Archive : Sink or swim at Leyland

By Jeremy Gates

By a cruel twist of timing, the senior shop steward s of British Leyland sit down at a vital meeting this morning. At the top of their agenda: A call for an all-out strike to paralyse the company. That is the tragedy. For until this latest row there were signs at long last that British Leyland, that sad old lame duck, might even be able to take wing. Longbridge, which leads the strike call, is one of the lamest parts of all. Outside experts often hint it may have to go to salvage the rest. So could the strike here play into management hands?

Officially, BL plans nothing so drastic – but simple economics may soon demand drastic action. Almost beyond belief, it’s been the most costly rescue act in the history of commerce. For every man, womanand child in Britain some £16-50 of taxpayers’ money has been pumped into BL since the Ryder rescue was launched in 1975. That makes a total of around £850 inillion. Another £450 million is earmarked for the same direction by 1981. Add in British Leyland’s own investment, generated internally, and the total investment programme was scheduled – in a Commons statement by Mr Wedgewood Benn way back in 1975 – at £1 million a day for 10 years.

But with Michaed Edwardes nearly halfway through the three – year period he has allotted himself as chairman, some signs at least were beginning to be hopeful. Sales figures, despite the doomsters, have been looking good. With Ford paralysed by strikes, BL retained the largest share of the U.K. market – around 25 per cent – for the fourth successive month in January. Part of the reason maybe the open secret in the trade that dealers are now awash with BL models from the problematical ‘volume car’ range – Allegros and Maxis, particularly. So discounts now on offer are often remarkable. One leading dealer is offering the Maxi 1750 High Line – list price £3,936 – at £3,409.

To stretch optimism further, a new Jaguar – a Series III revised XJ version – is near launch date. And an investment programme, running beyond £700 million, is going ahead on three fronts: To double Land-Rover and Range Rover production at Solihull, to develop the long-awaited new Mini at Longbridge and to build the new truck programme at Leyland, Lancashire.

So why is the company now digging in its heels, giving just the flat 5 per cent and anything more linked to productivity?. Perhaps the key is, the character and determination of Mr Edwardes. He’s sick of handouts – even if his shop stewards are not – pledged to run a commercial enterprise and liable to chuck in his hand if the Government doesn’t back him up. But possibly what really sets this bust-up apart from all the others is that both Government and management alike may now be ready for crucial decisions. Steadily, but with the bluntness typified in the switch of the TR7 sports car from Speke to the West Midlands, Mr Edwardes has been noticeably isolating the mess and the ‘bovver boys’ of Austin, Longbridge, and Morris Cowley, who largely triggered the whole ill-fated birth of British Leyland.

Is Austin-Morris the wastrel which will never be brought to heel? Could Edwardes ditch it without losing lots of dealerships? Salvation for the 19,000 men at Longbridge and the 16,000 at Cowley, Mr Edwardes believes, lies only in ending the constant disputes. Hence the now famous productivity deal and pay parity scheme which would have created iust five job grades across the 96,000 BL shop floor workers from November this year. All this rests on a joint management-union job evaluation which, BL regret to admit, hasn’t even started because the unions are currently unable to take part.

So perhaps the clash on the pay parity scheme was inevitable – and now is the opportune moment, with dealers holding five or six weeks’ stock. Today BL probably has a reputation somewhat blacker than it actually deserves. An angry, bellicose decision taken today will see it wheezing groggily for years to come – at the wretched expense of each and every one of us.

Keith Adams

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