“Central Lobby. 10 o’ clock. Don’t be late,” Dennis Skinner barks, when he calls out of the blue the evening before our interview. I’d spent a good half hour on the phone earlier that day trying to persuade him to meet me, but such was his barrage of suspicion about “you newspaper people”, I assumed I’d failed.
But sure enough, the next morning, Labour’s most belligerent rebel is prowling around the grand hall at the heart of the Palace of Westminster. His glossy white hair is neatly swept back. He wears his classic red tie and tweed jacket combination. Skinner may be a veteran socialist firebrand, but he still takes impeccable care over his appearance. And for an 84-year-old with a hip replacement, he nips through Parliament’s winding corridors on our way to the Members’ Dining Room with grace.
Skinner greets Commons staff we walk past, and twinkles his blue eyes at colleagues milling around the dining room where we settle for a cup of tea. He’s clearly part of the furniture in a place that couldn’t be further from his upbringing as the son of a miner – and then a miner himself – in a Derbyshire pit town.
Perhaps this is because he’s been here so long. He has represented the Derbyshire constituency of Bolsover since 1970, and by the next election he will have been an MP for half a century. He is currently second-in-line to the dubious title of “Father of the House” (the longest-serving male MP).
Skinner, nicknamed the “Beast of Bolsover” for his outspoken nature, is often described as an “institution” of British politics. His annual republican heckle (“Tell her to pay her taxes!”, “Royal Mail for sale; Queen’s head privatised!”, etc) on the day of the Queen’s Speech has almost become part of the State Opening of Parliament ceremony. And he has been suspended from the Commons chamber more than ten times, mainly for unparliamentary language. Most recently, he was booted out after repeatedly calling the prime minister “Dodgy Dave”, following the Panama Papers scandal.
However much he winds up colleagues with his outbursts and rulebreaking in the chamber, he is a gift to sketchwriters and fans of political silliness. He is most often found barracking from his customary corner seat on the “rebels’ bench” (the front row across the aisle from the opposition frontbench, usually occupied by the “awkward squad” of Labour rebels – a perfect vantage point for heckling both your own leader and the prime minister).
Though Skinner attends almost every Commons session, he still manages to make headlines; during the junior doctor’s strike, his call on Jeremy Hunt to “wipe that smirk off his face” was widely reported.
“I still think carefully about what I’m going to say,” he tells me, eyes widening in innocence. “I use me heart and head technique, in which the heart says, ‘get stuck in, Dennis!’, and the head says, ‘just a minute…’
“But I probably don’t use this as often as some others,” he concedes. “And I don’t write things down, which makes a difference.”
Skinner says he sometimes comes up with phrases for speeches when he’s wandering around, on his walks in St James’s Park, for example.
It’s difficult not to smile at some of his idiosyncratic turns of phrase. After a thundering tirade during our interview about the stupidity of the Iraq invasion, he concludes of Blair and Bush: “So they upset the apple cart, good and proper.” And when lamenting some politicians’ and journalists’ homogenisation of Muslims in the Middle East (“like they spoke about the miners in the Eighties”), he argues: “They’re [Muslims are] like us. They’re made up of Heinz Varieties, 57 different varieties, as Heinz used to say.”
Skinner at a demo in support of miners in 1992. Photo: Getty
But Skinner is surprisingly introspective about his particular brand of oratory: “I’ve done [spoken at] nearly every constituency in the whole of Britain over the years, some more than once. And I want to be honest with you, I’ve never felt 100 per cent happy with what I’ve said,” he reflects. “Because I’m thinking” – he pounds the wooden table with his fist – “I should’ve done it that way, I forgot to say this…
“And people are saying ‘oh, it were wonderful, Dennis’. And I’m still thinking it could’ve been better. I’m sure that actors are like that,” he muses. “I’m sure that when we cheer and go to the West End, and think what a wonderful job they’ve done – I put meself in their mind, and I think, ‘I wonder what they really think’. Did they hit the top note every time?”
His characterisation of politics as a performance makes perfect sense to anyone who’s watched him roaring for the limelight. He treats the floor of the House of Commons as his stage, and exasperated MPs as merely players. But his aggressive approach doesn’t tally with Jeremy Corbyn’s endeavour for a gentler tone of political debate. Skinner, who nominated Corbyn for the leadership, argues that this is to do with their different backgrounds.
“I think he’s [Corbyn’s] doing all right, but unlike me, he wasn’t brought up in a household where we had to fight to get our words in,” Skinner says. “I think Jeremy was brought up in a household where somebody probably said ‘what do you think, Jeremy?’ Nobody in the Skinner family ever heard that phrase. Me and me brothers and sisters would be trying to get our word in. It’d be a mad scramble.”
He rumbles on: “Jeremy has this view that politics should be of that order, civilised, to the point of not making any nasty remarks at all. That’s how he’s been shaped. It was their demeanour, the way they discussed things . . . Well, I wasn’t brought up like that. Environment does shape you. My environment, in a pit family, in a pit village, with nine kids in total.”
Skinner’s father, a coal miner involved in the union, was sacked after the 1926 general strike. His mother used to take in washing and clean the house for a local shopkeeper called Mrs Langley to make some money. And when Skinner reached 16, he went to work in the mines himself.
Although there wasn’t much food on the table, he says his family had “politics for breakfast, dinner and tea”, and he was soon being singled out for positions on the NUM (the National Union of Mineworkers), and the council. He was voted MP for Bolsover in 1970, at the age of 38. On the Monday morning following his election, he turned up to the pit as usual. Nobody had told him whether or not he would be paid before being sworn in a few weeks later, so he didn’t want to risk it.
“You never get a letter from an authority saying you’re a member of parliament,” he says. “So I went back to the pit at Glapwell colliery on the Monday, and they said, ‘we voted for you on Thursday, what are you doing here?’”
Skinner feels “there ought to be more people who are coming from, that started their life, in working-class occupations” in Parliament and says “never have been” enough working-class Labour MPs. “In the public sector, there are a million people in the health service,” he growls. “There ought to be a couple of dozen or more on the Labour side, who learned their trade in different parts of the health service, and the public sector, and local government. And bus drivers, and people on the Underground. I can think of loads of places.
“I remember at one time there were 44 mining MPs,” he recalls. “I think it has to be more representative of the population at large.” Skinner glances at the clock at the end of the dining room. It’s nearly 11.30am, and it’s a Wednesday. He bounces up. He has to head to the chamber in good time for Prime Minister’s Questions. And after nearly 50 years of being a troublesome backbencher, he still seems excited.