Tony Benn, Bob Crow & the prospects for a new workers party
The labour movement has been dealt a double blow, first losing the indomitable union leader, socialist and class fighter, Bob Crow and then Tony Benn. While it was widely known that Tony Benn had been unwell, this did not lessen the shock of his death. In the 1980s he was the figurehead of the Labour left at the height of its powers. Tony Benn’s political evolution contradicted the dictum of the cynics, which holds that being radical and on the left is a youthful phase which inevitably, with encroaching age, gives way to more rightwing ideas. As he explained in his diaries, Benn refused to go down this route. He gladly left this “aging process” to the likes of Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; steadfastly defending socialist principles, opposing the expulsion of Militant and other Labour lefts from the LP, appearing on the first TV broadcast of “No2 EU” and speaking at a recent rally in Liverpool to celebrate the 47 rebel councillors. He was radicalised by the force of events, the impact of the 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation, which he championed and other workers’ battles, such as the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974. Rumours were rife that any Labour government under Benn would be “ousted” – the plots dismissed at the time have since been documented. He was vilified within the party too. Despite the emasculation of internal party democracy, the sidelining of the unions within Labour, despite New Labour and that atrocious distortion One Nation Labour that insults everyone living on the other side of the growing poverty gap, Benn stuck it out in the Labour Party, hoping for a revival of the left.
At one time Bob Crow was a member of the Communist Party but in recent years had argued for unions to break with Labour and the need to set up a new workers party (the RMT were expelled for supporting the Scottish Socialists). Neither Tony Benn nor Bob Crow received a good press during their lives. Lenin once said: “During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say … while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.” Thus, despite the fine words, Bob Crow’s real legacy – RMT membership doubled, successful industrial action and political initiatives such as calling on unions to disaffiliate from Labour – has been widely ignored. Tony Benn is described as a noble but misguided character. Denis Healey could scarcely disguise his loathing of Tony Benn’s political views. Sky News reported that Ed Miliband, while prepared to make a statement about Bob Crow, refused to be filmed. Perhaps because he has not supported Bob Crow’s call for coordinated strike action and a one-day general strike against austerity?
Geoff Martin of the RMT said: “Coming in the same week as the loss of our own General Secretary Bob Crow, a close personal friend of Tony Benn, our world has been rocked to its core but we draw strength from the knowledge that the only tribute both men would have wanted from us is a renewal of the fight for socialism and economic and social justice and that is what we intend to deliver”. Many people would endorse this sentiment but we’d be hard pressed to find it in the media or in other messages of sympathy. Boris Johnson, for example, who claimed “Bob and I wanted the same thing”, had refused to speak to RMT reps for 18 months until forced to do so by the recent industrial action which had won the support of the majority of Londoners. The Gloucester Citizen quoted three Labour Party members, but printed not a word from the political alliance within which Bob Crow played a major role. Neither in life nor in death was anything said about his candidacy for the upcoming European election on the No2 EU, Yes to Workers Rights platform, nor about Trade Unionists and Socialists AGAINST CUTS for which he stood last year and received the backing of the RMT Congress. There has also been complete silence in the media about the National Shop Stewards Network that he initiated in order to strengthen rank and file trade unionism and build a network of activists to offer practical solidarity and support. The BBC has extensively covered the BNP and UKIP – even when they were scarcely contesting any seats, yet TUSC Against Cuts was told it would need to field around 600 candidates to get a mention.
With Labour promising austerity till 2020 and that it will be tougher on benefits than the Tories, Bob Crow and Tony Benn stood head and shoulder above One Nation Labour. Tony Benn represents the best of the Labour Left and maintained his faith in socialism. We must build on the legacy of Bob Crow. The silence about his industrial militancy and efforts to build a working class political alternative tell us “a working class hero is something to fear”.