Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bob Crow's Mantelpiece

I love Bob Crow. I do. I love the way he embodies all the most deep-seated fears of Blatcherism - not only is he a strong union leader quite willing to take industrial action - and industrial action that has worked, meaning that tube drivers have enviable benefits compared with the incredibly poorly treated bus drivers; and not only is he not prepared to fund the Labour Party, but he's also both a Communist and from an ineluctably working class background. Crow is, however, a fine example of the sheer uselessness of the British left in terms of actual propaganda, in terms of convincing the majority of people who know little about the significance of 1984, let alone 1926; and in short the refusal to make intelligent use of old media, let alone new. You could see this in the RMT-led No2EU coalition, with its staggeringly inept party political broadcast and its misbegotten pandering to Euroscepticism (especially bizarre in the context of Crow's impeccable internationalism) and in the publicity disaster that occurs with every single tube strike, leading to the bizarre consequence that, instead of setting an example of successful organisation, inspiring other workers to take similar action, the RMT instead always seems to be out on its own - and commuters who are as hostile to privatisation as the union are ignored rather than convinced.

In every strike, the print media, bolstered now with the addition of two right-wing free papers, stirs up an entirely unsurprising annoyance with having the already grim daily commute made more difficult into the acceptance of views that are genuinely shocking - I was amazed by the amount of times I heard during the week of the strike that tube drivers shouldn't have the right to strike, as if this basic human right should be suspended for the sake of an extra hour on the journey to work. In the face of this, the RMT's communiques get sent out to the papers and mentioned in invariably sneering, sceptical terms, while in thelondonpaper there was a 'debate' in the 'More or Bore' column between opponents and supporters of the strike who were equally inarticulate. The idea that the union should do something even as basic as leafleting commuters appears not to have occurred to the RMT leadership. It's obvious that the Boris Johnson administration are desperate to confront the RMT, but by refusing to make allies of commuters they are making a potentially fatal mistake.

Nonetheless, when he does get a bit of space to say his piece, we end up with things like this peculiar interview - intriguingly symptomatic, but despite Crow's adroit fighting of his corner, the class questions here seem at first more aesthetic than political. Simon Hattenstone's interview is an exquisite piece of class condescension, where Crow's choice of furnishings becomes as important as the possibility that up to 4000 RMT workers could be sacked. This comes out especially virulently at the end, when we have a 'spot the ball' contest based on his unusually interesting choices in interior design. Not only is he a Union Baron, but by God, he's a skinheaded Millwall fan whose office is stacked with nick-nacks! Didn't he get the memo where we all decided to redesign our offices in the style of the Big Brother house? Not only is he holding us to ransom, he's got such ghastly taste! Actually, what is interesting here is that what he is surrounding himself with is history, the artefacts of a culture, whether they're gifts from unions worldwide, busts of Lenin or Millwall memorabilia; the exact same history we obliterate with the pine of PFI, the lime-green Panton chairs in the Focus Group clinics and the vaguely abstract canvases in the property showrooms. If anyone doubts the political relevance of design, this interview is an unexpected proof.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crow may be an impeccable internationalist, but that doesn't make him any less of a virulent eurosceptic, in that he's adamantly opposed to the EU.

11:07 am  
Anonymous henry said...

The piece was a carve-up by the Guradian and I thought he came out of it as best as he could have hoped for. Mocking the interior was such a shitty thing when the paps regularly run spreads of "A Room of My Own" by f+ckwit boooshwah types who are encouraged to create "narratives" for each bit of tat they've collected over the years. I'm sure Crow's stuff would far more interesting. The EU thing? An odd distraction when they could have done an antiBanker antiCapitalistPigs campaign and got more votes and scored more points. But the Left historically has always been either too fearful or too hopeful about the EU (a product of UK isolation in many areas)

11:04 pm  
Blogger SPL said...

Perhaps they wish to 'erase the traces'. Though not the traces of middle-class life, but of 150 years of a mass labour movement.

12:22 am  
Anonymous FintonStack said...

The rabbiting on about EU privatisation and competition policy is particularly, pathetically, off-target: as if British politicians need any handholding on that front. And strange too how we seem to be neatly insulated from positive aspects of EU policy, like working time and temporary worker directives. Who could be behind that, I wonder?

When's your trip to Glasgow, Owen?

*Though it does lead to some spectacularly mad examples, like how the Cal-Mac ferry to where my parents live isn't allowed to co-ordinate its timetable with the train from Glasgow lest it unfairly disadvantages its purely-hypothetical competitor ferries.

2:27 am  
Anonymous Daniel T said...

Didn't find anything in the least bit condescending about that interview. You'll notice that in the same issue of the paper there was a Weekend magazine interview with Gordon Brown which also banged on about his office/living arrangements at the expense of serious political points too - nothing to do with class. The way I read it, Hattenstone clearly had a lot of respect for Crow and was using the colourful details to undermine the prejudices that a lot of Guardian readers would have brought to the interview. Hattenstone generally makes it (subtly) clear when he's mocking or dislikes his interviewee - recent ones with Richard Madeley and Mike Tyson were cases in point. Plenty of things in the Guardian to moan about but I don't think this is one.

1:24 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

actually you could be right about the interview - but the 'spot the ball' is I think undeniably condescending.

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