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?

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“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 senior writer at the New Statesman.