With a dark serendipity (I’m sure someone somewhere suspects a conspiracy) two of the great icons of the Left, one long retired from active politics, the other still making a significant impact on Londoners’ daily lives, died in London last week. But both Tony Benn and Bob Crow were, in their different ways, relics of bygone eras.
Benn was at his height amidst the stark, binary choices of the 1980s, when the political world was riven down the middle, and the decision seemed to be between a stripped down, minimalist state protected by army and police and socialism in one country. He was accused of nearly destroying the Labour Party and of causing the split that led to the creation of the Social Democratic Party, though around that accusation there’s a whiff of ‘You forced me into having an affair by being so unreasonable’. It’s telling that most of the policies of the SDP – indeed, many of the policies of Ted Heath’s 1970 – 74 Conservative government – would be considered impossibly left wing by today’s Labour Party. Benn, though, with his pipe, his cardigan, his mugs of tea and his belief that most of the problems of the world could be solved by a good long chat, belonged also to a still earlier world, that of the earnest 1930s socialist, eager to think and plan their way out of the mess that was the world. More recently, he became an amiable grandfather, whose rambling on about his hobby horses was tolerated because of his evident kindness and good will – though only, as he pointed out, because he had become harmless.
Bob Crow, on the other hand, was right in the faces of Londoners till the last. Only a few weeks ago, he’d had them squashed onto buses or confined to their homes in front of work laptops as he brought the Tube to a standstill with his command. Headlines screamed of misery for Londoners, and reached for the inevitable figures of damage to that sacred entity to which all human concerns must be sacrificed, the economy. However, despite not even being an adult in that decade, Crow’s era was really the 1970s, when trade unionists had national power, and could show it by turning your lights off or stopping you getting your bus to school. It’s a time that is now unfailingly demonised. It’s true that, as capital and labour fought, we felt at times like the children of a dysfunctional couple, cowering at the top of the stairs looking down at them as they screamed the usual lines at each other while we wondered if our PE kit was ever going to be washed or our packed lunch made, and who was going to help us with our Maths homework? It’s arguable, though, that the relative peace and stability we have now comes, not from a reconciliation in the family, but from the absolute crushing of one partner by the other. If Mum and Dad don’t argue any more, it’s only because Mum is too terrified to say anything.
Crow was one of the few remaining trade union leaders to have achieved something of substance for his members; Tube workers are paid upwards of £50,000 a year. When bankers insist on ten or twenty times this for gambling with our money, they are to be congratulated on their energy and enterprise and must not be denied, for fear they might leave London in a huff. When their decisions deprive people not just of a few days’ commuting but of their jobs and livelihoods, then, like a battered wife, we must somehow have brought it on ourselves by being excessively demanding; the only solution is to be more submissive. But if the people who carry us to work every morning dare to assert themselves in a negotiation, they must be slapped down by insisting, as Boris Johnson would, that no strikes can take place without more than 50% of the membership voting for them. (Only 38% of Londoners voted in the 2012 election that made Boris Mayor).
One of Benn’s wiser sayings was about getting old. ‘Don’t go on about the past, don’t whinge, don’t try to manage things; just encourage people.’ Indeed, going on about the past all the time gets you nowhere (unless you are an ambitious historian). But the very fact that both Benn and Crow seemed so anachronistic is in a strange way encouraging. When, some time in the early 50s, the current generation of political and economic leaders start dying off, their obituarists will remark on how quaint all they believed in and did back in the early twenty-first century seem to us now. Which should remind us that the current neo-liberal settlement so confidently presented to us as being an inevitable law of nature is anything but. Another world is always possible, and nearly always necessary.