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Dennis Skinner warns SNP MPs trying to take his seat: “This is one victory – it will be a battle”

Green with bench envy.

Other than shattering the very foundations of Scottish political life, the SNP is causing a stir elsewhere. Its new MPs are trying to take over the much-coveted corner seat on the "rebels' bench" in the House of Commons.

The seat itself is on the corner of the frontbench along the aisle from the opposition frontbench, furthest away from the Speaker. Here it is:


 

This seat has been occupied by Dennis Skinner, Labour backbench veteran and monarch-bothering socialist firebrand, since he wrested it from David Owen in the early Eighties. But he has been sitting on that row ever since Edward Heath became Prime Minister in 1970; Skinner has been an MP - the "Beast of Bolsover" - since that year.

Here he is in action from his favourite seat - an ideal vantage point for heckling the Prime Minister:
 


 

But the new SNP contingent of 56 MPs attempted today to steal Skinner's seat, in parliament's first vote since it dissolved for the general election. Hours ahead of parliamentary business, which began at 2.30pm today, SNP MPs took it in turns to sit in Skinner's seat in order to reserve it for their party.

Skinner managed to force them out of the seat, but he warns the SNP MPs he won't give up without a fight when parliament sits next week. He tells me: "Today is one victory, and it is significant, but it will be a running battle."

Every morning at 8am, Skinner reserves the seat with a prayer card. He won't give away how he'll beat the 56 MPs' rota system - "It's like a Premier League football match; you don't reveal your plans" - but says, "I'm not going to go quietly... I've never had any trouble in 30-odd years [reserving the seat] when Big Ben chimes. That's what they have to remember.

"I am here every day, and they are determined to try and get me out. It tells you a lot about them - the idea that you're going to throw out an 83-year-old after 45 years. It's a great political victory to be on the rebel bench. I don't think some of them understand how it works at all."

Skinner's main gripe isn't even the breaking of tradition. It's that he believes the SNP MPs are slavishly following instructions. "They don't understand what they're doing on behalf of the leadership," he says. "The rota system might work for a while, but they are just being lobby fodder for their leader. They might get fed up of that. I would. I've always been a backbencher; I've never been lobby fodder."

I ask Skinner what he said to the new MPs he clashed with this afternoon in the chamber. "You don't want to be in Westminster full-time, do you?" he replies. "You want to get away from Westminster with your Barnett Formula, so that my constituents have to pay money to Scotland, and with your North Sea Oil. Some of them didn't answer at all. They were ordered to do it [try and take my seat]."

Keep an eye out for what might be the bloodiest political battle of our times.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn secures big victory on Labour's national executive committee

The NEC has approved rule changes which all-but-guarantee the presence of a Corbynite candidate on the ballot. 

Jeremy Corbyn has secured a major victory after Labour’s ruling executive voted approve a series of rule changes, including lowering the parliamentary threshold for nominating a leader of the Labour party from 15 per cent to 10 per cent. That means that in the event of a leadership election occurring before March 2019, the number of MPs and MEPs required to support a candidate’s bid would drop to 28. After March 2019, there will no longer be any Labour MEPs and the threshold would therefore drop to 26.

As far as the balance of power within the Labour Party goes, it is a further example of Corbyn’s transformed position after the electoral advance of June 2017. In practice, the 28 MP and MEP threshold is marginally easier to clear for the left than the lower threshold post-March 2019, as the party’s European contingent is slightly to the left of its Westminster counterpart. However, either number should be easily within the grasp of a Corbynite successor.

In addition, a review of the party’s democratic structures, likely to recommend a sweeping increase in the power of Labour activists, has been approved by the NEC, and both trade unions and ordinary members will be granted additional seats on the committee. Although the plans face ratification at conference, it is highly likely they will pass.

Participants described the meeting as a largely low-key affair, though Peter Willsman, a Corbynite, turned heads by saying that some of the party’s MPs “deserve to be attacked”. Willsman, a longtime representative of the membership, is usually a combative presence on the party’s executive, with one fellow Corbynite referring to him as an “embarrassment and a bore”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.