The last couple of weeks have seen the silencing of two important voices on working-class issues in the UK. Within the space of seven days, the deaths were announced of union leader Bob Crow and veteran Labour Party parliamentarian Tony Benn. Neither may be familiar to readers outside of Britain, but in their very different ways they always maintained a working-class perspective in everything they did.
While Tony Benn was born into a liberal dynasty and solidly middle-class family, he gradually moved to the left over the course of his long and eventful career. Benn entered Parliament in 1950. By 2001, when he famously stood down to “devote more time to politics,” he was the longest serving Labour MP. Benn had been a cabinet minister during the 1960s and 1970s. becoming increasingly frustrated with his party’s rightward list. He became a totemic figure on the left of British politics, the champion of ordinary people and of democracy. Benn’s legacy will be secured in part by his diaries, which he kept from a very young age and daily from 1964. These writings chart Benn’s changing political stance as well as his reflections on the rising tide of neo-liberalism outside and inside his own party. He remained actively engaged politically almost until the last.
Benn’s death at the age of 88 was sad but not unexpected, but Crow was only 52 when he died from a massive and sudden heart attack. Bob Crow was the leader of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Union (RMT), the main union representing general transport workers, especially those working on the railway and London Underground. Unlike Benn, Crow came from a solidly working-class background. Born into humble conditions in the early 1960s in the east end of London, he joined the Underground at the age of 16 as a junior track worker. His rise through the union was rapid, but Bob never lost touch with his roots and working-class culture. Nor did he lose his accent, which was delightfully working-class London, or cockney as it is sometimes described. Crow was incredibly successful, recruiting 20,000 new members in the context of near universal decline in other unions. He was also brilliant at securing improvements in pay and condition that most other organised workers could only dream of. As a result of this success, Bob Crow was hated with a visceral passion by the middle-class establishment in the UK, particularly in London. Former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, himself the victim of sustained character assignation over his political career, noted that he could not think of another group of working-class employees who had seen their conditions improve over the last twenty years apart from Crow’s railway workers.
The explanation for the vilification of Crow – at one stage he was labelled the most hated man in Britain - lies in the fact that he understood the logic of market forces. He knew instinctively that in a fully or partially privatised work environment his members possessed and could exercise tremendous power if they acted, or event threatened to act, collectively. Bob Crow’s RMT were able to call industrial action on the London Underground that could bring a city of 10 million to a halt with relative ease. Politicians and media commentators condemned Crow and the RMT and often highlighted what they perceived as the ‘scandalously high wages’ that he secured for his members. Op-ed columnists scrambled to remind their readers that train drivers earned $65,000 or more a year. During the last London-wide strikeright of centre columnist Simon Jenkins decried these workers and their status. I have always wondered if the people of London would be happier if those performing safety critical jobs were on minimum wages with few fringe benefits. I for one am comforted to know that the driver at the front of my train and the signal worker controlling its passage under the streets of the Capital don’t have to work two jobs just to make a living wage. Just when did it become acceptable to decry working-class living standards as being too high?
But Bob Crow’s story tells us something else about class, namely the way journalists wrote and spoke about him. His broad working-class London accent was an object of derision, but this always said far more about the elite class background of those making the comments than it did about Crow. With Crow, journalists and politicians were in most cases talking to someone unlike anyone they had ever met before. In one interview several years ago, the journalist Jim Pickard in the weekend ‘Lunch with the FT’ (Financial Times) column, wrote about an interview he did with Crow: “Does he ever hit people, I ask?” This was in the context of a series of descriptions of Crow’s appearance – “pugnacious face, shaved head, thickset build.” Now while I regularly read the FT and that column, I cannot recall a captain of industry being posed such a question. My favourite anecdote about Bob Crow, however, dates from just prior to the second Gulf war when he appeared on the BBC Radio flagship Today Programme. Crow was asked by the thoroughly middle-class presenter James Naughtie to agree to the proposition that the union had called a strike to coincide with the start of hostilities and was by implication being unpatriotic. Innocently Crow asked, “What war?” at which point Naughtie rose to the full height of condescending best and said “Come, come, Mr Crow — the Gulf war obviously.” Crow’s reply over a decade on still makes me smile, without missing a beat he retorted “Oh, I thought you were talking about the class war.” What was beautiful about the exchange was that the attempt to patronise Crow had backfired so badly. Crow’s intelligence, wit and quick thinking left Naughtie floundering, and the journalist knew that he had been had by someone he could not conceive of as his equal.
Bob Crow’s passing was widely mourned in Britain, and for a brief period he was paid some richly deserved complements even by those diametrically opposed to him, though often through gritted teeth. To the last, Bob Crow provided a genuinely working-class perspective in British public life. While Tony Benn’s passing is obviously sad, it is perhaps Bob Crow who will be missed more for what he achieved, what he stood for, and the lost potential his death robs us of.