ANALYSIS: Better the RMT 'Crow Bar' you know - Rail union chief Bob Crow talks to former labour correspondent and Downing Street press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham about the need to get messages across loud and clear

Bob Crow, the boss of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), is the very devil to interview. He's affable in a matey, Cockney way, as I discovered when we appeared together on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions? early last month, even if I did once work for Margaret Thatcher. But then I also worked for Barbara Castle (which rather surprised him when I made it clear) and Tony Benn, so there must be some good in me. We meet just days before the Potters Bar crash, when a West Anglia Great Northern Train jumped the track on the east coast mainline.

This led to the third multiple fatal disaster on Britain's railways in as many years, with seven dead following an express train's derailment over, it seems from preliminary enquiries, a faulty set of points.

While he takes the safety issue seriously, Crow doesn't mull over issues, he just answers your question in his own direct way. He isn't one for dialectics, as he pointed out.

He's also got lots of common sense - that is, we agree on getting out of the EU, the iniquity of university student fees that leave youngsters saddled with £10,000 and more of debt, and on all the nonsense talked about poor rail and Tube services.

'Of course, if you're going to travel in rush hours, you're going to be uncomfortable,' we concur. 'But things are by no means as bad as are made out'. We know what we're talking about. We both travel a lot by rail and Tube. He doesn't drive and never has.

Looking around his memorabilia-festooned office, I mention I saw the magnificent 'Flying Scotsman' steaming away in Newark on Trent's sidings a couple of days earlier.

If all this sounds as if the 'Crow Bar', as the 40-year-old ex-permanent way maintenance man is called, and I - a former Guardian labour correspondent - had a nostalgic love-in, you would be only partly right.

He's the sort of trade union leader I grew up with, not one of your new-fangled bureaucrats who know nowt outside air-conditioned rooms.

He's got his boots dirty and, by the look of him, his muscles toned.

In many ways he's a throwback.

I feel as though I understand him.

But don't be deceived. I don't kid myself that he's going to be easy to live with over the next 20 to 30 years if he can survive the compromises of office in the eyes of the left.

He knows what he wants: a better standard of living, better wages and conditions for his 60,000 members - and rising, he says. He won't be above causing pain to get it.

My understanding of him is soon revealed to be imperfect. I hazard a guess that a straightforward chap like him doesn't think much of PR or spin. But I'm only half right.

He's far too direct to give spin much room in Unity House, his former Rolls-Royce tannery headquarters plonked conveniently between Euston and King's Cross-St Pancras. But he has a lot of time for PR, which he defines as getting his message over.

'It should be a proper message that gets to the root of the problem,' he says, 'not just a soundbite'. To this end, he's doubled the number of press officer staff to two, the new one under himself, as managing editor of the union's journal, to cater for the internal message.

So what is his message? First, the RMT is not strike happy. Two one-day strikes in 35 years between 1947 and 1982. I must say it didn't feel like that what with strike threats, working to rule and inter-union disputes. But I let that pass.

Second, it isn't against change. That's a constant. It provides a public service and 'doesn't have a job without the public'. The RMT wants good pay and conditions and good industrial relations and it doesn't strike for the fun of it - 'we now deal with 50 companies and we've a dispute with only one of them'.

But he lobbies hard for the railways to be re-nationalised, and, whether he gets that or not, an end to the fragmentation of both railway operations and labour relations - even if that creates endless opportunities for company pay leapfrogging - an end to privatisation of the London Underground and repeal of anti-trade union legislation.

He's already got 13 sponsored Labour MPs to sign up to this and is out to cause trouble for others, notably deputy prime minister John Prescott and leader of the House of Commons Robin Cook, if they don't perform.

Crow is starting as he means to go on. He who pays the pipe calls the tune. I would expect nothing less from a Marxist, however pragmatic, who took me back 40 years when he said 'profits mean lower wages and higher wages mean lower profits'.

His strength is the disarming simplicity with which he gets his core messages across - and the growth he claims in the railways' labour force. He finds it good to be alive in 2002. I hope I don't have to remind him he's a public service.

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