Looking back at Bob Crow, 2: Politics

This is the second post in a series. The others are here and here

The Crow strategy in post 1 was wildly successful. The effort to flip the RMT’s success in its economic goals into wider political ones, however, saw mixed results. Gall argues that Crow may not have realised how much easier it was for the RMT to raise hell than the rest of the country.

RMT workers are in a position to shut down the railways and the Tube at any time. Also, unlike almost any other British union, its constituent unions made it through the 1980s without a major organising disaster. A lot of British trade unionists spent the same period fighting for the survival of their industries, but the history of British railways since the 1970s has been one of success, however much we enjoy whining about them. Bob Crow joined London Underground roughly at the historic low point of both Tube and rail ridership and his career spanned an era of enormous growth in passenger-miles. The combination of growth, a retirement bulge, and reduced spending on training after privatisation created a tight labour market. Even post-2007, major projects like Crossrail, the Thameslink upgrade, revived electrification, Tube resignalling, and HS2 brought a lot of capital investment into the industry. As well as resisting the consequences of privatisation, Crow spent a great deal of time fighting for a bigger share of the fruits of success.

A whole string of organisations and campaigns that were launched with RMT backing also failed because they duplicated someone else’s effort or because they mostly competed with either the SWP, Labour, or both. Another problem was that whatever the RMT got involved with soon turned out to be primarily about railways. Renationalisation was always the indispensable preliminary to world peace. The little lamented No2EU party was apparently necessary because every other European country managed to buy its own trains, which doesn’t and didn’t make any sense. Also, its plan was to refuse to take up its seats in the European Parliament on the grounds it had no power, which might have been true in 1979, the year the RMT decided it was against the EU, but was far from true by 2014.

However, there were two tracks to Crow’s strategy here – on one hand he delighted in trolling the centrist dads of Blairism and spruiking a string of short-lived new workers’ parties, but on the other hand, he didn’t so much break off the relationship with Labour but move it onto a new basis. The RMT parliamentary group became a new and important source of cash, staff, and policy advice for the Labour Left. This now looks like a good bet as its president is shadow chancellor, although that wasn’t foreseeable in 2014.

Gall argues that the RMT’s political goals – essentially, reversing railway privatisation – were not met. I am not so sure. Not only was Railtrack renationalised, its maintenance operations were brought back in-house. Both of these were specific demands of Bob Crow’s. Also, the role of the Department for Transport railways directorate has hugely expanded and Transport for London has become a very important actor. Orders for new trains mostly happen through DfT Rail now, rather than the train leasing companies. Also, the public-private partnership for the Tube has been wound up. You could almost say that everything has been done to roll back rail privatisation except admit it.

More generally, the economic focus we talked about in the first post shaped Bob Crow’s wider views as a sort of politics of enjoyment. He was often quoted to the effect that he wanted people to have more time to do what they wanted and money to do it with.

This set him apart from a lot of other people on the Left who tend to see socialism as a kind of diet programme in which you become a better person by forswearing consumption, or – better! – by swapping more comfortable things for less comfortable and supposedly better things, that usually turn out to be more expensive. Personally, I blame William Morris. As a programme this fits rather well with the pre-Keynesian, pre-welfare state ethical socialism a lot of opinionators go on about, and this is exactly why they do it.

A hell of a lot of Crow’s critics were furious that he spent his RMT salary on exactly the sort of things that represent the material aspirations they claimed to understand. They were of course right in spotting the labels. The Blairites tended to talk a good game about aspiration – all that stuff about supermarkets – but they had a serious problem with this in that they were determined to keep wages out of politics. It’s very difficult to talk aspiration while also implementing post-Volcker inflation warrior macroeconomics and the only answer is the one that actually happened – filling the gap with mortgage equity withdrawal.

The interesting thing here is that when he was asked to opinionate, he tended to swing away from the principles he embodied in action and indeed the style he adopted in life and go all muesli. Apparently, in Cuba, there might not be everything you wanted in the shops but if you keeled over, there was first class medical care. Well, you could say that about Britain, and Crow personally definitely didn’t disdain the consumer economy.

My conclusion here is that he didn’t care over much about opinionating, quite rightly, and the principles that mattered to him were the ones that guided him in action. No2EU was an embarrassing example of this – it was true Brexit quality, some of the weakest of weak sauce, and nothing he would have tolerated if it had been a minor dispute on a branch line.

1 Comment on "Looking back at Bob Crow, 2: Politics"

  1. people on the Left who tend to see socialism as a kind of diet programme in which you become a better person by forswearing consumption, or – better! – by swapping more comfortable things for less comfortable and supposedly better things, that usually turn out to be more expensive.


    [gives flag of Old-School CAMRA Let’s *Just* Have The Good Stuff Party a lonely flap]

    And, as if by magic, we’re back in Italy. Again.

    “Austerity, by definition, means restrictions on certain availabilities to which we have become accustomed … But we are deeply convinced that to replace certain habits of life with others that are more exacting and not extravagant, can lead not to a worsening in the quality of life, but to substantial improvement, to growth in the ‘humanity’ of life. A more austere society can be – indeed ought to be – a society that is more just, better ordered, with less inequality, in reality more free and democratic, certainly more humane.”
    – Enrico Berlinguer, 1977



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