Opinion Articles

Bob Crow: effective industrial leader, naive politician?

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Bob Crow, General Secretary of the RMT from 2002 until his death this week, loved his image as a striker; he cherished the signed jersey, from Millwall player Dennis Wise - 'from one striker to another'. But he was usually able to get away with just the threat of a strike after balloting his members, who made clear their support for action.

The more puzzling aspect of his astute union leadership was his far less effective political career as a union leader since he became General Secretary of RMT in 2002. This was perhaps because of his early trajectory away from his union's close involvement with the Labour Party for over a century.

The RMT's predecessor union, the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), started it all in 1899 when they moved the TUC to form a separate Labour Representation Committee. They were also the union whose Taff Vale Railway case sparked the campaign to repeal the infamous House of Lord's ruling to remove unions' protection from prosecution in 1901. They pioneered the creation of the political levy which first helped elect 29 Labour MPs and put the Labour Party on the way to becoming one of the two main parties of government. They were the union at the heart of another infamous Lords' anti-union cases, the 1909 Osborne Judgement, which outlawed the funding of political objects by trade unions. As the National Union of Railwaymen (an amalgam of the ASRS and smaller unions in 1913) they also had a big hand in the Trade Union Act of 1913, which overturned that judgement. Walter Osborne, a Liberal, who took the union to court over the political levy, was the union's Walthamstow branch secretary. The then million-strong National Union of Railwaymen was the backbone of the Labour movement throughout much of the twentieth century, securing the nationalisationof the railways in 1947.

Despite this proud tradition, Crow never joined the Labour Party or played any part in its councils. He would have said the Party had betrayed its original purpose. Long before it became 'New Labour', the young East London militant joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1983. Many other union leaders of an earlier era - such as Jack Jones, of the Transport and General Workers' Union and Hugh Scanlon of the Amalgamated Engineering Union(dubbed the 'Terrible Twins' for resisting government curbs on union power), Len Murray, TUC General Secretary, Clive Jenkins, of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, and Arthur Scargill, of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) - had passed through that school of Marxism. A recent History & Policy Trade Union Forum meeting The Communist Party and the trade unions explored how the post-war Communist Party targeted such rising stars, promoting them to elected positions in all the unions through their highly effective 'Broad Left' network.

Crow's formative politics can be traced back to his ambition, popularity and commitment, and the Communist Party's network to support his rise. But by the time he had achieved national office, in the early 1980s, even the Communist Party was seen by many young militants as a bit staid. Instead, Crow and his peers were attracted to the purer ideologies of the far Left, in his case syndicalism, which sought radical change through industrial might, as opposed to political mechanisms. Of particular appeal to Crow was the charismatic and articulate voice of industrial militancy, Arthur Scargill, whose prestige was then enormous among union activists because of his role in wielding 'mass and flying pickets' during coal strikes - including the mass action around Saltley Gates Birmingham Coke Depot. As Yorkshire President of the NUM Scargill led the national coal strike of 1974 until he became National President. The strike resulted in the fall of the Conservative government when Prime Minister Ted Heath called an election asking 'Who governs Britain?'

Inebriated by their 'success', neither Scargill nor Crow would have counted the cost of their action politically, but it led to the emergence of a very different kind of Conservative leadership and policy, seen as a revengeful 'Thatcherism'. That brand of syndicalist industrial militancy would soon be tested to destruction in the titanic national miners' strike of 1984-5. Even non-Thatcherite Conservatives, such as Lord Michael Heseltine, saw the strike as a challenge to the state and the rule of law. Neither the RMT, then led by Jimmy Knapp, or the other steel or power unions came to the rescue of the miners on that occasion, though they gave considerable financial and moral support; and we can be sure that Bob advocated railway action. The significance of the dispute, which had serious consequences for unions as well as the British state and law today, is the subject of a unique History & Policy Trade Union Forum public event The Miners' Strike 30 Years On on 29 March at Kings' College London.

Bob's sad demise at such a young age is a great loss to the trade union and labour movement. Joining Scargill's Socialist Labour Party in the 1990s was indicative of his disaffection with 'New Labour', though his alternative of returning to 'Old Labour' principles and policies was not thought through in the new industrial and political circumstances in which unions found themselves after the defeat of the NUM. Had Crow engaged more with his peers in the Labour Party, his contribution, though critical, would have been valuable. He took against the EU entirely, despite the gains of the Social Charter and other employment rights.

Sadly, the RMT got themselves expelled from the Labour Party in 2004 for using their political funds to back non-Labour candidates and relations never recovered. Crow despised 'New Labour' leaders and moved towards fringe groups such as the Socialist Alliance. However, alienation on both sides could have been avoided. Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband would have been better advised to join the Durham Miners' Gala in 2011, instead of refusing to share a platform with Crow. Labour's recent changes to the union political funding runs the risk of seeing other unions following the RMT's path into the political wilderness. Crow's premature departure should give all sides pause to consider how that further alienation can be avoided.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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