Obituary : Derek Robinson 1927-2017

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

One of the most notorious trade unionists in recent memory has died aged 90.

Derek Robinson, who started at Longbridge in 1941 as an apprentice toolmaker and went on to  wield seemingly more power than the BL management, has passed away today aged 90

Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson led a long-running battle against management at the British Leyland plant in Longbridge throughout the 1970s. He was credited with causing 523 walkouts at British Leyland between 1978 and 1979, costing an estimated £200 million in lost production.

Mr Robinson was a Communist works convenor at the Longbridge factory and was described by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a ‘notorious agitator’ in her memoirs. In 1975, British Leyland was nationalised by the Government and two years later Michael Edwardes was appointed as managing director and strived to find a solution to the ongoing disputes.

The type of industrial disruption so synonymous with Red Robbo spread across the nation and the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1978-79 saw 29.2 million working days lost. Bodies were left unburied following a gravediggers’ strike and uncollected rubbish piled high in the frozen streets when dustbin workers walked out.

‘Red Robbo’ in full cry as he addresses his men in Cofton Park. The Longbridge flight shed can be seen in the distance

Famous images from the time show Mr Robinson addressing massed ranks of British Leyland workers at Cofton Park but the militant unionist was sacked in November 1979 for putting his name to a pamphlet that criticised the company’s management.

A ballot on a strike in sympathy of Mr Robinson and opposed to the dismissal was held but the motion was defeated by an overwhelming 14,000 votes to just 600, signalling a watershed moment in industrial relations in the region’s car industry.

He described his ‘Red Robbo’ tag as a badge of honour and was also national Chairman of the Communist Party of Britain for a period after British Leyland. He had previously stood as a Communist candidate in four consecutive General Elections in Birmingham during the 1960s and ’70s.

By the late `70s Robinson’s power was gone. Workers backed the recovery plan of BL and voted a staggering 14,000 to 600 votes in favour of upholding the management decision to dismiss Robinson

MG Rover, as British Leyland had morphed into, closed its operations in Longbridge in 2005, leaving around 6000 people out of work. In his last newspaper interview at the time of the closure, Mr Robinson told the Birmingham Mail: ‘Edwardes wanted to reduce it to a small motor company and closed 13 factories but he never made a profit.

I grew up with the company, joining as a toolmaker at 14 in 1941 and loved my time, both as an ordinary worker and then convenor. But when Edwardes took over the writing was on the wall. Shutting plants down was not the way to go.’

Richard Burden, Labour MP for Northfield since 1992, said: ‘I am very sad to hear that Derek Robinson has died. He was part of a very different era in the UK motor industry. However, I would caution against over-simplistic or one-dimensional accounts of why there was so much strife at Longbridge and elsewhere in the 1970s.

‘Both management and unions of the time carry their share of responsibility for the problems that the industry faced back then and both management and unions have a very different approach in today’s motor industry.’

Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite trade union, said today: ‘Derek Robinson was a dedicated, life-long trade unionist who fought, as convenor, for the rights and future of the then British Leyland workforce at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham during the 1970s.

‘History will show that Derek was unfairly maligned by the media as he aimed to find solutions to British Leyland’s industrial disputes and turn around the car company.

‘He is quoted as saying “If we make Leyland successful, it will be a political victory. It will prove that ordinary working people have got the intelligence and determination to run industry.”

‘These words are a suitable epithet for a stalwart of the trade union movement, whose passing we mourn.’

[Source: The Birmingham Post]

Mike Humble

Upon leaving school, Mike was destined to work on the Railway but cars were his first love. An apprenticeship in a large family Ford dealer was his first forray into the dark and seedy world of the motor trade.

Moving on to Rover and then PSV / HGV, he has circumnavigated most departments of dealerships including parts, service and latterly - the showroom. Mike has owned all sorts of rubbish from Lada to Leyland and also holds both Heavy Goods & Public Service Vehicle licences, he buys & sells buses and coaches during the week. Mike runs his own automotive web site and writes for a number of motoring or commercial vehicle themed publications

5 Comments

  1. A link with the industrial past now gone for good. I echo Richard Burden’s words above – it’s easy to simplify this chapter in our history without fully understanding it.

    Read Robinson’s contemporary quotes about the future as he saw it – many would subsequently prove to be right. A clever man. No matter what his motives were.

  2. Red Robbo gets the blame all the time, but I think he was far less malicious than Alan Thornett, the so called Cowley Mole, a member of the ultra left Workers Revolutionary Party, the sort of fanatics who considered Robinson as right wing and who were intent on destroying capitalism. Robinson at least did try to solve disputes and probably wanted a state run British Leyland to succeed, but people like Alan Thornett and his Trotskyite allies in places like Cowley and Speke were more interested in causing a class war.

    • It’s certainly true that horrors like Alan Thornett and Bobby Fryer were far more damaging than people realise. That being said, management like Horrocks didn’t help either.

  3. Red Robbo, like his fellow commie union officials, could not comprehend that the British motor industry worker was not competing against his fellow union members in the UK but against motor industry workers overseas who realized that motivation and purpose are more important than the length of a tea break.

    • The problem with British Leyland in the seventies was both management and unions saw the company as some kind of bottomless pit of cash and the government would always bail them out. What both sides didn’t realise was the company was losing market share due to strikes, poor quality( sometimes exaggerated, though) and poor products, and both the Callaghan and Thatcher governments were losing patience and threatening to withdraw funding. While Michael Edwardes might not be the great saviour of British Leyland he was portrayed to be, he at least realised the company had to pay its way, and taking on the unions and forcing through changes like the Survival Plan, which saw half the workforce cut in two years, at least made the company competitive and increased productivity.

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