When Nigel Farage had the temerity to nod at Bob Crow’s euroscepticism while paying his respects to the late RMT leader, some were quick to accuse him of cheap political point-scoring. I suspect that many of them hardly knew Crow because he never missed an opportunity to slam the EU for being ‘a regional engine of corporate globalisation’. And eurosceptics of all political persuasions have reason to be disheartened by the loss of a voice like his to their cause.
Bob Crow wasn’t a eurosceptic by convenience nor did he do it simply to pander to rising populist anti-EU sentiment. For years he regularly led union members in protests against EU directives enforcing competition on Europe’s railways, most recently in October. One could be forgiven for wondering if the RMT would have preoccupied itself with this without Crow’s dogma-driven leadership, given that Britain denationalised its own rail system long ago.
His fight against the EU was not limited to battles of policy either. In 2009 he led the newly-created No2EU electoral alliance between hard left parties in the European elections, though he gained just 1% of the vote. At the time of his death he was back in full campaign mode, with the RMT drumming up tens of thousands of pounds in donations to enable No2EU to field a slew of MEP candidates for a second time this May, Crow among them.
Crow was indispensable to traditional eurosceptics. His hard-left opposition to the EU pulled euroscepticism’s centre of gravity away from the right where it had been languishing for years. The People’s Pledge campaign for a referendum brought Crow and his nemesis Boris Johnson together in a way that no other issue could. Seeing his name attached to euroscepticism made people think twice about pigeon-holing the anti-EU crowd. Unlike Conservatives, who had embraced austerity at home, he struck a genuine and consistent chord in slamming the EU’s focus on cuts and structural reform.
When the time comes for an Out campaign in Britain, Bob Crow’s voice will be sorely missed. Many on the right were counting on him to bring home votes not just from the left but from the broader disaffected working class, who neither the Tories nor UKIP could reach. The RMT may remain a latent voice of Euroscepticism, but whether its triumphant Crow-led motions on a referendum and withdrawal at TUC conferences will still be driven with the same gusto – if at all – is far from sure.
In commemorating his achievements, many of those paying tribute to Bob Crow have been keen to stress that, despite appearances, he was a well-read man of shrewd intelligence. The same went for his long-held convictions about the EU. Crow could rattle off a plethora of examples, from opt-outs in EU employment law to the competition core of procurement legislation, in order to counter what he saw as the myth of social Europe.
Like his infuriatingly good negotiating skills, his euroscepticism came naturally. He could whittle down the EU’s problems so that the man on the street understood – and agreed. Unlike UKIP, he didn’t simply descend into anti-immigration rants to make his point either; his mantra was workers’ solidarity. He could swing a Question Time audience that hadn’t made up its mind into the Out camp, while getting a room full of Tory sceptics cheering even though his epithets about the EU should have turned them into raving europhiles.
The pro-Brussels camp may be glad to see the back of him; but debates benefit from those who have a clear vision. The Europe debate will be poorer and less interesting for no longer having his.
Allie Renison tweets @AllieRenison