The crisis in the motor industry and in particular British Leyland’s nail-biting wait for the publication of the Ryder report today are providing the perfect platform for the new Messiah of Longbridge, 47-year-old Derek Robinson.
Late last year Robinson succeeded the legendary Dick Etheridge as chief convener at Leyland’s biggest car plant. But outside the factory little is known of Robinson other than that, like Etheridge, he is a Communist. In fact, he should be better known, because he has unsuccessfully fought four general elections as the Communist candidate for Northfield, the Birmingham constituency which includes Longbridge. Indeed, his last appearance led to a row between his own Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and the Transport and General Workers, because Robinson opposed their man, the present sitting Labour member, Ray Carter.
Robinson arrived at Longbridge tn 1941 as a 14-year-old toolroom apprentice. It was in the same year that Etheridge first became an AUEW shop steward. Before he retired last year, Etheridge had quietly groomed the burly six-foot son of a Black Country family of chain makers to be his sucessor. But like Etheridge’s famous public confrontations with Austin chief Leonard Lord, Robinson badly needs a cause celebre to win his spurs.
He has found two: the proposed formation of a shop stewards’ committee to represent the whole of the motor industry, and the Ryder report. Yesterday, as joint chairman of the British Leyland combined shop stewards committee, another job formerly held by Etheridge, he took a leading role at a Birmingham press conference which revealed plans for the new all-powerful body. He could well become its first chairman. At the same time he denounced Lord Stokes and John Barber, British Leyland’s chairman and managing director, as “bloody incompetent” and “candidates for compulsory redundancy”.
It was like watching the Etheridge of the 1950s all over again before Etheridge mellowed to the extent that Lord Stokes gave him a plush dinner party when he retired and in turn was presented with one of Mrs Etheridge’s famous home-made Christmas puddings.