Yesterday, Dennis Skinner – man, legend, people’s champion – was in the news for two reasons: firstly, it emerged that he’d been singing to dementia patients. Singing to dementia patients! How beautiful. And then, true Skinner style, he heckled during the Queen’s Parliamentary speech, shouting: “hands off the BBC.”
I firmly believe in juxtapositions. Internal contrasts are a thing of beauty: polished ‘goodness’, however pristine, eventually starts to eat away at its own surface. You look at Jeremy Corbyn, all bicycles and Quorn, and the frugality is somehow so perfect that, in its reflective surface, somehow – inexplicably – one begins to look like Nigel Farage. But just when you were scared you might completely lose it and start wandering around campus in a Tony Blair t-shirt, Dennis Skinner sits up on his perch: “Dodgy Dave”, he shouts, and all is well.
Because Dennis Skinner isn’t an “embarrassment” to the Labour Party. He is its foundation, its core; its very essence.
Yes, he is a “political dinosaur”. His rhetoric is basic, his politics at times short-sighted. But he’s also enigmatic, full of the fiery passion of the trade unions which gave birth to the Labour Party in 1900. He harks from a bygone era when the working class was still the salt of the earth.
It always seems that those commentators who do label Dennis an “embarrassment” are not of his class. We live in a world where 17 per cent of even Labour politicians are now privately educated – a figure which makes Labour “posher” than the Liberal Democrats – and that matters. The MPs who claim to represent average people, to have a political interest in social mobility and opportunity, shouldn’t pour in from institutions which partly exist to uphold privilege. The trade union roots into the Labour party are now as much a middle-class parade as the typical Oxbridge entry route. We might have a London mayor whose father was a bus driver, but the passion of Aneurin Bevan seems long-dead.
When Dennis Skinner’s North Midlands burr slurs out a semi-constructive comment, framed in rhetoric about “the coal fields in the 70s”, a nostalgia for a home that never was, rises inside those of us who bear any relation at all. You could be there, on the picket lines of some now-closed factory with your mum in the 80s; some Welsh coal pit with your dust-damaged grandfather a long time before that, really part of it all. Instead, you’re flitting around at university, reading about philosophy, eating brie*, slowly soaking up Received Pronunciation like a sodden sponge. Dennis Skinner is a symbol of everything that was ugly and beautiful about the British class system before the Benefits Street era.
Skinner has been removed from Parliament on numerous occasions. This is his legacy: a rebel-with-a-cause, he stands alone against the incessant tide of bullshit peddled in our elected chambers. He isn’t perfect, but when he once accused Margaret Thatcher of bribing judges, does he have to be?
However, my personal favourite will always be his 2005 George Osborne cocaine-jibe. Master of subtlety, Skinner stands: “Is my honourable friend aware,” his voice booms, regional and collected, “that in the seventies […] we would have thanked our lucky stars in the coalfield areas, to have got a growth of 1.75 per cent…”. You think – you’re so sure – you recognise this beginning. Expecting a dry Skinner-spout about red-book economics, you sit back in your seat, your mind wanders in innocence, naively unaware of the pure gold to come.
And then the mythic creature that is Dennis rears up: “the only thing that was growing then, were the lines of coke in front of boy George and the rest of the Tories…”
And Skinner – representative, legend, Beast of Bolsover – accuses George Osborne of being a coke-head. “No, I’m not withdrawing it. It’s true!” shouts Dennis. And in this moment of shock, pure shock, did he really just say that out loud? All of the political spectrum seems to come together, blurring party lines. You forget which side you were even on, and clap blindly. Bravo, Dennis. Bravo. It hardly seems potent to care if the News of the World’s allegations were true – the beauty lies in the Dennis delivery.
So, long live Dennis Skinner, and long may he serve us. Straight-talking and not afraid to pull out the Eton card, there’s a Dennis Skinner in all of us. When he finally leaves parliament, we’ll ask: was he a vision, or a waking dream? Surely no creature of Westminster could ever be so perfect again.