A couple of years back I wrote a post about Shut Out the Light’s fantastic Still Ragged, a documentary about The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. In it Dennis Skinner provides a typically passionate and straightforward critique of zero-hours contracts, arguing that they are the modern-day equivalent of the insecure employment that blights the lives of Tressell’s characters.
The filmmakers obviously got on well with Skinner: they’ve spent the last two years making a documentary about his life. And what a life. Skinner was born between the wars into a big mining family in Clay Cross, Derbyshire. His dad had been blacklisted following the General Strike in 1926 and Dennis followed in his footsteps, going into the mines – and the Union – when he left school. Skinner was a gifted scholar with a sharp wit and was quick to master the skills of a pitman and a union rep, going on to get elected as a councillor in 1960 and MP for Bolsover in 1970.
Since then he’s been the scourge of Tories in the House of Commons, stymying bills from Enoch Powell and Anne Widdecombe (on stem cell research and abortion, respectively) and delivering brilliant parliamentary put-downs, earning himself the title The Beast of Bolsover. Examples in recent years include him telling Jeremy Hunt to ‘wipe the smirk off his face’ and suggesting that rather than the economy, the only things growing in the 1970s and 80s were the lines of cocaine in front of George Osborne.
Behind the headline-grabbing one-liners, though, there’s a serious and thoughtful politician and a kind and decent man. Skinner’s socialism was formed through the mining culture he grew up in and 22 years down the pit. He actively supported the 1972 Rent Rebellion in his home town (he had two brothers on the Council) and the 84-85 Strike. As an elected representative he’s fought tirelessly for his constituents, embodying the ideals of hard work and selfless public service that underpin his politics.
Skinner is Labour through and through. He’s proudly on the Left of the Party but he believes in supporting his colleagues from across the Labour spectrum. As a principled left-winger who has consistently spoken out against the dodgy patronage of Parliament, his honesty and integrity are beyond reproach and he has lessons for us all about socialism, solidarity – and singing (as demonstrated in this moving clip about Skinner singing with the elderly in his constituency).
Skinner’s story is an important and timely one. As the Labour Party rediscovers its socialism, Dennis Skinner’s long memory can help its members to understand the rich political tradition they inherit. If you have a few quid to spare, please chip in to help Shut Out the Light finish their film and bring the compelling story of this real-life working-class hero to the big screen.