Friday 10 September 2010

Dennis Skinner's Blairite secret

David Miliband has won the coveted endorsement of Dennis Skinner, the veteran left-winger and chief Parliamentary wit who was among the MPs to nominate Diane Abbott.

The Skinner endorsement was predicted here on Next Left six weeks ago, during our survey of the David Miliband campaign:

The claim to be a "Labour Values Unity" candidate can be substantiated by surprising supporters such as Paul Flynn, who might have some claim to out-left anybody else in the PLP. If Ed Miliband has Tony Benn, then David Miliband's team are confident of a supportive endorsement from Dennis Skinner.

The news has been received sourly - "more in sadness than anger" - at Left Futures.

Skinner's support should help MiliD to shed the "Blairite" tag. However, Tony Blair's memoir suggests an alternative explanation, that a mellower Dennis Skinner had become something of a covert Blairite.

In later years, Dennis was one of my best (if somewhat closet) supporters. He didn't agree with any of my policies, but he liked somebody who whacked the Tories. Though I'm not sure he would thank for me for saying so, he mellowed and became a nicer person. In particular, he used to give me brilliant PMQs advice ...

Blair retails an anecdote about how Dennis Skinner took him apart at a post-election rally immediately after the 1983 election, at which Blair had first been elected.

But back then Dennis was your original firebrand. He was also a genuis at a particular type of left-wing rally speech and little new-boy muggins had given him an opening as large as your average open-cast mine. There's nothing quite like being utterly and publicly humiliated for teaching you a lesson ...

Blair wanted to warn the party about the need to catch up with the modern world.

Labour had lost touch. It had failed to sport how society had changed. I had two lines I was rather proud of: one was about Labour's attitudes being from the days of 'black-and-white TV'; the other was about the party 'simply repeating old adages learned on your grandparents knees' or some such ...

But he might have put it slightly differently.

I finished to a smattering of applause. The rest sat and folded their arms in unison. Dennis got to his feet. Still in unison, their arms unfolded and their faces began to smirk in eager anticipation. They knew what was coming. I didn't.

So he began, 'your new MP, supposed to be a Labour MP [particular emphasis on Labour], whose experience in Labour politics [again, much emphasis on 'Labour'] up to now inclides [here reading from a piece of paper with extraordinary thespian timing] Durham Choir School; Fettes College Edinburgh - the Eton of Scotland I'm told, [aside] not that I'd know; St John's College, Oxford [said with an especial sneer]; and the Bar [applause] and that's not the one you buy a pint in but 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 we disowned them [and] tell them they don't belong in Thatcher's Britain [looks of horror of faces of audience]. 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'. The last words rose to a crescendo, an eruption of applause that lifted the roof off the place.

After that the speakers got up one by one, and you never heard so many heart-rending tales of the fortitude, heroism and near-divine decency of grandparents ..."

Blair writes that this changed the way he made the case for reform, and made him more cautious about getting too far ahead of other modernising voices: "I learned Dennis' lesson well. There is no point in being right about an organisation's failings if you have lost the ability to persuade them of it. You have to speak the language in order to change the terms of debate conducted in that language, otherwise you may be a fine example of a person who is right, but irrelevant".

Blair later writes of Skinner as "a really brilliant guy - first-rate mind, great wit, huge insight into people". However, the Skinner-Blair mutual admiration pact did not remain entirely covert. Indeed Dennis Skinner was reported to have become Tony Blair's "new best friend" as far back as 1998, in an Independent on Sunday report from Rachel Sylvester.

The MP for Bolsover, Derbyshire, a former miner, has become the unofficial link man between the Prime Minister and the so-called "awkward squad" of left-wingers in the Commons. Mr Blair regularly telephones him for advice and invites him for tea in his Parliamentary office.

"They get on very well," a Downing Street source said. "The Prime Minister has a very high opinion of Dennis - he's got a soft spot for him like we all do. The Dennis Skinner of 1998 is not the Dennis Skinner of 1988 or 1978. He's become a lot more constructive in his outlook and approach" ... "He may criticise policies but he doesn't attack the Prime Minister personally," a Labour source said. "He's not like the other left-wingers who seem to hate the party under Blair as much as they hate the Tories. He's an instinctive loyalist."

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