THE MAN WHO SOMETIMES PICKS WRONG FIGHT
By Paul Johnson
Last week Derek Robinson was described by a Tory MP as a gnat on the back of British Leyland. It was one of the few things that has been said or printed about the communist convener that the man himself agreed with.
He took the analogy further; if British Leyland was a horse then he was not only a gnat but was actually biting the jockey ( a common shopfloor term for the BL chairman, Sir Michael Edwardes) who was whipping an underfed and beleagured nag the wrong way round the racecourse.
As he waits to see if his union, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, is going to support him in the form of an all-out strike, Derek Robinson wears a public mask of confidence.
Abused in public and reviled in the local press, he is fond of proclaiming that he is not a “chibby” (Black Country for jelly or coward). His strength, he says, comes from his working class roots and a family of Cradley Heath chainmakers. His grandfather helped to build the Titanic.
Along with Ray Horrocks, now managing director of BL Cars and one of the men who took the decision last November to sack him, Derek Robinson joined the company 38 years ago —–as a 14 year old apprentice toolmaker.
Ten years later he joined the Communist Party. By then he was married to his first wife, Betty, whom he had met at a local Conservative Club dance. The Longbridge convener at the time, fellow communist Dick Etheridge, remembers him as a “questioning young devil.”
“I just sent him away with a book list of titles including Das Kapital and Socialism, Scientific and Utopian by Engels,” said Mr Etheridge. “I reckoned he would never get through them, but before long he was back asking for more.”
Derek Robinson rose through the union ranks to the point where, five years ago, he followed his friend and mentor as shopfloor leader of 18,000 manual workers at Longbridge. When Dick Etheridge retired, Lord Stokes then BL chairman, held a dinner party and was in return presented with one of Mrs Etheridges fame Christmas puddings.
Mr Robinson became not only the head of 800 shop stewards but also, eventually chairman of the unofficial shop stewards combine which had grown in strength during the 1950’s and 1960’s as the company had expanded. The combine gained status when, after the financial collapse of Leyland and the Ryder rescue plan, the company was looking for more centralised bargaining.
At this time Derek Robinson gained national notoriety when he was named by Lord Chalfont, along with Arthur Scargill and Vanessa Redgrave, as a subversive and an extremist.
He now lives with his common-law wife, also a communist and a former Longbridge shop steward known as “Red Phyllis” in the local press, in a small semi in Rubery.
Alegations about their holiday home in Wales ( bought for £1000 ten years ago and still virtually inhabitable) —-and the golf course cafe run by Phyllis ( “We are lucky to get £3 a week out of it” ) still hurt.
As well as about two dozen calls a day from newspaper reporters, he has also got used to opening his curtains in the morning and seeing a TV film crew camped on the pavement. He can cope with that.
What he finds more difficult are the written jibes and headlines such as “Get Lost Robbo” and “The Man We Can Do Without.” One local paper suggested that Mr Robinson should march off to Moscow to spend as much time as he liked swapping “Commie cant with his Marxist mates.”
According to a shop steward at Longbridge they have got the man wrong: “He doesn’t want to import his politics into the plant. He just wants to get the maximum money he can for his car workers. His analysis is right ; it is just that he sometimes picks the wrong fights,” he said.