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The untimely death of Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, came as a real shock – I had seen him only three days before at a concert in solidarity with the Miami Five Cubans unjustly imprisoned for espionage. Bob drew no lines between his political commitments and his activity as a trade unionist. He was a committed internationalist and a welcomed speaker at many a demonstration and meeting, expressing solidarity with the oppressed and exploited.
Bob had a clear sense that it is vital for trade union members to have a political perspective. While we have heard many tributes to his fighting spirit on the industrial front, he was also well aware that gains in wages and conditions can just as quickly be attacked and eroded by the whole capitalist process. Most of the obituaries ignored this wider vision.
His contempt for the compromised and compromising politics of a New Labour shorn of its working class traditions, intent on pursuing the imperialist agenda and seemingly unable to articulate any kind of socialist politics, was clear for all to see.
In his speeches he made a point of addressing the decisive question: who produces the wealth and who controls it? He explained that it was capitalism that had failed and that it wasn’t enough to fight for improvements here and there but rather it was essential to develop an alternative socialist vision.
He recognised that there was no quick fix to the problem of working class representation. Of course he could be accused of co-founding in 2010 an organisation (the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) that failed to gain traction in the working class, but I don’t believe that the blame can be laid at his door.
The European Union was one of his constant targets and, although initially many on the left thought his opposition showed signs of the ‘Little Englander’ politics associated with UKIP and the far right, he made clear that it was in fact based on a wider internationalist perspective.
He rejected the views voiced by Labour Party frontbenchers, who argue how much more efficient they would be at implementing the racist immigration laws. And he recognised that when the right have gained a hearing among the working class for a reactionary populist position it is vital not to concede the ground. The likes of Nigel Farage certainly never saw Bob as an ally.
The sense of loss at Bob’s death is because of his uniqueness. But this was not just a product of his personality and politics – action by transport workers, by its nature, commands immediate attention. Of course there are many others who are critical to the economy, but the RMT under Bob was perhaps alone in utilising its power.
The truth is that we are still in a post-miners’ strike world with little visible prospect of a swift reversal of fortunes. Bob was a breath of fresh air because he showed that another way, putting politics at the heart of trade unionism, is possible.