A really important lesson to take away from the book is about Crow’s relationship with the media. There are several points to remember here. The first one is the importance of realistic expectations. Crow never imagined that the commentariat or the headline writers would like him and therefore wasn’t distracted by trying to please them. He could ignore them because of the second point: the importance of identifying your audience.
The most important audience for Crow was potential RMT members. In trying to convince them that he would offer the most uncompromising possible defence of their interests, he couldn’t look savage enough. Media misrepresentation was actually useful to this end. If he wanted to communicate a more conciliatory message to existing RMT members, he could do so directly through the RMT’s newspaper, through its social media presence, or by speaking at branch meetings, all media he controlled personally.
The third point is that putting up with confected outrage might be worthwhile if it got your own message into the paper. However much he professed to scorn the press and courted its outrage, he made a point of being permanently available for interviews and giving good copy, and although he would meet journalists without a press officer, the RMT press office would go to great lengths to facilitate them.
The result was what the Russians apparently call reflexive control. The more the press thundered against him, the more it tended to amplify everything he wanted to say. Its very outrage transformed it into his megaphone. Journalists repeatedly remembered he was a Millwall fan and quoted the line “nobody likes us, we don’t care”, without apparently remembering that Millwall fans are so ashamed of this they sing it in public at the top of their voices. And this was precisely the image he wanted to present – someone who would defend members’ interests whoever it offended.
In the end, the impression I get is that Bob Crow understood the post-Thatcher order and especially London better than a lot of people who defended it for a living. Rather than being baffled by the catastrophe of the 80s, he identified ways to work around the changed legal order. Rather than trying to wish away constraints, he found strength in them. Rather than either trying to make nice with newspaper editors or whining that it wasn’t fair, he developed a technique to use them. And he picked up the consumerist and performative possibilities of the times and ran with them.
He is a lesson for us all, but it’s probably a mercy he didn’t make it to the referendum campaign as I think he might have embarrassed himself quite comprehensively. At least his take on populist Euroscepticism was about trains rather than immigration.