Peter Pinkney is a union leader and Green candidate. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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From Labour careerists to middle-class Marxists: Peter Pinkney, the union boss and Green candidate

The socialist firebrand and RMT president is running for the Greens in Redcar. Why?

“Well, they haven’t sent Will Self or Nick Lezard, so I can’t be that important...” is Peter Pinkney’s greeting when I arrive to interview him.

After mumbling my sincerest apologies for not being an acerbic middle-aged male NS columnist, I begin trying to find out why this union boss and self-proclaimed Marxist is running to become a Green MP.

It may be a little crude to describe this socialist firebrand as resembling Trotsky, but with his goatee beard, round black spectacle frames, shabby-chic waistcoat, hair groomed back, and single gold earring, he really does look the part of an old-school revolutionary.

When the Greens announced at the beginning of this month that a “top union official” was to stand for their party in Redcar, a coastal constituency to the north-east of Middlesbrough where the Lib Dem MP is standing down, it caused a flurry of media attention. “Unionist Pinko lashes Labour and joins Greens,” roared The Sun.

For many, his move symbolised the Green party now being the true party of the left, and Labour losing its core supporters having torn itself away from the trade unions. But from speaking to Pinkney about his decision, I feel it tells us more about how appealing the Greens are as a “broad church” party, with more freedom for dissent than the Labour party has allowed its foot soldiers in a long time.

Pinkney has been president of the RMT, the railworkers’ union, since 2012, although he is keen to point out that his decision to stand does not represent the union. “I'm standing as me, on a personal level. I didn't join the Green party as Peter Pinkney, president of the RMT,” he tells me. “I just think of myself as Peter Pinkney, railway worker, Middlesbrough, at the end of the day.”

He has never been a member of the Labour party, although he was in the Communist party, which once had links to Labour. He has been a member of Greenpeace all his life, and tells me his motto on the environment has long been: “No earth, no socialism.”

He describes Labour as “reddish Conservatives”, and finds the Greens compelling because of what he calls their “old Labour” style policies.

A couple of years ago, just after the TUC conference in 2013, some comments the Green MP Caroline Lucas made on a panel he was invited on about renationalising the railways caught his attention.

“I was quite interested in how much the Green party reminded us of the old Labour party in that sense of different stalls, different opinions, a broad church. It’s interested in, in my opinion, socialist things of a sort.”

He says he “thought long and hard” about going Green, and watched the insurgence of Syriza and Podemos in Europe very closely, speaking to contacts on the left, and watching a speaker from Syriza address a conference last year held by Left Unity, an alternative left-wing party in the UK.

“I saw a Syriza speaker, and she really impressed me,” he recalls. “She mentioned Karl Marx, Trotsky, Lenin, but she stood up and said – and she was very brave to say this in front of about 400 people there, most of them socialists and Socialist Workers Party people – ‘we don’t live in that century anymore’.

“That sort of rang a bell with me. I’m not a dogmatic Marxist; I'd still consider myself a Marxist, but I realise that things have to change.”

Pinkney in particular decries Labour’s departure from the days of 1945, and what he calls a “really radical agenda” of the NHS, nationalisation of the railways, coalmines, and building social housing. He is also compelled by the Greens’ lack of fear about taxing “people who can afford it”.

“This isn't the politics of envy,” he thunders. “My opinion is how much money do these people want? How many cars do they want? How many houses?”

Pinkney is enthusiastic about the Greens’ positive stance on immigration. Their welcoming attitude to migrants reminds him of a “Communist party” attitude:

“I don't believe in restrictions, I never have – that may be controversial, but I don't care,” he rumbles. “I've got lots of friends from all over the world living here, and I don't understand that sort of behaviour – it’s always the lowest common denominator to blame the Jews, blacks, Asians, Irish at one time, and now it's eastern Europeans.”

Although Pinkney is vocal about standing up for the rights of the working classes – or in Redcar what he dubs the “non-working class” because of the number of unemployed people there – his new-found party is often accused of having far too middle-class credentials to back up its radical agenda.

“One of the criticisms of the Green party is that it's very middle class,” Pinkney arches an eyebrow. “Oh really? So where are all the working-class people leading the Labour party? Or even some of the groups of the far left? And if I remember rightly, Karl Marx was pretty middle-class.”

He is particularly damning about the current leadership of the Labour party, calling them “careerists” and comparing them unfavourably with senior figures in the party 70 years ago.

“In 1945, you had Nye Bevan, ex-coal miner, Ernest Bevin, ex-lorry driver, leading the party – major figures – even Clement Attlee had gone and worked in the East End. You'd never see that now.”

He adds: “Well, you've got Alan Johnson, that's the only one I can think of. The rest, a lot of them, are careerists. They possibly see this [politics] as, ‘well, an easy way for me to have a career in my life, and money, and this that and the other’.”

Pinkney is reticent about discussing the reaction from his union colleagues to his decision to run for the Greens, and does admit when the party first asked him to be their candidate, he refused.

“The candidate who was going to run had some, as far as I'm aware, personal problems, and couldn't run. They [the Greens] asked me and my initial reaction was ‘no’,” he reveals. “At the end of the day, they understand my union duties come first. I was elected, and that’s about it.

“Then I spoke to people, union comrades, friends, family, and they said, ‘if you believe in it, do it’. So I agreed. I went to the selection meeting, I was quite open about my politics, not one person criticised me about my beliefs, and were really happy that I was running.”

There are areas of Green policy Pinkney does not agree with. “Maybe on some of their policies on their vision of the economy, it’s difficult,” he admits. “ . . . I think I’d have to think about what they’re saying on the economy and stuff.

“[But] I'm sure there's a way round it. I'm sure there are people in the Green party who don’t like the fact that I'm standing, don't like what I am – that's fine, I can live with that.”

He’s reticent and rather vague when I ask him to elaborate, but his reservations on economic policy seem to lie in renewable energy companies bringing workers in from abroad and displacing local workers. And as an RMT man, he would like to see the rail franchise contracts torn up upon the Greens entering government:

“My opinion is take it off, all of it, overnight, because you’ve already made a lot of money. But that’s just my personal opinion. Other people are more pragmatic, and it’s an easier way of doing it to let the franchises run out.”

The Greens’ policy is to let the franchises expire, as it costs nothing to do so.

“I know, I don’t care anyway,” Pinkney bellows. “I said it at the TUC, it’s documented – I turned round and said ‘take it off!’”

Our accompanying Green party press officer winces. But to me it seems the party’s greatest asset is not its stable of socialist policies, but that it can allow its candidates to veer so passionately off-message. Marxist freewheeler beats robot activist any day, as machine politics already begins to suffocate the election campaigns. But what would I know?

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.