Published in Solidarity 438, 17 May 2017.
Janine Booth reviews Bob Crow: socialist, leader, fighter — A political biography, by Gregor Gall (Manchester University Press)
As the first book about Bob Crow published since his untimely death three years ago, Gregor Gall’s political biography of Crow provides us with an opportunity to review his life and his time in the railworkers’ union NUR and its successor RMT, to highlight the key reasons for his effectiveness and impact, and to examine the limits of those.
The book promises to assess Crow from a critical Marxist perspective, in particular looking at his personality, politics and (members’) power, and how these interact with each other. Gall explains that “critical Marxism” means “avoiding the ‘spin’ that Crow and the RMT put on the battles they fought, instead using independently arrived at criteria to judge what Crow said and did.” It is a measure of Crow’s leadership that he comes out of this independent, critical judgement very well. This is a more credible appreciation of his contribution to our movement than a straightforward hagiography would be.
Gregor Gall notes the fierce loyalty within RMT to its leaders, and the union’s tendency to introversion. The union refused to co-operate with Gall in writing this book, on request of Bob’s family. Without the access to information that this would have given, the book makes some factual errors, which is unfortunate but not, I think, enough to spoil the valuable assessment it makes. Gall’s research includes interviews with RMT members and other trade unionists, and use of media sources (including this newspaper and Workers’ Liberty railworkers’ publications).
The first part of the book tells the story of Bob’s life, beginning with his upbringing in a working-class East London/Essex family, influenced by his trade unionist and communist father George. As a young man, Bob joined the Communist Party (CP), joined London Underground and joined the RMT’s predecessor, the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). After some years as a representative of London Underground track workers and a critic of the union’s leadership, Bob had built a base of support that saw him elected first to the union’s Executive and then, in 1994, to the position of RMT Assistant General Secretary (AGS).
Gall argues that it was the CP that influenced Crow to believe that the best way to deal with right-wing union leaders was to replace them with left-wingers, differing from the Trotskyist view that prioritised organising the union rank and file. Indeed, although there were several “broad lefts” in the NUR/RMT, they were short-lived and were dispensed with once Ieft candidates had been elected to leading positions in the union. In 1999, Crow was re-elected as AGS, seeing off a challenge from Mick Cash, whose election pitch was that the hard left had too much influence in RMT and that the union was too strike-happy. Gall argues that with his successful re-election, Crow marked himself out as a young, radical, militant trade union leader, in a union machine that was still dominated by men who were none of these things.
Crow became General Secretary in 2002, elected with twice the vote of both his opponents put together, in an election where “new Labour” briefed heavily against him. Union members wanted a leader who would stand up not suck up to the government that was attacking them (refusing to renationalise the railways, privatising the Underground), and so joined various other unions in electing “awkward squad” General Secretaries pledged to give Blair a rough ride. As Gall writes, “His victory highlighted that for the RMT, a much more forceful personality, effective deployment of bargaining power and radical politics were better suited to the turbulent times of ‘new’ Labour, privatisation and neoliberalism.”
Once elected, Crow set about reorganising the union. He combed through the union’s books and discovered that the “financial crisis” used as a pretext for cuts by his predecessor Jimmy Knapp had been exaggerated, and used the union’s resources to open new regional offices, introduce new technology, set up the Organising Unit and open a new National Education Centre.
The book recounts Crow’s political associations, his leaving the CP and joining the Socialist Labour Party in 1997, only to leave the SLP when he could not support Arthur Scargill’s policy of standing candidates against left Labour MPs. Crow led RMT away from the Labour Party, tried unsuccessfully to cultivate a new workers’ party with No2EU and TUSC, and had a fraught relationship with Ken Livingstone, who accused him of using strikes “as a bullying technique”and called on RMT members to cross the union’s picket lines. It would have been interesting to see how Bob would have responded to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader; I am sad that he did not live to see it.
While Gall’s book subjects Crow to an intelligent scrutiny, and criticises him at points, its strongest theme is that Bob Crow was the most effective trade union leader of his time, and that his confident, unapologetic militancy was the crucial factor in that. Crow rightly said that, “whoever has muscle at the end of the day gets what they want … That is why I make no excuses about taking industrial action to look after our members.” But Gall also points out that at times there was dissatisfaction with Crow’s role, for example during the union’s dispute with London Underground over the Public-Private Partnership at the turn of the century, when a “group to the left of him” developed on the union’s Executive. He also points out that “While Crow frequently condemned the anti-union laws and their use, urging unions to break and defy them, he never led the charge for this to happen in practice, calculating that the RMT on its own would not be able to easily withstand the consequences of defiance.”
RMT membership grew under Crow’s leadership, bucking the trend of unions generally. Gall attributes this partly to the fact that as well as employing some paid staff, the union’s organising strategy “focused not just upon recruitment but upon encouraging and deploying the energies, talents and knowledge of existing reps and activists to recruit and represent members.” Crucially, though, Gall argues that workers join unions that fight because they fight, quoting Crow as saying that “our brand is that we’re out there, having a go … If a trade union ain’t gonna fight, there is no point in joining.”
In a short but interesting section on women in RMT, Gall recounts that while Crow supported women’s equality, he did not do much to tackle the macho culture of the union. Gall argues that this culture “had two sides — one often militantly oppositional to management and the other often not progressive regarding women. Women benefited from the first but not the second.” A former Executive member is quoted as saying that Crow “took over a union in which women were marginalised and under-represented, and that did not change nearly as much as women activists would have liked it to.”
The book is strong on exposing the enormous hostility that Bob endured from the media, and hints that the stress and effects on his health had led him to consider not restanding for General Secretary. “Other than Scargill during the miners’ strike, no other union leader has experienced the same degree of constant, hostile scrutiny”. Newspapers followed him around the world, went through his rubbish, and were not averse to printing straightforward lies about him. The media routinely personalised the union as the figure of its General Secretary, although the union itself may have enabled that by, for example, rarely quoting anyone other than Bob in its press releases. Crow, though, was quite media-savvy, always willing to give interviews or quotes (except to newspapers which no self-respecting trade unionist would speak to), write articles when asked to, and write letters correcting untruths.
The book applauds Crow’s unapologetic socialism, quoting him as saying that “Some people are scared to use the word socialism, but I am not. We are opposed to the capitalist order and want a socialist society.” But Gall also describes Crow as having an “incoherent” and “underdeveloped” understanding of the link between industrial militancy and workers as agents of socialism: “What he advocated sounded more like social democracy and labourism, however left-wing, being brought about by Parliament and not workers directly.”
Gall identifies many of Crow’s strengths, including his willingness to accept criticism and disagreement within the union. Several RMT reps testify to this in the book. I remember one occasion when the Workers’ Liberty website had published an article about Crow’s salary, advocating that trade union officials receive a worker’s wage, which would be rather lower than they currently receive. Bob phoned me about it — not to attack our view or our right to publish it; it was just that we had got one of the figures wrong and could we please correct it? We did. Other trade union leaders would do well to take a similar approach.
Gall also recognises Bob’s ability to make union activists feel good about ourselves, describing him as “a heroic talisman for others on the political left … He instilled in many activists a particular radical oppositional perspective where fighting back was seen as a good in itself. He was able to do this not only because he led a pugnacious union but also because of his politics and personality.”
This book is not solely the story of a life: it tells the story, then offers an analysis. I do not agree with every word of that analysis, but overall it is insightful, thought-through and well-grounded. It will help union activists to understand that unions become effective by being active and militant, that being left-wing is something to be proud rather than embarrassed about, and that Bob Crow, despite having some flaws, was a giant in our movement and the RMT a successful union built by generations of activists.