Last week, the British Left mourned as it bid farewell to two of its leading lights – old Labour icon Tony Benn and legendary union leader Bob Crow. Both men will be sorely missed, too, by headline writers and casual observers of political theatre. Each was a stunning PR operator who made the weather and livened up the political news agenda.
Benn had an instinctive understanding of humanity – how to stir the heart and speak to the soul of all who encountered him. In the days following his passing, stories have emerged of his warmth and compassion and the power of his oratory. Among the political classes, even his opponents have fallen over themselves to praise him. Tory MPs from Zac Goldsmith to Peter Bone speak of a good-hearted, principled man. Even David Cameron said “there was never a dull moment listening to him, even if you disagreed with him”. Perhaps more important, though are the stories which have emerged on comment threads from ordinary people – the man who shared an unforgettable conversation with him on a train three days after Benn lost his seat. Endless people who name Benn as an inspiration, who say he was the man who got them interested in politics.
Yet for all his honour, integrity and sincerity, Benn wasn’t above giving a great soundbite. Words which might have sounded trite or pre-planned from another politician took on a real gravitas when he spoke them. His infamous wisecrack, delivered upon his resignation as an MP, that he was quitting to spend “more time on politics” remains one of the funniest and most pertinent quotes from anyone in Westminster. He was no master strategist – many in his party blamed him in part for keeping them out of power for a generation – but his life has many lessons for anyone in the public eye.
Speak from the heart, with compassion and without fear, and you won’t go far wrong.
Crow was a very different beast. His legacy can best be summed up in a set of numbers. At present, an entry level firefighter earns £21,157. A nurse starts on £21,176. Some soldiers get £15,573. Tube drivers, who were arguably the greatest beneficiaries from Crow’s leadership of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), can now expect a £52,000-a-year basic pay deal. Whether you think that’s fair or not, you can’t deny that Crow was a breathtakingly effective trade unionist.
It’s no small thing to manage public opinion during a strike, but somehow with his mix of bullish determination, unpolished charm and total unwillingness to compromise, Crow led action after action successfully even as the wider country became less sympathetic to strikers. A poll by Survation commissioned by the RMT before the drivers’ most recent strike, showed public support for the strikers at 65 per cent. You can either take that at face value, or side with The Spectator’s Sebastian Payne in viewing the poll as a piece of propaganda. Either way, it showed Crow was willing to do whatever it took to win over the press.
Today’s leaders follow neither pattern. Few figures in Westminster have Crow’s unswerving determination, but neither do they have Benn’s gentle charm. However different each man was, they followed their instincts and drew on their basic human knowledge to inspire the herd.
Unfortunately for our current crop of leaders, that’s not something any focus group can teach you.