Dennis Skinner has a selective memory when it comes to the treatment of EU migrants who worked in the coal mines

Arthur Horner, General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, spoke out against foreign workers in the mining industry, and his party declared that Poles ‘should be sent home, to work out their own salvation’

Tom Peck
Monday 25 September 2017 17:28
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Dennis Skinner voted to leave the European Union
Dennis Skinner voted to leave the European Union

When the chair of Monday morning’s Labour Party conference debate indicated that a contribution would be taken from “the member for Bolsover” I became unexpectedly reacquainted with a familiar sense of rising dread.

Those of us who spend far too much of our lives watching debates in the House of Commons have come to know what to expect from Dennis Skinner, and it is rarely welcome.

Skinner is 85 years-old. He is a first rate talker. Whatever it is he has to say will be perfectly sculpted to fit the oratorical cadences that delight the human ear. The content, on the other hand, is usually mad. Not wrong: mad. Never one to shy away from a parliamentary debate, I have listened to Dennis Skinner’s opinions on topics that span the full range of human life and emotion, and more on often than not they are so disconnected from reality that hushed conversations are required to establish even the bare bones of what it is he is talking about.

Labour could negotiate 'new single market relationship' after Brexit

On Monday morning however, I was briefly a little bit blown away. Party delegates had spent the morning debating Brexit and getting nowhere. The issue splits the party just as brutally as it has split the Conservatives and the country at large.

Brexit is left wing and right wing at the same time. There’s a Brexit for the rich and a Brexit for the poor. The Labour Party feels it must stand up for undercut British workers, but then there’s the badly treated immigrants. On Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn has spoke of little else but the “Posted Workers Directive” which allows companies to effectively import workers from Romania, Bulgaria and so on, but subject them to pay and benefits as if they were still in their host country. But cutting through this fine mess like no one I have heard came Dennis Skinner with a simple personal story.

He talked about working in the pits after the Second World War. “I worked alongside Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians, the millions of people displaced after the war. And there were never any arguments because we were all paid the same and we were all in the National Union of Mineworkers.”

It’s manna from heaven for Labour members, this. They rose to their feet and clapped like crazy. Why wouldn’t they? The people of Europe could work and live in harmony together were it not for exploitative bosses, the decline of the unions and the rise of zero hour contracts.

How disappointing, and disappointingly predictable, to find out that it is all but untrue. First of all, it is boring but essential to point out that Dennis Skinner voted to leave the European Union, and rebelled against his own party to vote with the Tories on the EU Withdrawal Bill, the thing that his own party fears will be used to shred protections for workers currently guaranteed by EU legislation.

Then there’s the other inconvenient matter of what the trade unions really did to Polish miners in the years Skinner was working in them. In 1945, the Welsh miners’ leader Arthur Horner who was on the Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain, declared that the party “would not allow the importation of foreign – Polish, Italian, or even Irish – labour to stifle the demands of the British people to have decent conditions in British mines.”

By February 1947, Horner was General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers again spoke out against foreign workers in the mining industry, and his party declared that Poles “should be sent home, to work out their own salvation.”

Then there was Jock Kane, Secretary of the Armthorpe Branch of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had this to say, of the years in question.

“I can remember in 1947 we paid wages to thousands of Poles for months and months on end. They never came into this industry and never did a bloody day’s work…There were thousands of Polish ex-army men in camps… A shower of arrogant bloody swine, ex-officer bloody class, and the coal board paid them wages for months on end.”

The moral of the story? That sense of rising dread: it’s there for a reason. And it’s best to pay attention to it.

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