Sir Kevin Barron will almost certainly be the final Yorkshire miner elected to Parliament. He tells Chris Burn how the Miners’ Strike made him a Labour moderniser – and his concerns about the party’s direction under Jeremy Corbyn.
The sign proudly proclaiming the constituency office of Kevin Barron M.P. has been taken down and boxes are packed in the front room. Thirty-six years after entering Parliament as MP for Rother Valley, Sir Kevin has now retired and is preparing to sell the property in Dinnington he and his team have been based in for more than three decades.
But still hanging on the walls, for now, are pictures of the former collieries which once stood in his constituency. Maltby Colliery has been particularly central to his life – the site where he got his first job at 15, the location where he was beaten by police during the Miners’ Strike and, tragically, the place where his first wife Carol suffered a heart attack that took her life in 2008 at the age of 59.
Sir Kevin says the impact of the Miners’ Strike on his constituents was pivotal to his controversial political conversion from a self-confessed ‘Scargillite’ into a Labour moderniser under Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair which saw him play a leading role in rewriting the party’s constitution as part of New Labour’s break with the past.
“The Miners’ Strike made me the politician that I am,” he says. “I had to go through that with these communities and I came out a better politician than I went in – a lot of people wouldn’t agree with that but that is certainly my view.”
Other former Labour MPs such as Ian Austin and Tom Harris have urged voters to back the Conservatives at next month’s election because they believe Jeremy Corbyn is unfit to lead the country but Barron is clear he will not be joining them.
He says he will be voting for Labour on December 12 but his view of the party’s current leader is distinctly lukewarm – perhaps no surprise given his support for Owen Smith’s unsuccessful attempt to replace Jeremy Corbyn after the 2016 referendum.
“I didn’t support Jeremy but he is a legitimate leader of the Labour Party. How he will turn out as Prime Minister if we win this General Election we will have to wait and see. I do have misgivings about him and people around him. I don’t want to name individuals but the party is potentially moving in the wrong direction.”
He says he is concerned about the directions both Labour and the Conservatives are heading in as moderates from both parties disappear.
“The right are leaving our party and the left are leaving the Tory party – this is the end of major parties being a broad church. I think they are much healthier and better being a broad church.
“I’m afraid what we are seeing in this country and to be fair in other parts of the world as well is the break up of political parties that used to be able to have the breadth to take decisions and go into Government and to keep people reasonably happy. I don’t know where this shift goes at the moment.”
Whatever the outcome of the election, a new MP for the first time since 1983 awaits Rother Valley with the two frontrunners – 23-year-old Sophie Wilson who became a Sheffield Labour councillor when she was still at university and 32-year-old West London councillor Alexander Stafford for the Conservatives – cut from a very different cloth than Sir Kevin.
Hailing from a mining family from Durham, Sir Kevin’s parents moved to North Yorkshire as his father went in the Navy during the Second World War. He was born in Tadcaster in 1946 but the family moved to Maltby in South Yorkshire when he was eight as his father took up a job at the local colliery.
One of six children, he left school at 15 to work as a colliery electrician, beginning his training with 20 days underground at Orgreave. “It was just something we did, in a sense it was the family business,” he says.
Sir Kevin also became more political – participating in strike action in the 1960s and 1970s as a member of the National Union of Miners as well as joining the International Socialists, which Sir Kevin admits was a “Trotskyist party”. But Barron says he soon being disenchanted after being involved in the opening of a Rotherham branch.
“Hard-left politics in the end – and we’ve got a bit of it around now – is more to do with political purism than getting power,” he says. “I fell out with them and I resigned.”
Barron’s Wikipedia page lists him as reportedly being a member of Militant, the Trotskyist entrist group which aimed to infiltrate the Labour party - but he says this was never the case. He says the confusion may have arisen as he did once speak on a Militant platform at a Yorkshire Miners Gala event in the 1970s.
He joined Labour in 1974 and the following year his wife Carol encouraged him to attend Ruskin College in Oxford, an institution designed to provide educational opportunities for working-class men, where he took a diploma in Labour Studies.
“That brought me out of the shell of living in a mining community. Mining communities are very strong and very much about looking after one another but at the same time, they are very insular. I will never forget the guy in the next room to me in Oxford was from Nigeria.
“You got to know a lot more about other people and other people’s way of life than you would have done than just by living in a coal-mining community.”
As a young father, Barron used to hitch-hike between Rotherham and Oxford, regularly travelling down south on Monday mornings with a man who delivered axles to the motor trade.
Backed by the NUM after helping Arthur Scargill become the union’s president in 1981, Sir Kevin was chosen as the Labour candidate for Rother Valley in 1983.
He won the seat, which has been held by Labour since its formation in 1918, albeit on a much-reduced than the party had held in 1979 in what was a disastrous national election for the party as the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher gained their biggest post-war Parliamentary majority.
It led to the resignation of then-leader Michael Foot - who had been much-criticised for a left-wing manifesto famously dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” - and the arrival of Neil Kinnock as leader.
“It was one of the worst showings we’d had in a long time,” Barron says of the 1983 election. “I liked Michael Foot, he was a lovely man, but he wasn’t a leader.”
Just months after becoming an MP, the 1984 Miners’ Strike began in what would prove to be a defining period in modern British political history and a formative time for Sir Kevin.
Miners’ strikes in the 1970s had been a key factor in bringing down Ted Heath’s Conservative Government and Margaret Thatcher was determined to avoid the same fate when the strike began in March 1984 following a Government announcement that 20 pits were to be closed, resulting in the loss of 20,000 jobs.
Miners were divided over the action as there had been no national ballot for action and the strike was ruled unlawful on September 28, 1984, by a judge following an application by two separate groups of mineworkers from Yorkshire and Derbyshire who wanted to return to work.
The union had been using ‘flying pickets’ of strikers who would travel from different areas to prevent the movement of coal and protest against those who were working.
Four days before the strike was declared illegal - a decision dismissed at the time by Scargill as “another attempt by an unelected judge to interfere in the union’s affairs” - Barron observed strike action at Maltby Colliery after previously publicly criticising both the police and pickets who had thrown stones at officers.
Sir Kevin says as he was leaving the site with a group of others, policemen came out of nearby woods and started attacking them with batons.
“I was chatting to the local vicar, hundreds of yards from any activity and the activity had calmed down quite a lot. Then these policemen came running out of the woods and started lashing out. I put my arm up else they would have hit me on my head. They were aiming for my head. There was a guy who ended up with 18 stitches in his head.
“It was pretty brutal. I went scuttling off, I was retching, it was really painful. I had a pullover and a jacket on - it was just as well else they probably would have smashed my arm.
“This guy was laying there in a pool of blood, I thought he was dead. I went down to hospital but we had to get the guy who was laying in a pool of blood an ambulance.
“My arm ended up in a sling - it wasn’t broken but it was bashed about a lot, it was very bruised and everything.”
Sir Kevin ended up successfully suing the police after being left with a badly bruised arm.
“The one thing that made me angry that day was the Chief Constable Peter Wright said the police had got the right people. That was why I went to law - because they didn’t,” he recalls.
“The settlement got me and my wife and three kids one or two good holidays to Kefalonia.”
But the incident also set him on a collision course with Scargill at the Labour Conference a few weeks later.
“Everyone thinks I fell out with Scargill years later. But I was on my own with my arm in a sling and he had got his clique with him. Scargill said to me ‘I’ve not seen anybody throwing stones’. I said ‘Arthur you can see what you want to see or don’t see, don’t you ******* tell me what I see or don’t see’. And I walked off. They were all aghast that anyone would talk to Scargill like that at the height of the Miners’ Strike. I have always said that him and Thatcher deserved one another but these communities deserved neither of them.
“To be quite frank, I would rather have gone back down that pit the day after than deny what was happening in these communities. By then, it wasn’t just about the violence it was the poverty and everything. There were a lot of decent men around Arthur but they just wouldn’t stand up to him.”
Having once helped Scargill get elected as NUM president in the early 1980s, Sir Kevin’s politics began heading in a very different direction.
He resigned from the left-wing Campaign Group of Labour MPs in 1985 alongside Leeds Central MP Derek Fatchett over a dispute over who to support to join a Northern Ireland backbench committee.
A few weeks later, Sir Kevin was asked to become Kinnock’s Parliamentary Private Secretary as the Welshman attempted to move the party to the centre-ground to make it more electable.
Kinnock had also criticised the tactics used by the NUM in the Miners’ Strike - making Barron’s particularly controversial to some of his union colleagues in South Yorkshire.
But he says he shared Kinnock’s analysis that Scargill and the NUM had got it wrong - particularly in regard to the failure to ballot members on strike action and the intimidation of those who did cross picket lines.
“Because of the lack of a national consensus to have a strike it was miner versus miner. It was bad leadership of the NUM and I would always say that.
“We brought the Heath Government down in 1974. My own view was Arthur thought it could happen again.
“When the strike ended in March 1985, I remember walking back with Maltby miners to the colliery. It was just dreadful, it was a massive defeat.”
Sir Kevin was expelled from the NUM in 1992 following his condemnation of Scargill over the Lightman inquiry, which had examined allegations overseas money donated to support striking miners had been mishandled.
He went on to play a leading role in the campaign to rewrite Clause Four in Labour’s constitution which had been adopted by the party in 1918 and called for common ownership of industry.
“I always thought Clause Four was giving your political enemies a stick to beat with you. The old Clause Four was written up in 1918 after the Bolshevik revolution. It was saying we will nationalise your local shop.
“By that time we had been out of office since 1979. We were bringing the constitution up to date and making it fit for purpose - I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.”
The definition was changed in 1995 to a broader set of values about democratic socialism and New Labour went on to win a landslide victory in the 1997 election.
But after the election Sir Kevin, who had been shadow minister for public health in Opposition, was overlooked for a ministerial post - something he believes was down to his campaigning for a ban on cigarette advertising.
Months after the May 1997 election, it emerged that Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone had donated £1m to Labour and it was announced in November that year that the sport would be exempt from a planned tobacco sponsorship ban. The resulting scandal saw the donated money returned to Ecclestone. Sir Kevin admits it took him some time to get over missing out on a ministerial post.
“I was a bit disappointed for three weeks and then I just got on with it. I thought if you look at where I have come from - one of six kids in a mining family to travelling the world and visiting the White House, just get on with it.”
Sir Kevin later became Health Select Committee chairman and played a key role in what he says is his proudest moment in politics – England’s smoking ban in public places which started in 2007. Sir Kevin says he was involved in cross-party lobbying to make sure the restrictions went beyond Labour’s 2005 manifesto commitment for a partial ban.
He was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Physicians for his work on the issue and he believes it contributed to the knighthood he was awarded in 2014.
He remains passionate about reducing smoking rates.
“There were over 125,000 premature deaths from smoking in the country at the time. If that was happening because we were at war or we had the wrong rules on the roads, the country would be up in arms. There was this idea that started smoking was an adult decision but most people start when they are very young so it isn’t an adult decision.
“We are now down to below 16 per cent of the population smoking which is excellent. But there are still 80,000 premature deaths so there is work to be done.”
But the political triumph was soon followed by personal tragedy. In 2008, as they attended a centenary celebration at Maltby Colliery together, Sir Kevin’s wife Carol suffered a heart attack and died the following day at the age of just 59.
The pair had been married since 1969 and had three children, with Carol working alongside him in Parliament from 1997. He says today it is hard to put into words what the impact of the death of Carol was.
“It was awful,” he says. “It is difficult to explain how it affects you. Initially you look for the answer at the bottom of a bottle of alcohol. It was just horrendous.”
Sir Kevin eventually went on to find love again after meeting fitness expert Andree Deane through his work on the Health Select Committee. The pair married in 2012.
Politics has been dominated by Brexit since the 2016 referendum and while Barron backed Remain he has consistently - and often-controversially - supported efforts to get a deal passed by Parliament.
He says both main parties promised in 2017 to respect the result of the referendum and “that is what I have done”.
“Yes Brexit is going to be a long process, yes some of it is unpredictable and we are not sure where the economy will go but we never are,” he says. “We should have got the softest package we could.
“There has been a massive lobby by the Remainers and you get lots of templated emails. But when you speak to individuals, they tend to say ‘we should have left’.”
He says this election is difficult to call. But when asked whether the argument he made for Labour to move to the centre-ground has been lost for now, he says: “I think it has. But it is not what we think about it that should determine the direction of travel, it is what the electorate think.
“In three weeks’ time we will have a judgement on that. I’ll wait and keep my powder dry to see the outcome.”
Ex-colliery sites transformed
Sir Kevin says one of the most positive things of recent years have been the developments that have taken place on former colliery sites - most notably at Orgreave which has now become the home of the world-leading Advanced Manufacturing Park.
Plans are also in place to turn the old Maltby Colliery into an auction site for heavy machinery and equipment. “That’s progress, that’s life moving on,” he says.
As for Sir Kevin moving on himself from politics, he now hopes for more time in retirement to enjoy his passion for the outdoors and hopes to head to Patagonia in the near future having climbed Kilimanjaro in the past.
“I have got a few more mountains to climb,” he says with a smile.