Tuesday 27 February 2024

From The Pits To Parliament

Mark Seddon writes:

Lord Peter Mandelson famously once described himself as a ‘fighter not a quitter’ before being obliged to quit over something or other. Ronnie Campbell, who has sadly passed away at the age of 80, really was a fighter, not a quitter, in his long union and political life and in his personal life. He famously beat stomach cancer in 2016 to return in full hue and cry to the Commons, where he would continue to frequently interrupt Ministers with the shout, ‘What about the miners?’, irrespective of what they were talking about. As Ronnie would say, ‘Never, forgive, never forget’.

Ronnie went to work down the pit at the age of 14 and was a coal miner from 1958 to 1986. He was active in the big strikes of the early 1970s that gave miners a better standard of living and that helped bring Edward Heath’s Conservative Government down. He was Secretary of the NUM Branch at Bates Colliery in Northumberland during the great miners’ strike of 1984-85 and was arrested twice on the picket lines. The announcement of Ronnie’s death came on the fortieth anniversary of that strike, which was ultimately to lead to the complete closure of the North East coalfield.

A photograph of Ronnie at the house he shared with another ex-miner turned Labour MP, John Cummings, in London, showed Ronnie in full pit gear; shin pads, protective headgear, miners lamp and pit pony. (The last working pit ponies came out of Ellington Colliery in the early 1990s). He would often talk about the camaraderie of working underground — and the fact that his workmates would joke that every time he changed his pit socks, he and his beloved wife, Deidre, would have another baby. Ronnie and Deidre had five strapping sons and a daughter, a fact that would have jaws literally dropping when Ronnie, John Cummings MP and Grahame Morris, who was to succeed John as MP in Easington, and I visited China at the time of the ‘one child policy’. Ronnie’s pride in the North East on that trip also manifested itself with him being pictured joyfully holding a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale on the Great Wall of China. Next to him was a sign that read, ‘Not a plucky hero until you climb the Great Wall’.

Andrew Roth, a one-time close observer of the Parliamentary scene, who profiled new Members of Parliament, said of Ronnie Campbell and John Cummings that they were ‘rough diamonds who would come to sparkle in Parliament’. Both were firm socialists, and Ronnie the more uncompromising and blunt of the pair. Ronnie was outgoing and outspoken; his infectious humour and periodic belly laughs a fantastic protection against any real attempt to discipline him. Such attempts would be doomed to failure in any event. Ronnie’s strong Northumberland accent would also present problems to any potential adversary — as he would remind us, Norse vernacular, from the time of the Viking invasion of Northumbria, would sometimes pepper his colourful use of language. The Labour Whips Office would struggle with this, which suited Ronnie.

On one occasion when much ale had been consumed, and you could cut the smoky air with a knife, Ronnie, John, Grahame and I were involved in some robust discussion about something or other around the television. At a certain point during proceedings, Ronnie got up and hollered, ‘Right, I’m now vexed!’ he then stormed up the stairwell to his bedroom, at which point there was an enormous crash. Ronnie had waded straight into a wardrobe instead of his bedroom and was stuck underneath it. On another occasion, this time in the Commons, Conservative MP Nicholas Soames, tipsy after returning from Royal Ascot, gave Ronnie what he thought was a friendly gesture but which was misinterpreted by Ronnie, who lifted Soames, who is a big man, completely off his feet, and warned him never to patronise him again (in so many words).

Ronnie was, as you might expect, a stalwart of the Miners Group of Labour MPs and the Socialist Campaign Group and was one of the thirty or so MPs to nominate Jeremy Corbyn for leader. (Ronnie was chuffed when Corbyn went to visit him shortly before he passed away).

In 1992, I organised a meeting of North East Labour MPs, including Tony Blair, with the then Chairman of the National Coal Board after Michael Heseltine had announced a further hit list of 31 collieries to shut. Ronnie was the first to observe to me that the NCB chairman seemed only to be interested in Blair, who Ronnie told me was ‘the one to watch’.

He was a strong opponent of the Iraq War. He, in common with Dennis Skinner and a few others on the Labour benches, was a consistent opponent of the Common Market, which became the EEC, the EC and finally, as Member States headed for ‘ever closer union’, the European Union. He supported Brexit, having a much clearer idea also as to where opinion on the issue with many working-class voters really was. He famously said, “I am a leaver, and I always have been. MPs are elected, unlike the EU bureaucrats, and if people don’t like how MPs vote, then they can get rid of us, and that’s how it should work.’ His voters never tired of him, although by the time he finally decided to stand down in 2019, the once rock-solid Labour citadel of Blyth Valley had, almost unimaginably, turned blue in the election of that year.

Ronnie’s big loves were his family and his friends. He was a great supporter of non-league Blyth Spartans and was always on the terraces. He liked the horses and having a flutter and was a CIU (Working Men’s Club and Institute Union) member to his core. Takings may be down for a while at Blyth Comrades Social Club. RIP Ronnie. We shall miss you.