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Building shield

When Bob Crow died last week there was genuine sorrow across all parts of the political spectrum. Obviously, there was the shock at the untimeliness of his passing – but there was something else, the sense that a distinctive and irreplaceable voice had been lost.

Writing for the Telegraph, Brendan O’Neill tries to define what made Bob Crow special:

“It wasn’t just the flat cap or his oh-so-London accent, the like of which is heard far less frequently on TV and radio today than it was in the 1970s. It was also the fact that he believed in improving the material wealth and comfort of working people. That was of course a core conviction of every Leftist of the early to mid-twentieth century, but modern-day Leftists have ditched it in favour of adopting anti-wealth, anti-‘greed’, anti-progress postures that would have been utterly alien to the flat cap-wearing Lefties of yesteryear.”

O’Neill describes the new ideology of the left as “anti-stuffism”:

“On the Left, something went horribly wrong during and immediately after the Thatcher years. Leftists’ criticisms of Thatcher morphed into criticisms of materialism itself, of a so-called ‘culture of greed’ that was apparently seeping through society. Anti-Thatcherism became anti-stuffism, anti-wealth, meaning that it wasn’t only Thatcher herself who felt the barbs of the Left – so did everyone else, whether posh or working class, who desired a larger house, bigger car and more money.”

O’Neill’s analysis is fascinating – and will appeal to rightwing anti-environmentalists as well as Old Labour types. However, it’s also completely wrong.

The truth is that the modern left has gone out of its way to facilitate crass consumerism. It was, after all, a Labour government that presided over the biggest consumer credit bubble in British history. In opposition, their big economic idea was to stimulate consumption with a debt-funded cut to VAT. Now that the recovery is underway this policy has been dropped, but they have nothing to replace it with.

Looking back over the previous decade, it’s clear that the getting of “stuff” – largely in the form of cheap Chinese imports – has been a pretty poor substitute for genuine material progress. Again, it was under the last Labour government that rates of home ownership began to fall for the first time in a century. To this we can add the stagnation of male median earnings (which preceded the recession by several years) and the erosion of household savings.

Without going beyond purely material considerations, stuff is not the same thing as wealth.

On the other hand, O’Neill is right to point out that Crow was no slouch when it came to the earnings of his members:

“He was effectively the last trade unionist, one of the last Leftists whose aim was simply to ensure that his already quite well-paid workers were better paid and secure in their jobs… And that’s why he was actually fairly popular, despite his stoppages of the Tube – because his talk of pay and conditions, actual real material things, connected far more with ordinary people than other Leftists’ insistence that we make do and mend and curb our materialistic urges.”

Unfortunately, the means by which he sought to get more money for his people resembled those of the capitalist fat cats he so despised. Crow’s Tube drivers weren’t so different from the boom-time bankers – in both cases, economic interests were advanced not by improving productivity but by exploiting their respective strangleholds.

Crow may have enabled ordinary working people to play the system, just for once. But, far from beating the fat cats at their own rent-seeking game, he only achieved what he did at the expense of other ordinary working people.

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