Saturday, 15 March 2014

Men of Vision, Men of Action


I have  just presided over a minute's silence in respect of Bob Crow and Tony Benn with BA labour and trade union students who are here at Ruskin this weekend. We are fortunate to have Steve Skelly with us as part of the 2010 cohort, and who sits on the NEC of the RMT, to provide a personal perspective on the leadership and personality of Bob Crow.

Many thanks to Andy Danforth of UWE for forwarding the two pictures below, taken by Robert Byford a PhD student at UWE and researching the last dispute at BA.

This has been an incredibly difficult week for the British labour movement, and I don't feel I have much to add amongst the massive outpouring of commentary and retrospectives, so I'll just comment from a personal perspective, and leave you with some of my favourite quotes of Crow and Benn.

Before I do though, I should add that the title for the posting draws on the chapter from the book by Richard Lewis, Teachers and Leaders. The book examines the impact of miners on the development of worker education in the UK, and in particular the impact of the South Wales Miners Federation (SWMF) in sending miners as trade union activists to Ruskin College, and thereafter what happened to workers' education through the rise of the Pleb's League and the creation of the labour colleges movement.

For me, the link with Bob Crow and Tony Benn was firstly their very proud association with Ruskin College, and secondly their acknowledgement that movements for social justice typically rest of the acquisition of a layer of knowledge on the part of working class women and men.

Bob Crow embodied that which makes the union strong (to draw on the title of Tony Lane's book) in that no struggle for workers' right, be that in the form of improved terms and conditions, or improvements in the law, has historically note come through little or no struggle. When I listened this week to Londoners bemoaning the transport strikes led by Crow I wondered why they didn't ask how the rights they enjoy (weekend leave, sick pay, maternity leave etc etc) came about, nor why they didn't query the role of Boris Johnson in forcing the hand of the RMT in pursuing industrial action as a legitimate response to his attempts to reduce the quality and standard of London transport.

On being told of Thatcher's death "I wont shed one single tear over her death. She destroyed the NHS and destroyed industry in this country and as far as I'm concerned she can rot in hell."
"I was brought up according to Labour movement principles and to believe that the 11th commandment is 'Thou shalt not cross a picket line"

I first heard Tony Benn speak in the mid-80s at Manchester Town Hall in the aftermath of the riots in Moss Side. I was soon to join the Labour Party and a comrade insisted I come along and hear the old geezer. From that afternoon and thereafter I was in awe of Benn's passion and conviction in that the fight against oppression and injustice was a moral one, and that I was part of a long, historical tradition of radical movements fighting class elites, corporate power and state corruption. I first get the opportunity to read Benn's prolific output when I got to Ruskin as a full-time student in 1989, and I remember distinctly spending time first with Arguments for Socialism, and being transfixed with the idea that the fight for working class democratic representation could be rooted in a Christian socialist perspective.
"I’m not frightened about death. I don’t know why, but I just feel that at a certain moment your switch is switched off, and that’s it. And you can’t do anything about it."
"If one meets a powerful person ask them five questions: 'What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?' If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system."
Although many people internationally will necessarily mourn the loss of Tony Benn and Bob Crow, it is, from my perspective, that with which they leave us that it more important. It is the sense that the fight for social justice is a moral one, and that this fight can be made orally, and in words and writing, as well as on the streets through strike action and protest. It is that there is no shame or fear in standing up to power in the form of elites, the state or employers, and ultimately, that history tells us that we can and do win when we act with conviction and in solidarity.

RIP Tony Benn and Bob Crow

In Solidarity


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