This week the UK lost two high-profile figures of the left. Leader of the RMT union Bob Crow died in the early hours of Thursday morning at the age of 52. A few days later the 88 year old Tony Benn passed away. Greg Bianchi asks what is the left of socialism in the UK for this week’s Bottom Line
Tony Benn (1925-2014)
The death of Tony Benn was announced on Friday morning. The veteran Labour Party member, known for his strident defence of socialism and firebrand oratory, was part of a political divide which swept the UK towards the end of the 20th century.
Tony Benn had run for a number of important positions in the Labour Party and was part of its strong left wing which during the 1980s campaigned against Thatcherism. However, at times he and his colleagues were criticised for being counter-productive. He was a cabinet minister under Howard Wilson and Jim Callaghan during the 1970s and campaigned on behalf of the miners during their strikes.
Following his failure to win the leadership of the party he routinely won polls as a popular politician. His commitment to the left wing continued as he opposed the emergence of New Labour under Tony Blair and became a vocal opponent of the war in Iraq. With the passing of Benn the left wing in Britain has lost its father figure and it’s hard to imagine he’ll be replaced any time soon.
Bob Crow (1961-2014)
The leader of the RMT Union Bob Crow also died earlier this week. The union leader had recently been in the national spotlight after calling a 48 hour strike on the London Underground calling for better pay and conditions for workers.
While the strike was criticised by some, including the London mayor Boris Johnson, many of the members of his union supported his actions claiming that he had done a great deal to help protect their jobs and working conditions since taking control of the union in 2002. However, his salary was often criticised but he was also praised for helping to revive and strengthen the union movement.
In losing Crow the union movement, which has been in sharp decline since its peak during the 1960s and 1970s, has lost one of its most charismatic and steadfast leaders. Politicians and members have called his death a tragedy.
What next for British socialism?
With the loss of two high profile and leading members, British socialism is looking for future leaders. Over recent years socialism has adapted in the UK from a form which favours a large public sector and nationalised firms, to a party system which supports neo-liberal capitalism but greater distribution of wealth as well as more expenditure on social issues such as schooling and hospitals. However, there is no doubting that ‘socialism’ in a classical sense has been in sharp decline in the UK for many decades.
Rightly or wrongly, socialism has adapted to a modern, post-cold war world. The loss of people like Bob Crow and Tony Benn reinforce that socialism is in transition in the UK.