Bob Crow death: In 30 years, will the cult of the individual have taken such a hold that the idea of working for the collective good is lost?

For many, the concept of trade unionism is already an alien one
  • @Simon_Kelner

Working in an office comprised primarily of young people, I am conscious that my cultural and political references don't always land on fertile ground. The other day, I was in the midst of a discourse about Che Guevara when I realised that no one I was addressing had the faintest clue who I was talking about. Similarly, while Prime Minister's Questions was on the television recently, one of my colleagues asked me who it was that was speaking. The fact that it was Ed Miliband possibly says more about Mr Miliband that it does about the young man asking the question, but I am regularly surprised by how little knowledge people of my vintage can take for granted when it comes to general conversation.

This is not a rant about how young people don't know anything these days, or to rail against the vacuity of a culture which makes a celebrity out of a 20-year-old who thinks the president of Britain is a man called Barraco Barner. It is merely to set the context for my surprise at the reaction of my colleagues when news of the sudden death of Bob Crow came through.

For a start, everyone knew exactly who he was (largely, of course, because he played something of a role in an important part of their daily lives: getting in to work on time). But there was a interest in him, in his life and his death, which, I believe, spoke of his wider significance to people who don't normally give a stuff about politics: he was an exotic creature, who spoke in a direct, uncompromising way rarely heard in public life these days, a man who did things differently. They remembered him, for instance, ringing up Boris Johnson's LBC phone-in show and giving the Mayor a piece of his mind. He was authentic and original, a man who talked like real people (Bob not Boris, I mean).

Although they all knew loosely what Bob Crow stood for, the concept of trade unionism was an alien one. And this made me think. In 30 years' time, will the world be mourning someone like Bob Crow, or will the cult of the individual, promoted by a fractured culture that breeds impersonality and separateness, have taken such a hold that the idea of working for the collective good is regarded as old-fashioned in the extreme? In the future, they may think of striking like we think of jousting, something that belongs to another time, long ago. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Owen Jones will, with age, turn into a grizzled hero of the working man. Maybe not. In an age when you can create a storm in 140 keystrokes, why bother with the trouble of political activism?

Among the encomia for Bob Crow, Ken Livingstone said: “Young people will learn lessons from him and realise he stood up for his members.” Ken knows the game is very nearly up, and his appeal to young people is because he understands that fighting for one's comrades in the workplace is not terrible fashionable today. He also knows that, with the passing of Bob Crow, the death of trade unionism as we know it comes that little bit closer.