Defend Steve Hedley
RMT should immediately rescind the suspension of its assistant general secretary, argues Paul Demarty
It started, as so many storms do in the teacups of today, with a Facebook post.
“I don’t want to offend you, but if Bojo pops his clogs I’m throwing a party,” wrote one Steve Hedley, after the prime minister was moved to hospital last week. “I hope the whole cabinet and higher echelons of the Tory Party have been touching various bits of him.”
Hedley’s wishes attained notoriety thanks to his station in life. He is the senior assistant general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, having been a militant and official in London for many years. He is on the left of the RMT, which is itself on the left of the trade union movement, and has floated around on the fringes of the far left for decades, though he is a controversial figure.
He is, thus, a very enticing target for the rightwing press - an unashamed red, and a leading member of one of the most hated battalions of the labour movement. It is no surprise, then, that the right worked up a lather about this ‘disgraceful’ post. Eventually, the campaign worked: the RMT executive suspended him, pending a “formal investigation”.
How serious this “investigation” will be remains to be seen. It may merely be a device to keep Steve out of view until such time as he is reprimanded, pinkie-promises not to do it again, and returns to his post; or it may be that the union executive wants rid of him. We shall see. Either way, the suspension is a bad move, and should be dropped immediately.
This is not the first time such statements have caused waves of confected outrage, of course. When Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, the official mourning was interrupted by joy in some quarters. Her funeral cortège was picketed by people singing “Ding, dong, the witch is dead”. The Socialist Workers Party managed to distract the press from its rape scandal for a few minutes by running the front-page headline, “Rejoice!” Its members set about organising parties to celebrate her passing in working class towns - one such event on Tyneside was reported in shocked tones in the Newcastle Chronicle, but space was found to quote a couple of local union activists:
RMT regional organisers Micky Thompson and Craig Johnston said, while they might not be there, they backed the party’s sentiment.
“I do not normally speak ill of the dead. However, in this instance, I am more than happy to do so,” said Micky. Margaret Thatcher and her Tory policies created a path which destroyed towns, villages and communities across the heartland of the north, which in turn created mass unemployment and social deprivation. Whilst Thatcher boasted of a legacy of financial security for those in the City of London, she laid waste to our region.” Craig said he could not hide the fact he “despised” Thatcher.1
So far as we are aware, no censure was passed against comrades Micky and Craig for such scandalous statements (the former, at least, is still a regional organiser for the RMT in the north east). Nor was Glenda Jackson suspended from parliament when, during a Commons session dedicated to Thatcher’s blessed memory, she used her time to deliver a scathing verdict on the deceased’s legacy.2 This in spite of denunciations from the rightwing press and demands for the heads of those who dared to celebrate the death of their dearest hero.
Why should things be different for Hedley? Merely because we are currently in a state of social crisis over the Covid-19 pandemic. The political strategy adopted, in this country as many others, is ‘wartime unity’. His daring to breach the official ‘unity’ now is thus more like looking forward to Thatcher’s death during the Falklands war, rather than celebrating it in 2013. It is probably this ‘national unity’ offensive that has convinced the RMT executive that it cannot avoid censuring Hedley.
The problem with that is that, even accepting ‘wartime unity’ as a framework for dealing with the pandemic, supporting the government does not follow from that at all. The model for this sort of ideological offensive is, of course, the experience of 1939-45 - which, we should remember, more or less commenced with the prime minister being hurled out on his ear after the disasters of appeasement and military difficulties in the war’s opening stages. Neville Chamberlain was openly talked about by some as little better than a traitor - treachery being something, in those days, for which one could still be hanged. So grateful were the British to Chamberlain’s successor, Winston Churchill, that he too was tossed out mere months after victory was achieved in Europe (Japan surrendered in September).
Other examples could be mentioned (Abraham Lincoln was in danger of losing the 1864 election until the fall of Atlanta, barely a month before polling began; Copperhead propaganda against him makes comrade Hedley’s post look positively tame). Even when the masses can be won to a platform of patriotic unity, it is a fragile thing, and the first people to suffer the turn in sentiment are - with clockwork regularity - the government. The things said about them are rarely pleasant; indeed, the flipside to demanding national unity is the pressure to actually deliver a ‘good’ war. If something is important enough to demand absolute national unity, it is surely too important to be flunked by administrative incompetence and political treachery.
So let us remember - for the thousandth time - the performance of our own government. It continues a long period of Tory government, during which healthcare and social services have been hollowed out (many of the leading figures today having been ministers during those earlier terms). It was slow to act when the Wuhan outbreak became public knowledge. It deferred to a cabal of self-congratulating behavioural economists, instead of epidemiologists, in the early stages of the pandemic, before hurriedly changing course when it became clear that these advisors did not know what they were talking about.
Since then, promises to ramp up testing have repeatedly failed to materialise, with excuse after excuse as to why what is happening in Germany and the Far East is somehow unachievable in Britain. Meanwhile, doctors and nurses strap bin-bags around their faces to protect themselves. More protective equipment is promised, and never appears. Johnson and his cronies somehow managed to negotiate themselves out of a collective buying effort on the part of the European Union, clearly now due to incompetence. Unable to buy ventilators on the market, Johnson instead prevails upon James Dyson to invent them from first principles. The result is the increasing likelihood that the UK will suffer a death toll in excess of the southern European countries that have so far been hit hardest this side of the Atlantic.
To answer for this, we get little more than non-apologies like Priti Patel’s dismal performance at a press conference on April 11: “I’m sorry if people feel that there have been failings,” the home secretary told us. “I will be very, very clear about that.” She is very, very clear, in other words, that government incompetence is an illusion; or perhaps she is sorry that anyone was naive enough to trust this ship of fools to sail anywhere other than into a tropical storm-wall.
It is this sort of thing that led my comrade, Jack Conrad, to suggest that Johnson “deserve[s] to go on trial. Though we programmatically oppose capital punishment as a matter of principle, perhaps an exception should be made in such a case. I, personally, would advocate a firing squad.”3 I am a little more soft-hearted, and would rather go for a long prison sentence; but the proposition that Johnson and his confrères are guilty of criminal complacency is surely unanswerable morally. If we are to talk about the pandemic as if it were a war, then surely Johnson is guilty of far worse treachery than Chamberlain. It is a sad state of affairs when killing one person while drunk in charge of a car can get you 14 years, but killing many thousands by political negligence will get you nothing worse than a seat in the Lords when your time in front-line politics reaches its natural terminus.
None of this, of course, is to make a point of principle out of celebrating the deaths of enemies. We criticised the triumphalism of the SWP’s Thatcher front page for confusing the jubilant scenes among her political opponents with a political victory, when the truth was that the victory was hers - dying of natural causes at a ripe old age was, as it were, her final insult to the British working class.
Hedley’s post does not even go that far. He does not confuse Johnson’s poor fortune with political success; he merely permits himself a cruel chuckle. It is basically a joke in poor taste - and bad taste is a perfectly legitimate subgenre of comedy. ‘Worse’ gags are cracked in pubs up and down the country every day (or they were until recently), and nobody loses their jobs over them. (We would respectfully submit that Johnson’s ‘Operation Last Gasp’ quip was more tasteless, yet he still governs unmolested ... )
The worst joke of all, however, is the idea that at this time of global crisis nobody ought to express outrage and hatred at a government which has acted with such catastrophic irresponsibility and, in doing so, is presently engaged in robbing us of our friends - and our lovers, and our parents and our grandparents. For the RMT - a union with a well-earned reputation for militancy and a strong left outlook - this is a disastrous error; its militants, at least those with half an ounce of sense, ought to let Mick Cash know that there is no honour in being washed away by the crocodile tears of the yellow press.
For our part, we are glad Boris Johnson seems to have survived his brush with mortality - so he may yet answer for the monstrous failures that look set to kill tens of thousands.
‘Covid-19 and how to fight it’ Weekly Worker March 26.↩︎