A new biography of Bob Crow is an incomplete account of the inspirational working-class leader’s life, says JOHN HAYLETT
Bob Crow: Socialist, Leader, Fighter
by Gregor Gall
(Manchester University Press, £20)
GREGOR GALL’S biography of Bob Crow comes with a health warning, which he acknowledges in his introduction.
It was written without the co-operation of his union RMT, in deference to a promise made to his family to do so only for a book commissioned by them.
This doesn’t mean that Gall’s work is hostile to his subject. Far from it.
His admiration for Crow’s record as a trade union militant, left-wing campaigner and larger-than-life character is unquestionable but it depends overwhelmingly on media cuttings and a number of interviews with RMT activists.
The late RMT general secretary, who died aged 52 three years ago, gave several lengthy media interviews, so his early life, growing up in poverty in London’s East End in a Communist docker’s family — his mother died when he was eight — before being rehoused in Essex, is well known.
Taking a job as a “London Underground lumberjack” — he cleared trees encroaching on the track — he was active in the National Union of Railwaymen, becoming a national officer for track workers at 24.
He was elected assistant general secretary and then, following the untimely death of Jimmy Knapp, took the RMT top spot in 2002 before his own far too early demise 12 years later.
Gall details many industrial and political struggles undertaken by RMT under Crow’s leadership, although his compulsive need to back every assertion with a newspaper footnote occasionally raises the image of a scrapbook collection.
Nonetheless, this meticulous referencing provides a useful subtext of left groups’ attitudes to the subject and to other RMT leaders, not least his successor Mick Cash.
Despite significant disagreements, Crow backed Cash publicly on many occasions. He respected Cash’s professionalism and was determined not to make the mistake of surrounding himself with people who agreed 100 per cent with him.
Cash responded after taking up the RMT reins by pledging to follow in Crow’s footsteps and has been as good as his word. The union continues to back membership demands for strike ballots and remains unaffiliated to Labour.
It has backed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns but this is a continuation of existing policy since, while Crow was general secretary, RMT supported some constituency Labour parties financially, including those of Corbyn and John McDonnell.
Crow’s ability to work with activists from different backgrounds, some of whom were not on the best of terms with each other, was both a personal quality and a consequence of his political apprenticeship in the Communist Party, working closely with industrial organiser Kevin Halpin.
A crucial weakness of the history-bypaper-cutting approach, coupled with an absence of interviews with Communists, is exemplified by Gall’s bizarre reference to Halpin’s autobiography Memoirs of a Militant.
“Although Crow remained sympathetic to the Communist Party and its initiatives, Halpin conveys the sense that Crow had left his natural political family and that he had little to do with Crow thereafter,” he writes.
This is presumably the same Halpin who used to drop in regularly at RMT HQ, discuss developments with Crow and report back to the party executive committee.
Crow’s repeated statement that he fully supported Communist Party policies except the vote Labour position — to be fair, noted by Gall — was not empty rhetoric.
Gall mentions also Crow’s support for CP general secretary Rob Griffiths in the 2005 general election in Pontypridd but this appears an aberration after his Halpin reference.
I was Morning Star editor in 2002 and on the day Crow moved into the RMT general secretary’s office, he rang me. He needed a good journalist, “a trusted party member,” to do for him what current Unite chief of staff Andrew Murray was at that time doing for Aslef general secretary Mick Rix.
I was able to match up Derek Kotz, about start work for the paper, with Crow. His insistence on a communist heading his communications operations not only indicated where his heart lay but illustrated his assessment of party members’ ability to meet the movement’s needs.
Gall’s biography has many fascinating insights but such gaps indicate that his work, valuable though it is, is not the last word on Bob Crow.