Bob Crow addresses a TUC rally in Hyde Park on October 20, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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What Bob Crow knew: better pay can’t be won without a fight

While many pay lip service to the need for higher wages, the RMT general secretary was prepared to take the action required to secure them.

Bob Crow would have appreciated the irony of his many tormentors (he was more hurt than most realise by the press intrusion into his private life) mourning his untimely death today. Most are remembering him as a tireless fighter for his members - and that is what he was. During Crow's time as general secretary from 2002 onwards, the basic pay of a tube driver rose to £46,000 plus perks (including free travel for them and their partner) and will reach £52,000 in 2015. As Ken Livingstone quipped on Sky News this morning: "The only working class people who still have well-paid jobs in London are [RMT] members." While cursing Crow's name as they squeezed onto rail replacement buses during one of his union's strikes, many workers reflected that they could do with such a leader fighting their corner. After the news of his death, the Daily Mail's Tim Shipman tweeted: "If the NUJ had represented me like Bob Crow did his members, I might still be a member of the union." There was no greater tribute to Crow's efforts than the rise in RMT membership from 57,000 to 77,000 (making it the fastest growing union) at a time when others were in permanent decline. 

It is common now for politicians and columnists of all stripes to bemoan the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the fate of the "squeezed middle". But far fewer support the measures required to improve workers' lot, including stronger trade unions. The dramatic decline in union membership in recent decades cannot be separated from the living standards crisis.  In 1981, 50 per cent of UK employees belonged to a union; today just 26 per cent do (although, encouragingly, membership rose by 59,000 in 2012 to 6.5 million). ­The fall in membership has eroded workers' collective bargaining power and wages have stagnated as a result. Since 2003, long before the recession, 11 million low-to-middle earners have seen no rise in their incomes.

It is no coincidence that the most equal countries in the world are those where union membership is highest. In Finland 69.2 per cent of workers belong to a union, in Sweden 68.4 per cent do, in Denmark 66.6 per cent do, and in Norway 54.4 per cent do. If they are to live up their rhetoric on equality, our political leaders should be doing all they can to promote their British counterparts. Strong unions are an essential guarantor not just of social justice but also of economic efficiency. As a recent IMF report noted, the inevitable result of stagnant real wages is that "loans keep growing, and therefore so does . . . the probability of a major crisis that . . . also has severe implications for the real economy."

There was a time when David Cameron sought cooperation, not confrontation with the unions. He became the first Conservative leader in more than decade to meet the TUC general secretary and appointed a union emissary, the former Labour MEP Richard Balfe, who spoke glowingly of unions as "great, voluntary organisations". But he soon reverted to Thatcherite type, refusing to rule out making Britain's anti-strike laws - already the most draconian in the western world - even more restrictive. The next Conservative manifesto is likely to include Boris Johnson's proposal of a 50 per cent turnout threshold (N.B. just 38 per cent voted in the last London mayoral election) for strikes if unions take further action against cuts to jobs, pensions and services. Crow rightly opposed this measure and every other policy that would limit the ability of unions to fight for their members. 

Crow should not be hagiographied. He may have been one of the greatest modern union leaders and a lifelong anti-fascist activist, but he was also a supporter of the death penalty, of EU withdrawal (as Nigel Farage opportunistically noted this morning) and an apologist for Stalinism. He led the disaffiliation of the RMT from Labour, the party it helped to found, in 2004 and never returned despite Ed Miliband's repudiation of New Labour. But in recognising the necessity of militancy to raise living standards, he served as an example to all. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue