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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.