Tony Benn and Bob Crow: Two giants of the socialist and trade union movement

Tony Benn, at Regent?s University London
Tony Benn, at Regent?s University London

I heard Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, speak at a meeting commemorating the 30th anniversary of the miners' strike.

I heard Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, speak at a meeting commemorating the 30th anniversary of the miners' strike. Two days later, at 52, he was dead.

In the same week, Tony Benn, one of the giants of the socialist and Labour movement, passed away at the age of 88.

New Labour journalists - including Patrick Wintour, in The Guardian - wrote obituaries of Tony Benn, full of platitudes and devoid of content.

Ed Miliband paid his tribute, frightened of his own shadow and scared of saying anything controversial, in case he was accused of being a socialist. Even David Cameron’s tribute was more generous.

It was Boris Johnson, though, who took the Tony Blair award for hypocrisy. Throughout his tenure, the London Major refused to meet Bob Crow. When he was certain he was dead, Johnson wittered on about how “shocked” he was at the death of political rival - "a fighter and a man of character".

Bob Crow and Tony Benn could not have come from more different backgrounds. Benn was born into privilege as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, the son of Viscount Stansgate; Bob Crow was what John Lennon described as a genuine working-class hero, the son of an East End docker. He represented a dying breed of trade union leader, one who placed the interests of his members above himself.

Benn was unique in that he moved to the left during his ministerial career as he saw the undemocratic way in which senior civil servants saw their purpose as to blunt the radicalism of Labour governments.

When Thatcher defeated the "Sunny Jim" Callaghan in 1979, Benn drew the appropriate conclusions. Whereas many on the Labour right sought to adapt to the new zeitgeist, Benn saw Thatcher’s setting the people free meant short-term bribery and the handing over of national assets to the financial sharks and hedge funds who subsequently did so much to cause the 2008 financial crisis.

It is one of ironies of the "free market" today that instead of going to the wall, mouth are stuffed with gold.

The banks were "too big to fail" yet George Osborne seeks to privatise them once again, whatever their share price. There used to be a time when lame ducks went to the wall; now they get a luxury life-raft.

Benn was determined the Labour movement should draw the lessons from previous failures of Labour governments. To that end, there began a movement to democratise the Labour Party, with constituency parties having the right to de-select sitting members.

Today, the Labour Party - a creation of the trade unions, socialist parties and the Fabians - is the alternative party of capitalism. The trade union bloc vote counteracted the bloc vote that Eton and the City exercise on the Conservative Pary.

Benn will go down as one of the great constitutional reformers.

With Kinnock leading the way, New Labour took over the Labour Party in the 1990s. They were determined to eradicate all traces of socialism. Tony Blair’s scrapping of Clause 4 meant that Labour had no principles or guidelines.

If there is one word that sums up Benn’s career, it is democracy. He wanted Labour MPs to represent their constituents not themselves. The expenses scandal was, above all, a consequence of their unaccountability.

In his obituary, Patrick Wintour said some old ministerial colleagues would say nothing. Their "bitterness" against Benn’s movement for democracy in the Labour Party was undiminished.

In the words of Joe Hill, of American labour movement known as “the Wobblies”: Don’t mourn. Organise.