Bob Crow: He was one of a kind, from a time when union leaders used their industrial muscle

Though never shy about arguing his case in front of the public, he did not let himself to be distracted by the possibility that disruptions were giving unions a bad name
  • @andymcsmith

If Bob Crow was a villain, he was an appealing villain. Or if he was a hero, he was a hero from a different age, when union leaders used their industrial muscle, regardless of the effect on everyone else. There was a hit song by the Strawbs in the 1970s that went “You Can’t Get Me, I’m part of the Union”, which was meant to be a dig at the hubris of the union bosses, but which they happily adopted as an anthem. Being in a union back then meant better wages and conditions, and if other people were inconvenienced by union militancy, that was their problem not the union members’.

It was the kind of mindset that Bob Crow encouraged in the RMT, one of the few unions that still used industrial muscle to wring concessions through industrial action.

This trade union leader was different, rare and largely misunderstood
In praise of Bob Crow, Britain's trade union pantomime villain

In that respect, he was completely single-minded. Though never shy about arguing his case in front of the public, he did not let himself to be distracted by the possibility that disruptions to public transport or his own combative personality were giving unions a bad name, or creating political problems for the Labour Party. He disaffiliated the RMT from the Labour, and was involved in desultory efforts to create a political party further to the left.

And yet, his death is one of those rare events that come as a genuine shock even to those who are in the news business.

When I last saw Bob Crow, less than five weeks ago, he looked for all the world like someone who was going to be around giving the transport bosses trouble for many more years. The occasion was a press conference held at TUC headquarters after he had been photographed by the Daily Mail sunning himself in Brazil when his members were about to come out on strike again.

The union official chairing the conference made a vain attempt to impose a rule that all the questions were to be all about the industrial dispute, and none about Bob Crow’s holiday, but Crow himself was too smart to think that line could be held in front of a room full of predatory hacks, and at the first mention of Brazil, launched into a spirited and witty defence, which included flourishing a page from the travel section of the Daily Mail from which - he claimed - he had first learnt about the package holiday.


As he was leaving, I thought I would accost him by the lift and ask him if he always booked his holidays through the Daily Mail. Without batting an eyelid, he claimed that he had just happened to have seen a free copy while he was in the gym. That may have been true, or maybe he did not want his members to know he read the Daily Mail.

What was appealing about the old bruiser was that there was nothing false in the image he presented to the public. He was not vain, in the way so many people in the public eye are. He did not act hurt and precious when attacked by the Daily Mail: he expected it. He was one of a kind.

I agree with Mick Whelan, of the Aslef rail union, when he said: “There will never be another Bob Crow.” London commuters will doubtless say amen to that.