This has been a difficult week: we have seen the passing of two icons of the Left. First the news, on Tuesday, of the death of the RMT’s principled and inspirational General Secretary, Bob Crow. And then this morning we learned that Tony Benn, e …
This has been a difficult week: we have seen the passing of two icons of the Left. First the news, on Tuesday, of the death of the RMT’s principled and inspirational General Secretary, Bob Crow. And then this morning we learned that Tony Benn, elder statesman of the British Left, had left us to go join the great barricade in the sky.
Bob Crow’s death was a severe and debilitating blow to our movement. We have felt shell-shocked, numb and disorientated at the loss of such an important figure in our political landscape. We have not even begun to come to terms with it yet. So to awake this morning to the news of the passing of Tony Benn seems especially cruel. These feel like dark days indeed: an increasingly vindictive Tory government tearing at the fabric of society, our living standards declining, our political institutions undermined and corrupted, and now the loss of two of the leading lights who were helping us to navigate the gathering darkness.
But it’s always darkest just before the dawn, and there is a positive in this:
The death of these two figures has caused society to look carefully at their ideas, and to consider their legacy. The same thing happened when Nelson Mandela died: we were reminded of what a towering figure for the Left he was, and to talk about the meaning of his life and his struggle.
In life, Bob Crow was vilified by the media, who called him a dinosaur and industrial tyrant who held the country to ransom. In death, they have begun to grudgingly reassess his accomplishments: to acknowledge that he stood up for ordinary people, that he embodied working class pride and dignity, that he defended well-paid quality jobs at a time when “modernisation” has become a euphemism for the stripping of employment rights and the race to the bottom characterised by zero-hours contracts, workfare and unpaid internships.
Trade union leaders are praised by the establishment when they demonstrate a “reasonable” understanding of the “current financial situation”. Yet conceding to someone else’s definition of “reasonable” was not what won for RMT members: it was Bob Crow’s combative spirit.
This spirit was very much in evidence yesterday when Jeremy Hunt announced the derisory public sector pay awards. Nurses and other public sector workers – saving lives and doing the vital work that keeps society together – will face another pay cut in real terms. At the same time, another group of public sector workers are being awarded massive bonuses for failure: the tax-payer owned banks are paying out as if the crash never happened. This includes RBS, which has lost money for six consecutive years and is close to being awarded junk bond status.
Social media, and online comment threads on newspaper websites, are filled with outrage, and with people evoking the spirit of Bob Crow. Crow didn’t just stand up to the bosses – he won. At a time when the Left feels weakened and dispirited, Crow’s union gained members as he continued to win excellent pay deals. All working people need unions to stand up for them the way Bob Crow stood up for his members. When Unite and GMB announced they were balloting their members for industrial action over the pay award, the public response was different this time: the usual “you’re lucky you’ve got a job, I’m all right Jack” attitude was notable by its absence. The public mood has shifted, and a new realisation has taken its place:
You don’t win if you don’t fight.
The same is happening with Tony Benn: the media today is filled with tributes remembering his political life and achievements, his principled opposition to the Iraq war, and his commitment to industrial democracy. Benn also acted as the conscience of the Labour Party that has so often lost its way and forgotten who it was founded to represent.
We can best honour these leaders by championing and fighting for their values: for industrial democracy, and the right of working class people to have control over their lives. In opposition to war. For a world of fairness, equality and justice.
This has been a week when leftwing ideas are receiving massive mainstream attention. We need to make the most of that, and shift the debate. We need to make our ideas mainstream, and move the balance of power and discourse in society. This is an opportune time: the stature and integrity of leaders like Crow and Benn only serves to make self-serving politicians like Cameron, Clegg, Gove, Hunt and Osborne look even more pathetic.
Let’s turn the tide.
As Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn, Organize”.
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