Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Bob Crow obituary: where does his death leave the left?

Unpopular with working people, excessively confrontational, out of touch with the modern age, the product of a bygone and obsolete ideological system, should have retired years ago. But enough about Ian Duncan Smith. Bob Crow is back in the papers, this time because he passed away in early hours of Tuesday morning. With the death of another controversial figure on the left, there will be much soul searching in the coming days about where the left stands in the 21st Century.

Bob Crow, trade unionist, head of the RMT, thorn in the side of Tory politicians, and especially Boris Johnson, was in many ways what a lot of the left of centre wish they were. He had little regard for public image, well aware that the right wing press would demonise him whatever he did, but he led campaigns to stand up for the rights of working people. Crow opposed job losses, pay freezes, rising University tuition fees, pension cuts and austerity. When Labour were found scratching their heads trying to find a way to say they disagree with the Tories but not too strongly, Bob Crow could reliably be found on TV laying out the case for the opposition better than the opposition themselves. Not to mention the fact that he was probably one of the only union leaders that most people have actually heard of, demonstrating the extent of the labour movement's decline in the post-Thatcher era. His approach attracted more people to his union, with membership rising by 20,000 during his time in charge.

Criticism of Crow has often centred on disruptive tube strikes and his £145k a year salary. Whilst undoubtedly a more money than what most trade unionists earn in years, it can at least be said that Crow was successful in his job, in contrast to the bankers who dragged home huge bonuses whilst causing the financial collapse of their own institutions.

It has been argued that his confrontational approach to leadership alienated more people from the left. Of course tube strikes are unpopular, especially in London where most of the commentariat live, but strikes are supposed to be inconvenient and annoying, that's the bloody point. The people who complain about Crow's tactics want all left wing criticisms to be phrased in a reasonable and polite way so that they can be completely ignored. In a future where rioting maybe the only available form of dissent, Crow's strikes and picket lines may look reasonable and polite.

There is another future the left can see after Bob Crow, which is the continual removal of the spine from the movement. Ed Miliband states that he "didn't always agree with him politically", the fact that the Labour leader made this clear in his statement highlights the degree to which the mainstream left wants to distance itself from the trade union movement. I am genuinely confused about what form political dissent is supposed to take (other than through writing blog posts) when unions are disproved off as a relic of the past, student activists are labeled as violent thugs and any form of protest is to be met by water cannons and rubber bullets. I cannot think of many rising stars of the Labour party who can be said to have thoroughly obstructed the goals the right. The current level of ambition seems to be aimed at being a slight inconvenience.

As the titans of the old left die out or retire we need to be asking question about what sort of movement we want to be. We do not have to be the same movement that existed in the past but we need to be inspired by their passions and desire for change. We need to the sort of movement someone like Bob Crow would approve of and not a shrinking, apologetic movement. The right will try to demonise us, the public maybe temporarily inconvenienced but in the end everyone will be better off. Bob Crow fought for a better working conditions for all RMT members and the wider population, and it is important that we remember that.

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