Book Review

Gregor Gall Bob Crow: Socialist, Leader, Fighter – a political biography, Manchester University Press, 2017, £20, 9781526100290

There is a bit of clichéd description when folk describe someone as ‘larger than life ‘ but sometimes, just sometimes, the cliché works in such a way that a wry smile and shake of the head accompany it’s fitting application. Bob Crow was larger than life. His physical presence and personality accompanied by a reputation based on sticking up for and delivering for his members, his East London wit, his rock solid class politics all combined to make that label fit.

I first met Bob in 1995 at the London meeting that led to the launch of the ill-fated Socialist Labour Party by Arthur Scargill. Bob and I shared something else beyond a class politics that detested ‘new’ Labour – we were both supporters of Millwall FC. As the saying goes about the club: ‘No one likes us but we don’t care’.

It was a complete shock when Bob’s death was announced on 11 March 2014 at the age of 52. It was way too young and too soon. It was with a bit of trepidation that I picked up Gregor Gall’s book, mainly because Gregor had written the book without official RMT or family involvement. I needn’t have worried. The book is a fitting record of Bob’s life which draws out lessons and inspirations for us as a movement and as a class going forward.

The book’s 239 pages with nine distinct themed chapters and an introduction cover his formative years, three terms as RMT General Secretary, an insight into Bob as a person and then drawing from his activities three key chapters, namely, politics and practice, perception and practice, and legacy and legend.

Gall seeks to analyse and understand the reasons for the RMT under Crow’s leadership being able to achieve success after success in terms of outcomes for its members. Through negotiation, ballots, disputes as well as strikes. For example, there was the growth in membership of the RMT from 63,000 in 2002 (when he became general secretary) to 82,000 in 2014 when he died. Gall is clear on the specificity of the situation of the RMT with regards to its industrial context and the ability to use its strength within this largely unique industrial context.

This is important as there are many vanguardist views which criticise the failures of union leadership and believe that their replacement with the correct leadership would solve the problems of the trade unions and working class. It is startling to me that these views continue despite the election of a series of left general secretaries, dubbed ‘the awkward squad’, and their best efforts as well as a degree of progress in individual unions, or parts of unions in specific industrial sectors, for still the overall position of the unions and working class remains weak, defensive and under attack.

Gall dissects the specific strengths that fell to Crow and the RMT and the approach that allowed them to buck that trend industrially. He also discusses the political initiatives and strategy of Crow and the RMT and shows how in this more generalised arena the particular situation of the RMT could not necessarily be translated into a more general political development across the organised working class.

So under Bob’s leadership the RMT took key decisions on the RMT political affiliations. Although the RMT AGM voted narrowly against disaffiliation from the Labour Party as early as 1998 it began to reduce funding to Labour, then in 2001 its AGM voted to withdraw funding from any sponsored MP who did not support rail renationalisation. However, this policy was only enacted when Crow was elected General Secretary. At the 2002 AGM, Crow argued against disaffiliation but also that sponsored MPs had to roll up their sleeves, fight for RMT members and support rail renationalisation. That year the RMT affiliation to Labour fell from £112,000 to £20,000. The following year the RMT AGM made a decision that branches could affiliate to other political parties of the left. In Scotland, seven branches and the Scottish Regional council affiliated to the Scottish Socialist Party.

Bob Crow was unequivocal in his analysis of ‘new’ Labour describing ‘the hijacking of the party by a small group of people bent on destroying its working class roots and pursuing policies opposed by the majority of our members’ (quoted p74). The practice of plurality in party affiliations led to the RMT’s exclusion from Labour. However, the union was a founding affiliate of the Labour Representation Committee set up in 2004 by John McDonnell MP. Pursuing value for money and only those who supporting rail renationalisation led to the end of long established links with former seafarers’ union activist, John Prescott MP, and former RMT official, Keith Hill MP. It led to new sponsorship relationships with 18 left Labour MPs.

During his second term as General Secretary the RMT political initiatives developed from a series of conferences held to discuss ‘The Crisis of Working Class Representation’ held in 2006. The first development from this was the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) in 2007 with the objective of reversing union decline and being a pre-requisite for establishing a new workers’ party. The NSSN set out to support and organise workers in a common fight against employers without necessarily interfering in individual unions internal affairs.

It was also by Crow explicitly linked to the need to build a new political organisation beyond a Labour Party wherein his view was the hope of the party working for workers was finished. In the 2009 European elections, the RMT and a number of left socialist organisations (the Communist Party, Socialist Party, Solidarity) launched NO2EU as an electoral alliance with Crow as Convener. The European Union’s role in advancing a neo-liberal agenda of privatisation of public services, the impacts on transport and the prospects for renationalisation or even stronger regulation of rail spurred the RMT forward with this political initiative. In the 2010 general election, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) was launched as a vehicle for British elections for the NO2EU alliance partners with the exception of the Communist Party.

None of the three initiatives were able to gain sufficient support or influence to make the hoped for impact, change the trajectory of class politics nor address the crisis in working class representation. What the RMT under Crow’s leadership could achieve within its own industrial parameters, with its own organisation, resources, strategy and tactics could not be generalised across into other industrial arenas nor to the broader world of working class politics.

Gall describes Bob’s dedication, hardworking ethos, his competence as a negotiator ready to do deals to settle matters but always where possible from a position of strength. He had a unique role representing a membership that had in large part a unique role, and one that was not easily replaceable. The consequences of action by signal workers, London Underground, Southern, Scotrail, or North Sea Divers were unavoidable. No employer could dodge, substitute or circumvent such groups of workers taking industrial action.

Furthermore Bob Crow never shied away from selecting the most opportune time to maximise impact and disruption such as holiday peaks, the New Year, or the London Olympics. For this, of course, he drew the fire of the media. However, Bob never dodged away from defending in plain terms and with his own style of humour, the actions of his members and the failures of the employers. He was a man of action for action.

The personal effort and support Bob gave to RMT members and activists was never forgotten. The RMT website tribute/condolence pages set up on his sad death show the depth and breadth of the regard in which he was held. Two Scottish examples thanking him for his personal support and commitment to the branches at Fort William and Dingwall speak volumes to me. Too often the Scottish Highlands have suffered from neglect and worse in the past, so for a General Secretary from East London to make the personal effort to travel and maintain contact in the way that he did speaks volumes about the man and his commitment.

I recommend reading Gregor Gall’s book and reflecting on our own experiences in trying to address the challenges of revitalising the trade union movement and working class politics. Industrially there is much to be done, and politically the situation is more favourable than when Bob grappled with the crisis of working class representation. Don’t Mourn! Organise!

Richard Whyte is an official of the Unite union