With friend like these …Gordon and the Unions

September 8, 2007

welsh-battle.jpg The new Prime Minister faces the annual conference season. It will be a testing time for Gordon Brown during which we may learn a little more of his longer-term plans and short-term tactics related to industrial relations

This week, Bob Crow, leader of the RMT Union, brought his transport members out on a lightening strike, to the inconvenience of London’s commuters, and the fury of London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone.

‘Nobody loves us we don’t care’

I was reminded of Millwall’s football chant when I read that Bob Crow was a Millwall fan. According to a reliable source, the song can be read as postmodern irony associated with the defiance of Bermondsey’s dockland’s culture towards its detractors.

The song was a reaction to what the Millwall fans perceived to be sustained, exaggerated and unfair criticism of their behaviour by the press and the stereotypical image of all Millwall fans as hooligans, perpetuated by certain sections of the media in general.

I have heard it remarked that at Girton College before male students were admitted, the gals also had been known to chorus the Millwall anthem. Perhaps that was another postmodern gesture, indicating distain for the behaviors displayed towards Girton’s students by Oxford’s chauvinistic males.

But to return to our main story … This week, Bob’s actions brought his members out on strike, and dragged London Mayor Ken Livingstone into the dispute with a few far-from-brotherly remarks.

As the BBC put it

For Ken Livingstone, its decision was unfathomable.
“This must be the first time in history of a union going on strike when everyone has acceded to their demands,” he said.
Mr Livingstone added that he could not “explain the mindset” of the RMT

Bob Crow

To his many critics, Bob Crow is an unwanted throwback to the

worst excesses of 1970s union militancy… To his supporters, however, the 46-year-old leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union is simply a resolute defender of workers’ rights.

RMT members may hold Mr Crow in great esteem, but he is certainly not liked by the Labour government, which has historically branded him “a wrecker” … Back in 2004 his hostility to the Labour came to a head when the RMT broke its ties with the party – a link which dated back to 1899 – following a row over the RMT’s decision to allow local branches to affiliate with other parties.

Bob and the Treaty

Mr Crow has also been in the headlines for his support to the movement calling for a referendum over the new EU treaty. We have commented on this in an earlier post, as had The BBC

The RMT’s motion asks the TUC to campaign for a “no” vote, if a referendum is held on whether to adopt the treaty. Its general secretary, Bob Crow, told the BBC: “They [the government] went to the British people on the promise there would be a referendum … What we want him [Gordon Brown] to do is implement what his manifesto was.”

What’s going on?

The reported stories indicate that the RMT union is embroiled in an industrial dispute. Also it is becoming involved in the wider debate on Britain’s role in the EU. It joins a rainbow alliance ranged against the Government in calling for a referendum.

Without more information we have to speculate on whether the two stories are interconnected. The imminence of the so-called (political) conference season suggests they are.

Whatever the intentions of Mr. Crow, the intentions of Mr. Brown and Mr. Cameron are clear. Both are seeking to hold on to their territory on Middle-earth, and perhaps expand it. But to do this, Mr. Brown was to reassure the inhabitants of Middle- earth that he is in no way in thrall to the dark forces, particularly those of the left. Mr. Cameron is also having to calm concerns that he is abandoning his allies from the right.

With these considerations in mind, neither Mr. Brown nor Mr. Cameron wants to be too friendly to Mr. Crow.

So that old refrain may well be rather apt. Nobody loves me and I don’t care, and I can be very difficult when I get upset.

Outcome. Skirmishes. Casualties mainly to the front-line troops caught up in a rather complicated set of political moves. Troops watch on sympathetically from the ranks of the Post Office workers. They are caught in a similar difficult position to defend.


Image is from Google, citing Ben Becker’s armies of painted warriors as a representation of a battle beween the Celts and the Romans.


Virgin rail crash is a leadership challenge for Richard Branson and John Armitt

February 25, 2007

220px-richardbranson.jpgA crisis brings its particular leadership challenges. The Cumbrian rail crash has revealed the various kinds of challenges for the emergency service teams, as well as for the roles demanded of leaders, such as Virgin head Richard Branson and Network Rail’s John Armitt

The London to Glasgow Pendolino train derailed in a remote region of Cumbria late in the evening of Saturday 24th February 2007, killing one passenger and injuring another two dozen. The majority of the 120 passengers were relatively unscathed. The high speed train with its innovative tilting technology had been introduced successfully over the last few years. The scale of human loss could have been far greater, and this appears to confirm the claimed robustness of the structural design of the train. Failures to the track-maintenance appear to be the likely immediate cause of the accident. In times of crisis we look for leadership. So what happened?

Leadership visibility and contributions

Leader of the main rail union Bob Crow was one of the first to get to the site of the accident, and provide a statement for his members and the wider public. He indicated the preliminary evidence as pointing to points failure. There was some mild criticism of him for the statement prior to a more detailed investigation. Crow’s information turned out to reflect accurately the focus of investigation subsequently.

Richard Branson was reported as having cut short a holiday to get back to England and the scene of the crash. He also visited casualties in hospital. His statements were widely reported, and he spoke eloquently about the heroism of ‘his’ driver, Iain Black who was among the injured, as well as of the human suffering. He also conveyed the message that the design of ‘his’ train had been a major factor in minimizing the scale of suffering that occurred.

If Branson is seen as an energetic, empathic, decisive leader, Bob Crow should also receive accolades. Their involvement compares favourably visibility, decisiveness and efforts of political figures, and (it must be said) with the efforts of John Armitt, chief executive of Network Rail. He eventually provided a statement acknowledging that the accident may have occurred ‘on our watch’. As far as I am aware he was not reported as visiting the scene of the crash, or the hospitals. Earlier ‘on his watch’ he drew praise for his leadership during the Potters’ Bar crash. Mr. Armitt has a track-record as an empathic and hands-on leader, but it may not be coincidence that his retirement date has already been set for later in the year.

Even Mr Armitt’s modest contribution stands out in comparison to those of politicians who have been jostling for media attention this week. Is this the result of a calculated decision to keep away from the whole business? We will probably learn more in the coming days as a report of the accident comes out.

The Role of leaders

According to Weber, leaders traditionally drew authority from their acceptance as intermediaries of transcendental forces. They were indeed the chosen ones, or the special ones. Later, the chosen ones became accepted as having unchallengeable rights as leaders of tribes and nations. Weber developed his theorizing of charisma around such ideas. One relevant aspect of his ideas is the role of the leader in a crisis to bring comfort and reassurance.

More recently, political and management scientists such as Alan Bryman have been working out a new leadership model. His earlier work has been updated recently in a chapter on the post-charismatic era of leadership.

Bryman, with co-author Ken Parry, have marshaled considerable evidence indicating the limitations of the long-familiar notion of leader as heroic figure. They also draw attention to the way leadership is more of a shared (distributed) effect than was previously realized.

We defer elaboration of this to future posts. However, we note that researchers have become more concerned with the way in which leaders influence intentionally or unintentionally the cultural agenda. In terms we have been using, this involves production and consumption of cultural messages.

Assessing the leadership contributions

Richard Branson behaved according to expectations for a charismatic leader. He was decisive, empathic, and provided powerful images through the media. Bob Crow had less access to the media, and his impact was accordingly diminished in the eyes of the public. John Armitt may have made a peripheral impact (although his admission of possible culpability within his organization was a cut above the more common PR-mediated messages often resorted to by leaders fearful of admitting liability or weakness).

Weber’s broad ideas of a leader offering solace at times of crisis seem more convincing than the 1990s models of ransformational leaders offering powerful and uplifting visionary guidance.

Clearly there need be no either-or. However, the role of ‘just being there’ may have been under-estimated, as has the damaging impact of ‘not being there’


Update on Richard Branson planned for September 2014