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Home > South Asia Labour Activists Library > A Tribute to Bob Crow and Tony Benn | Ama Biney

A Tribute to Bob Crow and Tony Benn | Ama Biney

20 March 2014

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Pambazuka News - 2014-03-20, Issue 670

Who will replace Bob Crow and Tony Benn?
More working classes champions are needed

by Ama Biney

Reviled by the right wing British press, Crow and Benn championed the interests of the working people of Britain and struggled for social justice issues of workers around the world.

On 11 March 2014 Bob Crow, leader of the National Union of Railway, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT) of Britain died suddenly of a suspected heart attack at the age of 52. This sad and unexpected death was swiftly followed by the death of Tony Benn, the veteran Labour politician and campaigner for socialism in Britain, who died at the age of 88 after a long illness on 14 March 2014. Both men were considered by the British press to be dangerous ‘mavericks’, bogeymen and derogatively considered to be part of the ‘loony left.’ The right wing British press dubbed Benn ‘the most dangerous man in Britain.’ Both were eloquently vocal and uncompromising in standing up for working class people in Britain and recognised wherever they went. They were of similar ideological views, that is, radical socialist politics though their backgrounds were diametrically opposed.

Crow was born in east London and left school at the age of 16 and became interested in trade unionism after joining London Transport in 1977 as a member of a tree-felling gang. In 1983 he became a local trade-union representative and rose through the trade union ranks. Benn was born into the establishment as his father, William Wedgewood Benn, had been a distinguished pilot in the First and Second World Wars. His father had been a Liberal MP from 1906 who crossed the floor to Labour in 1928 and became Secretary of State for India. Benn attended an elite school before graduating at Oxford University, but interrupted his studies to serve as a pilot in the RAF towards the end of the Second World War. Consequently he had personal experience of war that made him deeply anti-war and therefore he was opposed to the Iraq war of 2003. His father became Viscount Stansgate which was an inheritance Benn staunchly refused to take up. During a three-year campaign from 1960 to 1963, Benn succeeded in a royal battle to enable inheritors of peerages to renounce them if they wished. Both Bob Crow and Tony Benn sided with the working people of Britain and for social justice issues of working people around the world.

BETTERING THE LOT OF THOSE HE REPRESENTED

The British press, particularly the right wing press, have portrayed Crow as ‘bullish’, which is a euphemism to describe him as ‘a man who would take no shit and you would have to listen to him even if you disliked him.’ As a man in large stature the media loved to portray him as a bully boy and troublemaker but this was erroneous as he fought valiantly and relentlessly for those he represented in the RMT. He was the face of trade unionism in the media and even had a higher profile than leaders of much larger unions. In short, the RMT punched much above its weight in terms of size of his membership on the industrial scene. Under his leadership since 2001 the RMT membership grew from approximately 57,000 to 80,000. Unlike other unions and particularly as Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Britain, had introduced emasculating anti-union legislation which remained in place since her demise, the RMT was a powerful union under Crow. He was adept at circumventing such anti-union legislation. He fell out with the Labour Party for supporting rival candidates and other issues and was eventually expelled from the Party.

He was a member of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) that was formed in 2010 and participated in general and local elections; and the No2EU – Yes to Workers’ Rights, a political party registered to fight the 2014 European elections.

He was a skilled negotiator and used the weapon of strike action or threat of strike action over the years to extract concessions from employers. That is why train drivers by 2012 were being paid £50,000 a year. Despite his own salary of a handsome £145,000 he continued to live in a council house and when questioned on his salary he defiantly said he ‘was worth it.’ As Suzanne Moore wrote that: ‘In any other profession, if he was on performance-related pay, he would have got a bonus very year. But the boss class, as he called them, doesn’t accept that how they live is for those beneath them.’ [1] Crow believed that social housing ought to be a universal provision which was integral to his socialist convictions.

Some of his members did not understand why he also concerned the union with lower-paid workers and the unwaged. To this end, he signed a petition calling for a living wage for mothers and other carers of the organisation Global Women’s Strike.

Crow was blunt and called a spade a spade with clarity of vision. He was an able speaker. When Margaret Thatcher died he was wholly unrepentant when he remarked: ‘I won’t shed one single tear over her death. She destroyed the National Health Service (NHS) and destroyed industry in this country and as far as I’m concerned she can rot in hell.’ He was similarly forthright in offering his view of Tony Blair’s premiership: ‘[Blair] squandered a massive landslide from an electorate hungry for change, poured billions of public pounds into private pockets and accelerated the growing gap between rich and poor.’

In February Crow was again vilified by the British press for bringing London to its knees with a two-day train stoppage in defence of his workers. Approximately 900 jobs to be axed by Transport for London’s will see all ticket offices on the tube close. The dispute is yet to be resolved.

As the MP George Galloway said of Crow: ‘He proved that workers can win if they are organised, determined and well led. That without workers, society cannot operate, and that a train driver can keep his job, be safe in the workplace and take home wages once only earned by people with white collars.’ [2]

BRITAIN’S ‘NATIONAL TREASURE’

Whilst Crow was far from being described as a ‘national treasure’ – Tony Benn descended from being ‘the most dangerous man in Britain’ to a ‘national radical treasure.’ [3] Benn was not flattered by this and remarked that ‘they love me now because I’m harmless.’

Benn entered the Commons in 1950 as its youngest MP, aged 25, and stepped down in 2001. He spent 50 years as one of the longest-serving MPs in the history of Labour Party and in British history. Even prior to his years as a politician he was active in the Movement For Colonial Freedom that supported political and economic independence for colonial territories. Under the leadership of Fenner Brockway and other individuals such as the indefatigable Barbara Castle (also a socialist) these left wing Labour politicians met and engaged with Africa’s future leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and others, who were engaged in activist politics whilst studying in London during the 1940s. During the 1960s and 1970s he held positions as a Cabinet minister in the governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. He was a solid supporter of the 1974 miners’ strike. Virulently anti-war he was President of the Stop the War Coalition from 2001 to his death. He said of the war against Iraq: ‘Undoubtedly the war with Iraq was a tragedy. I think it was also a crime.’ The older he became the more virulent and passionate he became in his radical socialist politics. He opposed military action against Syria. He also believed: ‘Ideas are more powerful than guns’ and that ‘Making mistakes is part of life. The only things I would feel ashamed of would be if I had said things I hadn’t believed in order to get on. Some politicians do that.’ He was rightly harsh on Tony Blair when he said: ‘New Labour was a Thatcherite group, and Blair was basically a Thatcherite.’

Benn was a mesmerizing speaker; intermittently profoundly witty and eloquent. He was a patient educator who loved to engage with ordinary people and the logic of his argument was persuasive – even his ideological enemies acknowledged this. When he retired in 2001 he famously said: ‘Having served for nearly half a century in the House of Commons I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so.’ He would speak at several events in a day; union meetings; anti-war benefits; campaigns against library closures and the British Question time televised political debates. He would go to the annual Glastonbury music festival for youth. Tents of more than 3000 would listen to him.

He was an avid archivist and over the years of his life he assiduously kept a diary that now comprises eight published volumes that give insight into political life under 11 British prime ministers.

Back in the 1990s I recall both Tony Benn and his wife, Caroline Benn, whom he adored visiting the local community college in West London where I taught. They were guests of honour in awarding certificates to our students on at least three occasions. They relished in engaging with students and were totally at ease.

NEW LEADERS ARE NEEDED FOR NEW TIMES

Working people around the world need to take inspiration from the lives and actions of these two great men who fearlessly and relentlessly remained committed to their convictions despite demonization from the ruling class and their lickspittle press. Who will replace Bob Crow and Tony Benn? The struggle for social and political justice whether in Britain or elsewhere around the world will nurture new leaders who will take up the mantle. These new men and women – whether trade unionists or political activists, will define their own issues and strategies in the context of their time, but will be inspired by the lives of Bob Crow and Tony Benn.

* Ama Biney (Dr) is a scholar-activist and Editor in Chief of Pambazuka News