Retiring Leeds MP: Colin Burgon interview

Retiring MP Leeds Colin Burgon talks to Political Editor Mark Hookham about standing up to Gordon Brown, his pride at representing Elmet and why the recession has proved New Labour wrong.

Elmet MP Colin Burgon says he knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of a Prime Ministerial temper tantrum.

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Two years ago he received a rare invitation to meet Gordon Brown in his parliamentary office on the eve of a major vote on the EU Lisbon Treaty.

A desperate PM was hoping to persuade Burgon and other Labour rebels not to vote in favour of holding a referendum on the controversial Treaty.

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Labour was split on the issue and Brown was facing his party's biggest rebellion on Europe since 1997.

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During their meeting, an annoyed Prime Minister accused Burgon of attempting to split the party.

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Burgon, never one to too kow-tow to the party's hierarchy, says he stood his corner and replied that the PM had split the party himself by resurrecting "dead and buried" supporters of Tony Blair and appointing them to his cabinet.

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Burgon says that a stormy PM, in no mood for being told a few home truths, then told the Leeds MP to "f*** off'".

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Gordon Brown is no bully though – this was simply good natured jousting, Burgon says. Politics is a tough business and you have got to be prepared to give what you get.

"Get real. There is a lot of knockabout stuff out there. If someone has a go at you in a tough way, then you don't wilt and collapse on the floor and start to sob.

"I had vigorous exchanges with him and I'm quite happy with that.

"I've had a vigorous exchange with whips, where whips, in the early days, got hold of me. You just tell them where to go and they never worry you again. If they think you're weak, they will lean on you."

Burgon believes Brown was only "hard-line" with him because he knew that was the best way to relate to the no-nonsense Yorkshire MP.

And he much prefers the forceful language of Brown over the slick charm of Tony Blair.

"Blair made you think you were the only person in the world and then when he walked out you thought 'he's forgotten about me already'.

Burgon, 61, who is retiring after 13 years in Parliament, prides himself as being the only Leeds MP to have grown up in the city – he lived with his parents on the Gipton Estate in East Leeds.

His father Tommy was a tailor at the Montague Burton clothing factory in Hudson Road, Burmantofts, when it employed 10,000 people in Leeds.

With a hint of nostalgia, he says that his post war childhood in the 1950s and early 1960s was the "golden age" of the British working class.

It was a time of "social mobility" when a child born in Gipton could eventually become a member of parliament. That social mobility has now disappeared from the poorest neighbourhoods of Leeds, he argues.

Burgon was educated at St Michael's College in Woodhouse after passing his 11-plus.

"I had always been political but I became class conscious when I passed my 11-plus and went to Catholic grammar school and came into contact with people I knew nothing about," he says.

After short spells working on building sites and on a warehouse, Burgon attended City of Leeds and Carnegie College where he trained to be a teacher.

He taught history at Foxwood High School in Seacroft, which later became the East Leeds Family Learning Centre and was demolished last year, and was active during the 1984 miner's strike, where he helped raise funds for striking pitmen at the four collieries in the Elmet constituency.

His support led to the National Union of Miners making him an honourary member and greatly raised his profile.

Burgon stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate in 1987 and 1992, before finally ousting Tory MP Spencer Batiste in 1997.

The divorced father of one has remained rooted in his community and is fiercely proud of the string of successful local campaigns he has under his belt.

His victories included scuppering proposals to build a prison in Garforth and securing the future of Garforth police station, Wetherby Magistrates Court and the Forensic Science Laboratory in Wetherby.

He also campaigned to protect greenbelt land, while supporting the construction of new homes on the former pit site at Allerton Bywater, the village where he lives with his partner Kathryn.

His support for the 500-home Millennium Village scheme was controversial and he faced "tremendous" and at times "vicious" opposition from those who wanted no new development in the area.

"It would have been easier for me to say that we didn't want any development but there was a principle at stake and we stuck to it.

"I argued that we should build houses on brownfield sites and protect the green fields around Allerton Bywater."

Burgon has emerged completely unscathed from the expenses scandal but nevertheless partly blames the firestorm for his decision to quit.

He believes all MPs have been "tarred with the same brush" and is critical at the media has reported the story.

"You get comments off people – sometimes meant jokily – but there is that tremendous cynicism. I didn't come into politics to promote cynicism and I've just found it really depressing."

Burgon, who plans to study Latin American history at York University after he steps down, is also scathing of prospective MPs who are simply parachuted into constituencies with no real background in the area or understanding of its issues.

"I have noticed a trend where "I think it's tremendously important to have a sense of place in politics."

Elmet's MP is a proud socialist and has always been on the left of the Labour Party. He has been a long-standing critic of "neo-liberal" market economics and believes it would be disastrous to cut government spending.

His biggest achievements in Parliament include leading opposition to government plans to privatise the Royal Mail and amending the law to make UK companies working abroad more accountable for the working conditions of their staff.

He is full of praise for Labour's investment in schools and believes education has been transformed.

However, on the whole, he believes history will not judge Tony Blair as a figure of "weight and importance".

Instead, the triple-election winning former Prime Minister will simply be seen as a continuing the damaging free market politics of Margaret Thatcher.

"The economic crisis of the last two years has proved that New Labour was wrong to embrace the market so whole-heartedly," he says.

"I see in many respects New Labour to be a growth upon the Labour Party and I think that events that we are now moving through have proved really that their politics have been wrong.

"They are not politically popular and they do not fit the economic needs of the time."