'I think Ed Miliband is a right-winger basically. I think that’s where he comes from'

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 21 July 2011 in Diary
Full transcript of an interview with Ronnie Campbell MP, veteran of the Labour left

This is the full transcript of Amber's interview with Ronnie Campbell on 26 May 2011 for the 'What's left of the Labour left?' article

Where do you put yourself in the Labour spectrum?


A lot of people don't like the Left/Right definition.

I am proudly left. Always have been. When I started politics, I wasn't left I must admit that. But I think being in the miners' union for as many years has turned me left. The more I learned about politics, the more I turned. I was left. I didn't begin as a left-winger. I was pretty ordinary. I just got into politics by chance, by luck, in many respects. But it was my mining career that made me left – and of course political events as course.

Would you call yourself hard/soft left?

They always called me on the hard left. That would be right in my early days and I think I was hard left but I have matured since then. I'm like an old wine, I suppose. I have matured. I still yearn towards the left. I'm not as hard as I used to be.

What is hard left?

Nationalise everything in sight. The manifesto of the hard left. That means some of the stuff is billy. Some of the workers would love it. But they would never vote for it. All this wonderful stuff – nationalise the bank, nationalise land, you can go on and on. The communist manifesto comes near it in the old days. I've never seen much of it now because we don't even talk about it as MPs now. 'Nationalise? Bloody hell. We don't nationalise. We just pour taxpayers' money in. Robbing 'em and selling off cheap.

Is there anyone left on the hard left of Labour?

I don't think so, no. Once you lost Dave Nellist and Terry Fields and them, I think that was the hard left in my view in Parliament. They were like the militant tendency. I wasn't far away from them. As I say, I've mellowed now. I'm a bit of an old wine bottle sort of thing. They were the hard left. We haven't got that kind of MP now. It’s a shame. Bernie Grant was pretty left. Jeremy Corbyn is still hard – he’s the left. There’s a few like that. And Dennis of course – Dennis Skinner. One or two others. I am not sure about the new intake. Ian Lavery comes from the left but he’s got a bit of ambition in him. And if he’s got a bit of ambition, he’s not going to be Left for very long, is he?

The Campaign Group, for example, a lot of people would not have been considered left enough to be in it in 1982.

That’s right, yes. The Campaign Group just hardly exists now, does it? Well, there’s the Representation Committee but I don’t think that has a great number of MPs in it as well. I’m a member but I am not sure there’s a great deal of MPs. The Left are being marginalised, pushed to one side with the emergence of New Labour and whatever comes after New Labour, we’ll have to wait and see. We haven’t got the nous of the days, the Old Left. When I first got to Parliament, there were bags of them. Margaret Beckett, you could name ‘em all on the left of the party – Dawn Primarolo. I’m just thinking off the top of my head. There were a few more as well. They were all in the Campaign Group and left. They had ambitions and once you have ambitions and get on the greasy pole, your left-wing principles go out of the window.

Why is that?

Well, you wouldn’t get on. There’s nobody going to select you for a junior minister or something like that if you're on the left of the party. Because the left of the party has never been in control of the party. We’ve never, ever been in power. The left of the Labour Party has never been in power. Not at any time in its history.

Which leader of the Labour Party did you feel most comfortable under?

Michael Foot. He would be the only one and he got swamped with the 1982 ‘suicide note’ as they call it, the 1982 manifesto, which was actually brilliant stuff. If you read it and you were a worker, you would say, ‘Yes, I want some of that stuff’. The press of course murdered it as well. These days you can’t argue for workers in the way you could in the old days. Because once you start arguing for workers’ rights and workers’ conditions, the press look at you as though you’ve got two heads and a spiky tail. The press media don’t defend working people. They never have.

Are trade unions also suffering from that?

Yes. Because the trade unions lost power, when the miners got defeated. I think Margaret Thatcher’s biggest achievement was – her biggest achievement – was defeating the miners and the unions. Because we were left to fight that battle on our own. Although we were getting money off trade unions, T&G and all them, we were piling money into the miners’ union to keep on strike. They weren’t on strike, but we were fighting for trade union rights as well. At that particular time, it had become apparent that this wasn’t a battle of the miners; it was a battle to defeat the trade unions. And of course we were left on our own. And of course, 12 months we just couldn’t sustain 12 months with no money, no pay. The hardship was absolutely terrible. And of course Thatcher won and that was the end of the power of the trade unions. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, New Labour would say it was a good thing because they carried on the laws that were put through by Thatcher – as she defeated the miners – and they never changed them. Blair never changed them. In fact, I think he strengthened them, to tell you the truth. That was the end of the trade unions. And now the trade unions, what power they have, one or two unions, I suppose the Tube Workers and the British Rail, they’ve got a little bit of power but not as much as they had in the old days.

We don’t know where Ed Miliband stands on this. Does he have an ear open to this a little more?

No, I think he is a right-winger basically. I think that’s where he comes from. I don't think he is left in any sense of the imagination. When we talk about left, we forget about left, the minute we talk about socialism. Wa, wha, what? What are you talking about? This is the Labour Party. You can’t talk about them things here. When you talk about socialism the capitalists look at you as though you’ve got two heads and a fork tail. I like to get up and mention when I get a chance, ‘The capitalist system has done it again’, you know. The capitalist system, which is made of lovely jargon, you cannot blame the workers for what’s happened in the last few years. Although they would love to. It’s not the workers who are to blame for this crisis. It’s them the capitalist system. So the capitalist system, as we always said, is worse than the power of the trade unions. Because when they make a mess of it, and they have made a mess of it, at least we went on straight for 12 months.

Is the Red Ed title just an attempt by the Tories and the media...?

Oh, yes. Without a shadow of a doubt. They will always want to try and stick that on our foreheads. Because the way that things are going now, people finding their services being cut and their jobs being cut, they don’t know if they’ll have a job – that concentrates the mind for a lot of workers. They’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, we should stand up here and fight.’ But there’s nobody to fight for.  The trade unions haven’t done any fighting. The Labour Party hasn’t done any fighting. Who’s going to do any fighting? Where are the Arthur Skargills of this world? They are gone. They were defeated.

Did you have some hope for Ed Miliband at first?

I like Ed. I haven’t got a problem with Ed. He was my second choice, I must admit. It wasn’t much of a choice for us as far as I was concerned. I voted for Andy Burnham. He was a working lad, come from the button, he’ll do me. It was like that. I mean Andy is as right-wing as they come but there wasn’t much choice there for me. I mean Diane Abbott just didn’t have a chance.

So it was disappointment before it even started?

Of course it was. Just seeing the list was a disappointment. I got her on the ballot. My nomination was to get her on the ballot. I did do that for her. She had to run everywhere to get everybody. I remember just after the 12.30 nomination closing, she came in at 12.25... I’d put a nomination in for her and she was begging Dennis to run straight away down to put a nomination in. ‘They’re going to wait for you coming down, Dennis.’ Really Dennis didn’t want to basically but I think he did in the end, like. He did put a nomination in for her. But she was desperate to get there and David Miliband gave her one or two votes. Who was it that voted for her again? He would have liked a left candidate to stand but probably someone more prominent than Diane Abbot.

Who would you like to have seen stand?

That’s a big question. We haven’t got any Tony Benn's. We haven’t got anything like that on the left. Dennis Skinner would have been one of the candidates but Dennis is 80-odd now. He’s too old. I couldn’t say though.

Is the party machine trying to stop the selection of candidates from the left?

That’s true. There was a block on putting candidates in from the left. That was true. Even when I stood, 20-odd years ago, they nearly had a fit because I wasn’t expected to win. When I stood here for the selection in Blithe, there were some good candidates – there was the leader of the local council, the leader of the district council, trade unions standing – I was just an NUM most of the round. But I won and I won on a left wing ticket. I didn’t hold back on my speeches. I’ve still got my speeches actually.

Is the party still doing that in current circumstances?

I think they are doing it more now. They are trying to control who gets the seat. You’ve got to remember that politics now is a career. Most members of parliament coming in, or would-be members of parliament, whereas to me it wasn’t a career, I was working down the pit. I was finished there and I was off the miners' strike and the pit had closed. And I could have worked in another pit but that was going to close as well so I never bothered. But I wasn’t a career politician. I didn’t say I’m going to be an MP or I want to be an MP. It just happened for me. I just happened to be there, on the dole, had finished in the pit, the year after the pit finished, I wasn’t doing anything. I think I was trying to get onto training to be a care worker. That was going to be my job. Then the job came up and someone said, ‘Throw your hat in the ring.’ And I phoned Arthur Skargill up and I said would I get the backing of the NUM and he said you’ll get our whole backing Ronnie, I’ll make sure of that. When Arthur said he would give me the backing of the NUM, I said, ‘Ok, I’ll stand.’ I didn’t think I would win, mind. I thought it would be interesting to get back on the hustling, have a good time, make some good speeches all over the place, which I did. And I was winning nominations left, right and centre.

It’s up to party members as well. We still have at the moment local party members picking their party candidate. That goes down to party membership. That happened with Blair. When Blair got elected, a lot of the left of the party just left and never came back. When I think of one or two that were left in my time, they never came back to the party. They were disillusioned with politics and just said, ‘That’s it. The workers will never get anything’ which is about right when you look at today’s position that we are in.

New Labour started well. But it didn’t finish well, did it. There were some new ideas and that’s where politicians like me started to mellow and say, ‘We’re stuck with New Labour, we’re stuck with Blair. We’ll just have to look at some of the stuff he’ll produce. And some of the stuff he did produce you couldn’t argue with – Sure Starts and the schools programme – good stuff. But then when you look at the other stuff, we were far right of Attila the Hun. The war was a disaster for Labour. I told Blair that. I wrote to him when he left. I wished him all the best. I said, ‘Good luck with whatever you’re going to do next but I cannot say that about your decision to go to war. That will always be around your neck Tony. But good luck.’ 10 Downing Street sent one back saying ‘Thank you very much Ronnie and I like you too.’

What do you make of the suggestion by Compass that there should be a progressive alliance between Labour and the Lib Dems?

A load of bumpers. If this progressive alliance thinks that the Liberals are anywhere near standing along with us then you just have to look at the proof of what they are prepared to vote for, what they are prepared to put through. I’ll make a prediction now, the private sector will be in to the running of the health service. Watch this space.

On the left of Labour, is there any hope or is it dismal-looking?

You never know with politics. The left could make the surge back. But it’s got to make the swing of the people. The only way to get the swing of the people is to get the media on your side, which is going to be a very difficult job because the media is run by the capitalists, so they are not going to make sure that the Left comes in and outs them. So we’ve got a big fight on our hands. The only way we can come back is if it all crashes and that is still a possibility. If it all crashes, and it goes haywire and we all go down to the depression then you could see a big surging of the left because people will say, ‘They were right. They are the people we should have supported at the time.’ And there will be a big move to the left.

And to the far right.

Indeed. You could go either way. People could go right as well as left. But I think in Britain there is more tendency to go left but we need a leadership. We need a leader. We haven’t got one now. Tony Benn was one at the time, remember if you go back them years. And if you look at trade union leaders, you know? Great Jack Jones. Arthur Skargill is one. And you haven’t got that type of leadership now. They’ve gone.

Are trade unions pandering to the right?

Get a few crumbs. Get a few crumbs for their membership and that’ll keep ‘em happy. But it’s not keeping them happy. I was at a demonstration at County Hall a few months ago and they’re cutting their wages, they’re taking their contracts off of them and they are going to sack 500 workers – big demonstration outside County Hall. I look at them and say, ‘If this was the mining days everybody would be out of that building. Everybody would have been out on that demonstration. Only half of ‘em came out – quite a few did in all fairness. I said, ‘Where’s your picket line out here? You’re losing your bloody wages. They’ve been cut.’ The bin men just told me last week they’ve changed at least 20-25 men’s contracts. They’ve lost the money.

So it’s public sector workers?

That is where it will start. That is just the beginning. If this goes the wrong way, is it the OCD or something, ‘The Tories is right. We are going to cut hard and deep, yes. We support them.’ Now they are saying the opposite. That’s the problem, we don’t know where we are going. We’re like the blind leading the blind I think... But I could foresee a resurgence of the left. It can come again.

Next 20 years?

Could be. It all depends. It all depends on what happens with the world economy and the system and how its run.. There could be a surgence. It’s happening in the Middle East anyway, isn’t it, with all them dictators. So it could happen here.

Hey, we’ve got a week off haven’t we? One thing about this job, you get bags of time off. I’m working in the officer. The girls are in here working away and I’m always in the office so I never take the time off. I never fly away for a holiday. I should do.

Tags: Dennis Skinner, Ed Miliband, Labour Party, Ronnie Campbell, Trade Unions

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