With the death this week of left-wing leaders Bob Crow and Tony Benn, the UK has lost two of its most principled fighters for socialist ideas.
The right-wing media, which never tired of attacking them when they were alive, now hypocritically praises them in obituaries.
In a poignant twist, it so happened that Crow, 52, and Benn, 88, died within three days of each other. Crow, a no-nonsense working-class Londoner, was widely regarded as the UK’s most effective trade union leader, leading numerous campaigns and strikes to defend the jobs and conditions of transport workers, particularly London Tube drivers. Benn, one of the major intellectual figures on the left, was a rare bird in UK politics – someone who started out as a moderate reformer and Cabinet minister, and became progressively more radical and socialist as he grew older.
Both were passionate in their belief in ordinary working people, the 99 percent, to change society and wrest power from the richest elite, the 1 percent, and both were staunch opponents of the UK establishment. Yet that same elite, be it government officials, mainstream political leaders or big business, hypocritically praised both men in nauseous obituaries, tweets and sound bites within hours of their deaths – after attacking them mercilessly when they were alive.
London’s Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, who clashed repeatedly with Bob Crow over the city’s plans to cut jobs and services on the Tube, typified the sheer brass nerve of that elite. Doing a complete U-turn to heap praise on Crow as a “fighter and a man of character” after news broke of his death Tuesday, Johnson said: "Bob fought tirelessly for his beliefs and for his members. There can be absolutely no doubt that he played a big part in the success of the Tube, and he shared my goal to make transport in London an even greater success. It's a sad day."
Yet just a few weeks earlier in a confrontation on LBC radio, Johnson accused Crow of "talking complete nonsense" and “holding a gun to Londoners' heads.”
"The blame for this strike lies squarely with union leaders,” Johnson said in another interview, “who have resorted to myths and stunts in a pathetic attempt to justify a strike that is utterly pointless.”
Crow, a militant trade unionist ever since starting work for London Underground at the age of 16, will be sorely missed among the UK’s 7 million trade union members, for whom he was one of the few workers’ leaders who was prepared to stand up to the establishment and fight against austerity, job cuts and brutal capitalism at a time of deep economic crisis.
His death Tuesday morning, at the age of 52, came after he suffered a sudden aneurysm and massive heart attack at home in the East End of London. It came at a time when his union had just won a victory over Johnson’s plans to cut 1,000 Tube workers’ jobs, forcing the politician to back down after successful strikes in February.
Crow’s passing was met with a wave of tributes from ordinary trade union activists, workers and Londoners from all walks of life, as well as the wider socialist and left movement in the UK.
That Crow attracted such widespread affection among workers was no surprise to members of his RMT union, as he was highly successful in defending their living standards. At a time of recession, when wages and jobs have been under brutal assault since the crisis of 2008, drivers on the London Underground represented by RMT have received pay rises each year, and their current starting salary is over 48,000 pounds a year – far in advance of the 22,000 pounds for a Metropolitan Police officer or 27,000 for a teacher in the UK capital.
Many workers said they wished that their union leaders fought as hard for their members as Crow did for his.
Sadly, most union leaders in Britain, like the Labour Party leaders, have accepted big business’s mantra of austerity – effectively siding with the fat cat millionaires in the Conservative-Liberal government and the City of London, who constantly call for workers and the poor to pay for the capitalists’ crisis. Instead, Bob fought for his members’ rights – not just on pay, but also for higher pensions and for better health and safety on the Tube.
One London newspaper, on the news of Bob’s death, went so far as to run a cartoon of him in angels’ wings being met at Heaven’s pearly gates, with Bob immediately telling St. Peter: “Now, about these terms and conditions…”
The extent of the media’s hypocrisy can be seen from how they treated Crow when he was a threat to their wealth and privilege. Then, the London Evening Standard and the Express, for example, derided Crow as “the most hated man in Britain,” while the Conservative-supporting Daily Mail constantly jeered at him for continuing to live in a council house while on a comfortable salary as a union leader, and for his unashamed pride in his working-class roots.
On Tuesday, it was as if the “boss class,” as Crow would have referred to them, were taking a day off from attacking him to praise his personal qualities as a “fighter” – while glossing over the socialist ideas and the movement he fought for.
As Suzanne Moore commented on the Guardian’s website: “It is as though a truce can be brokered for a few hours during which the ruling class pretends to admire the guts of those it lives off, before it goes back to selling off bits of the NHS to people who run inadequate gyms, directing jobseekers to food banks and insisting zero-hours contracts are the future. Bob Crow understood the fight was never fair, but it was necessary. He never wanted to be ‘them,’ and that is why ‘they’ finally doff their caps to the man.”
A former Labour London Mayor and council leader, Ken Livingstone, himself often vilified as “Red Ken” when he was the left-leaning leader of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, told the BBC in an interview that the constant media vilification of Bob, the "endless strain of being a media hate figure" had taken its toll and "may have been a factor" in his death.
Livingstone said Bob had "put on a very brave front" in response to constant media criticism, but that he knew that it "takes its toll," the Huffington Post UK reported.
"I also expect just the endless strain of being a media hate figure, you know, the following on holiday, people intruding into every aspect of your life, I've been through that, it does take a toll, that might have been a factor," he said. "It's that constant unremitting intrusion. People outside the door. People chasing up old girlfriends. It's got worse and worse with the passage of time because there are more media outfits doing that."
The vast gulf between Crow and the Labour Party, which expelled Crow’s union a decade ago for being too left-wing, was papered over this week by the party’s leader, Ed Miliband, in his own “tribute” to Crow.
In a statement, Miliband, whose party had just voted to cut historic ties to the trade unions days before Crow’s death, had the gall to say: ‘Bob Crow was a major figure in the labour movement and was loved and deeply respected by his members.'
‘I didn’t always agree with him politically but I always respected his tireless commitment to fighting for the men and women in his union. He did what he was elected to do, was not afraid of controversy and was always out supporting his members across the country.'
But in an interview given to Afshin Rattansi, for RT’s Going Underground program, just weeks before his death, Crow pointed out that it was Miliband and the Labour Party leaders who had refused to support workers.
“When it comes to a strike, you have to decide whose side you’re on,” Crow told Rattansi, standing in the very RMT meeting room where the RMT’s predecessor transport union had helped to found the Labour Party 100 years ago. “You can’t sit on the fence. You’re either supporting the workers in struggle, or the employer.”
Crow added that the Labour Party’s policies today are “totally against what our union stands for.”
In May’s European elections, Crow had planned to stand along with other RMT members and the Socialist Party under the banner, “No to EU – Yes to workers’ rights.”
In this media hypocrisy – hounding left-wing leaders when they were alive, and lionizing them when they’re dead – Crow was not alone.
Tony Benn, another thorn in the side of the British establishment for decades, also received glowing media tributes from his enemies and opponents after his death Friday morning. The BBC even described David Cameron as “leading” tributes to Benn, whom he described as “magnificent.”
Tony Benn was a magnificent writer, speaker and campaigner. There was never a dull moment listening to him, even if you disagreed with him.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) March 14, 2014
David Cameron praises Bob Crow and Tony Benn? Pass the sick bag.
— Oysterband (@Oysterband1) March 14, 2014
The idea that Cameron could have anything in common with Benn is bizarre, whichever way you look at it.
Benn, a Labour MP from 1950 to 2001, moved progressively to the left in his parliamentary career. From a Cabinet minister in the 1960s and ‘70s, Benn became the standard-bearer of the Labour left in the 1980s, standing unsuccessfully for Deputy Leader in 1981, offering full support for the epic miners’ strike in 1984-85 and innumerable other struggles against Margaret Thatcher’s government, including the Liverpool City Council fight to improve funding for local jobs and services, the magnificent anti-poll tax campaign – which brought Thatcher’s downfall in 1990 – and GCHQ workers’ protests against their trade union rights being taken away from them. In recent years, Benn was chair of the “Stop the War” coalition and a vocal opponent of austerity policies practiced by Conservatives, Liberals and Labour in successive governments.
Cameron, meanwhile, has presided over the biggest increase in poverty and unemployment in the UK for decades – rivaling even that perpetrated by Thatcher, his political hero.
Back in the 1980s, Cameron even called for Nelson Mandela to be hung while a member of the Tory Bullingdon club at Oxford – while Benn was a leading member of the Anti-Apartheid movement in the UK.
The so-called “tributes” to Benn and Crow in the right-wing UK media also have to be seen in the light of their constant campaign of vilification against not just them, but any left-wing leaders.
Benn in the 1980s was described by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper as “the most dangerous man in Britain,” and the whole of Fleet Street routinely called Benn and his fellow socialists “the Loony Left.”
And the “black PR” did not stop there – it included “dirty tricks” campaigns by the media, the security services and big business to discredit left-wing leaders by digging up falsified allegations of wrongdoing and corruption, or just dredge through their private lives.
Over the last 30 years, left-wing trade unionists and workers’ leaders have been accused by the right-wing media of all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors – but the allegations turned out to be completely false and trumped-up.
Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers during its strike against Thatcher’s government, was falsely accused throughout the UK media of using strikers’ hardship payments to pay off his mortgage, and equally falsely accused of taking money from Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Both accusations were proved nearly 10 years later to be complete fictions, dreamed up by an MI5 mole planted inside the NUM as chief executive, Roger Windsor, and plugged ceaselessly by the Daily Mirror newspaper and its billionaire proprietor, Robert Maxwell. Maxwell committed suicide shortly afterward, when he himself was found to have defrauded Mirror employees of hundreds of millions of pounds in stolen pension funds.
Another left-wing leader, Derek Hatton, a leader of the Militant-led Liverpool Labour Council that created jobs and built 5,000 council houses at a time of recession and great poverty in the city under Thatcher, was on the receiving end of a character assassination by the media for years, and the police falsely brought charges against him of fraud. Several years later the charges were quietly dropped due to lack of any evidence.
In yet another case, Tommy Sheridan, a prominent Scottish socialist and anti-poll tax leader in the 1980s and ‘90s, was sent to jail a few years ago for perjury after taking the News of the World to court over allegations about his private life. The sentence was later quashed and Sheridan freed after it was revealed that Murdoch’s newspaper had illegally hacked Sheridan’s phone.
The other tack that the UK media has taken in recent times is to condemn leaders such as Crow and Benn as out of date and their ideas as irrelevant.
The BBC’s uber-establishment, right-wing interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, just a month ago tried to portray Crow as a “dinosaur” for his stubborn insistence on fighting for the working class.
Crow’s reply summed up his common-sense approach to trade unions, and showed how absolutely necessary fighters like him and Benn are for the 21st century: ‘They were around for a long while,” Crow said of dinosaurs. “People join a trade union for job security, being safe, best possible pay, best possible conditions, decent pensions and a world that lives in peace. That’s what we strive for. And we’re not going to put that on the agenda, who else is going to? Is the Labour Party? Who’s going to be the people on the street holding the banner if the trade union doesn’t?”
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.