After Bob Crow, What Next?

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Thus the Bob Crow era came to an abrupt and unexpected end, with the death of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union’s general secretary at the tragically early age of 52.

Bob Crow inspired strong feelings in many people, this blog included, but today is not the day to revisit those battles – Crow leaves behind a wife and four children, as well as countless devastated friends and admirers.

Indeed, regardless of what one may think of Crow’s ideology and tactics, the fact that he did good by his members (at least in the short-medium term) is indisputable. Tube drivers earn more than twice the starting salary of a new teacher, a remarkable if somewhat galling fact. RMT members’ loyalty to and trust in Bob Crow was well earned.

But what is likely to happen now that the gates have closed on the era of Bob Crow? Despite the efforts of a few other pretenders here and there, there does not seem to be the same appetite for the repeating, predictable, militant industrial action strategy that he rigorously followed.

And so as the RMT head office staff return to work tomorrow, the burning question will be whether the union chooses another leader willing to exploit the fact that he has London commuters gripped by the unmentionables to continue showering their members with terms and concessions that others can only dream of, or if they will decide to quit while they are ahead?

There is a compelling argument that Bob Crow’s tenure will come to be viewed as the high watermark of what activist, militant unionism can achieve for semi-skilled workers. The RMT’s most recent victory over Transport for London in the recent tube strikes was just as much a result of the abysmal strategy and negotiating tactics of TfL, and London mayor Boris Johnson’s dithering, than it was a Bob Crow triumph. A less hapless guardian of the public purse might have not allowed the RMT to get away with so many concessions.

This, ultimately, was the paradox that Bob Crow created for his members: with each passing victory, each benchmark-busting pay increase or working practices concession flaunted in the face of other workers and the general British public, the RMT only served to make the case for altering the people-to-technology ratio even further against employing real human beings.

Many lines on the London Underground are already highly automated. Indeed, the Docklands Light Railway is entirely driverless. As purchasing decisions for new rolling stock and signalling technology come around, a climate of industrial unrest – or the weary “what will they demand of us this time” mentality that it has created – can only make the case for maximum automation more compelling.

The cost of all of the RMT’s industrial relations victories – and they are short and medium term triumphs only – has been to make labour so expensive in relation to capital that the simple solution of exchanging the unreliable (labour) for the reliable (capital) has become a no-brainer. Boris Johnson, exasperated at the impact of unpredictable strikes on his mayoralty, is known to be interested. And contrary to what the RMT might say, or however they seek to misuse the memory of 7/7, most Londoners will be much happier to be whisked from A to Z under the streets of London at the hands of a computerised train than by an excessively remunerated humanoid with a tendency to go AWOL around Christmas or major international football tournaments.

Another side note of interest is the fact that Ed Miliband was so cautious in his praise of the RMT’s late leader, as the Guardian reports:

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, said: “Bob Crow was a major figure in the labour movement and was loved and deeply respected by his members.

“I didn’t always agree with him politically but I always respected his tireless commitment to fighting for the men and women in his union. He did what he was elected to do, was not afraid of controversy and was always out supporting his members across the country.”

How far Ed Miliband has seemingly come since the days when he willingly leaped on stage with anti-austerity protesters and a cast of characters from all over the left wing political spectrum.

Could it be that so soon after Bob Crow’s latest triumph over the hapless Transport for London negotiating team and reconfirmation that public sector workers are being paid more than their private sector counterparts – at the height of his power – Crow had become somewhat politically toxic?

And so, when Robert Crow of Woodford Green is buried, dead at the height of his influence, his legacy is far from being set in stone. Mourned by his trades union colleagues, and his RMT members most of all, Crow’s ambition and determination helped them to prosper in recent years, while many other workers did not.

But, when we are all zipping around London in efficient driverless trains at 3AM on a bank holiday, will they still be so grateful to his memory?

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Tribute to RMT leader Bob Crow, who died on 11th March 2014, written on the Service Information board at Covent Garden Underground Station

 

The text of the impromptu memorial to Bob Crow at Covent Garden Underground station, written on the Service Information board:

“Fear of death follows fear of life. A man who lives life fully is prepared to die at any time” – Mark Twain

R.I.P. Robert Crow RMT

13/06/1961 – 11/03/2014

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And Today’s “No Sh*t, Sherlock” Prize Goes To…

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… the hapless Conservative ministers who decided to pander to the green vote by opposing the expansion of London Heathrow Airport during the last general election campaign, but who have finally realised that perhaps constraining airport growth and undermining London’s status as one of the premier European hubs was maybe not such a good idea after all.

As reported in the Guardian today:

According to senior sources, both David Cameron and George Osborne have been convinced of the need to act – and re-examine long-term policy on Heathrow – after being lobbied by overseas leaders and business figures who warn that trade will move elsewhere in the EU unless the airport is expanded.

While the coalition agreement rules out a third runway at Heathrow, which would never be tolerated by the pro-green Liberal Democrats, many Tories now want the party to admit the decision was wrong and back the new runway in the manifesto for the next general election. In the meantime, however, ministers have ordered officials to examine a series of other options. One is the use of RAF Northolt in Ruislip, north-west London, for business flights, to ease pressure on Heathrow, just 13 miles away. Developing Northolt – and perhaps connecting it to Heathrow with a high speed rail link – would allow the government to avoid accusations of a U-turn as the third runway would then be some distance from the main airport.

Just as an aside, note how this story appears in The Guardian’s Environment section, not the Business section.

And predictably, in their panic, a whole load of new hare-brained schemes are now being concocted by these same Conservative ministers:

Tim Yeo, the Tory chairman of the energy and climate change select committee, said that he had “completely changed” his mind on Heathrow expansion and now believed there was no option but to build a third runway to ensure the south of England remained a worldwide aviation hub.

Great. Unfortunately that realisation is followed by this:

While the coalition agreement rules out a third runway at Heathrow, which would never be tolerated by the pro-green Liberal Democrats, many Tories now want the party to admit the decision was wrong and back the new runway in the manifesto for the next general election. In the meantime, however, ministers have ordered officials to examine a series of other options. One is the use of RAF Northolt in Ruislip, north-west London, for business flights, to ease pressure on Heathrow, just 13 miles away. Developing Northolt – and perhaps connecting it to Heathrow with a high speed rail link – would allow the government to avoid accusations of a U-turn as the third runway would then be some distance from the main airport.

Seriously – if the government proposes many more airports we will soon reach a point where there is a little tiny one in everyone’s back garden, with a fully fueled Boeing 747 idling on the 5-metre runway. And each of them, of course, will have a high-speed rail link to Heathrow Airport.

Because nothing says “come connect through Britain on your journey” like having to transfer between a million small airports on an imaginary high speed rail link that may or may not be built in 30 years’ time.

For once, can we actually do something quickly and efficiently in this country, and build the damn third runway at Heathrow?

No hand-wringing, no five year national enquiry chaired by a retired betitled judge, no proposals for twenty new small satellite airports, each serving two destinations and each requiring a high-speed rail link to connect them to the others. None of that. This one really isn’t rocket science. Just build the damn runway.

George Osborne Must Avoid The Urge To Become A Control Freak

George Osborne - Chancellor of the Exchequer - Budget

This well-written piece from The Freedom Association is worth reading, warning the Chancellor of the Exchequer to avoid raising taxes on beer in his upcoming budget announcement.

As an avid beer drinker myself, I can argue from a position of self-interest alone that it would be bad to raise the level of tax on a pint of beer.

But let’s forget about that particular issue for a moment, and concentrate instead on the ludicrous yearly spectacle of the Chancellor of the Exchequer standing at the despatch box in the House of Commons, and reeling off a list of everyday products that he intends to extract more tax from in the coming year.

Could there be a greater example of heavy-handed, over-centralised, petty, British authoritarianism than this?

Why should the central government, in addition to raiding our personal incomes and (if we are so fortunate as to have them) corporate profits or capital gains, also be allowed to decide that it wants a slice of the pie every time we buy a pint at the local pub, or a pack of cigarettes, or a bottle of wine to drink at dinner?

Is the punishingly high rate of VAT (currently 20%) paid on most goods insufficient? Are the higher (40%) and top (50%) rates of income tax not enough, or the additional national insurance “contributions” that we all make (an additional tax in all but name, meaning that the highest marginal rate of income tax is now well over 50% – why bother to work at all when the government snatches more than half of every pound you make before it even hits your bank account?)

Since the Second World War, and for some time before, government in Britain – and the raising and spending of government funds – have been far too centralised. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if taxes were simplified in this country, so that there was one deduction for income tax, one for VAT, one for capital gains, one for corporation tax and nothing else to worry about? Forget “national insurance” and sneaky tax increases on a pint of cider here, or a pack of cigarettes there, or doubling the tax we pay for the privilege of passing through any of Britain’s dilapidated airports (air passenger duty), or any other thing that the Chancellor thinks he can extract revenue from?

If that’s an impossible pipe dream, how about restoring some semblance of a link between the stealth taxes that are raised and what that money is spent on, so that I can be reasonably sure that the ridiculous amount of tax I pay when I fly from Heathrow Airport actually goes to make air travel or general transport better in this country, rather than being added to some massive central pot and disbursed to fund a score of other schemes that I probably either object to, or don’t benefit from?

And since no government will ever do this in the foreseeable future, can we at least implement Ben Gummer MP’s idea to give each taxpayer a yearly statement, personalised for their salary and annual tax contributions, showing where their contributions are going.

And when, for example,  people buy petrol at the pump (or rather, go inside the shop to pay, because this is Britain and paying at the pump is still proving too great a technical feat for us to master in 2012), it would be nice if the receipts would show the original price charged by the company, and then the price payable by the consumer once the onerously high rate of fuel duty is added on.

Government should be transparent, open and accountable, and I for one would like to see where my money is going.