and demonstrates that politics do not dominate - totally. A keen marathon runner from the 1950s, he has also played nearly every sport under the sun (football, cricket, table tennis, tennis), enjoys cycling (he has even developed a route around his constituency which takes in all the parishes and enables him to contact his constituents) and road walking (heel and toe). His true love has remained athletics. Yet it is his passion for flora and fauna which surprises many. His intimate knowledge of all the London parks and their plants even led to a role in the Radio 4 programme 'Breakaway' as an expert on the subject.
Skinner married Mary (Parker) in 1960 and went on to have three children - Dennis (born 1963), Dawn (born 1962) and Mandy (born 1966). He separated from his wife in 1989 and since 1993 has lived with his American researcher, Lois Blasenheim.
Skinner retains a passionate belief in the Labour Party and what the party can achieve - any hint of criticism of the Blair Government brings a stinging rebuke mentioning the advances made. Although it is claimed by some that he berated the newly elected Blair (1983) for lacking socialist principles. He may have reservations about some of the party's policies but he has always remained a Labour person. The so-called 'Beast of Bolsover', or 'left-wing firebrand', retains the same ideas with which he entered Parliament in 1970 and his battle against cancer has done little to mellow his attitudes.