Opinion : Derek Robinson: Victim or villain?

The UK is currently in the grip of economic unrest as the unions fight the Conservative Government for a fairer deal on their members’ pay and conditions.

Meanwhile, the UK’s media make villains – scapegoats – out of union leaders such as Mick Lynch (RMT) and Pat Cullen (RCN) in an attempt to win public support for the Government. Was this media tactic used back in 1979 and 1980 in the lead-up to Derek ‘Red Robbo’s’ sacking from his job as Union Convenor at Longbridge?

Derek Robinson: a lesson from history

As 2022 draws to a close, the more senior element of our readership will no doubt be feeling a genuine sense of déjà vu about current events. The economy is in flames, with inflation running at more than 10 per cent, and interest rates now on the rise. Unemployment is low, but on the way up, and energy prices are going through the roof. It’s like 1978, part two.

The spectacle of large, national strikes taking out great swathes of the workforce is something we’ve not seen in the scale since these times – and the national media is making no bones about which side of the argument it’s on. So we now have our Prime Minister referring to Mick Lynch as ‘The Grinch’ and bandying around words like ‘militant’ completely inappropriately in order to stir up feelings. Again, this is nothing new – back in 1979 and ’80, few in the press actually called Longbridge Union Convenor, Derek Robinson, by his name and most simply referred to him as ‘Red Robbo’.

Public opinion is often shaped by newspaper Editors looking for a good angle on a story, ill-informed Journalists with an opinion on every subject under the sun expressing it on the airwaves or in print. Politicians looking to steer the national debate in their favour set the agenda, and those aforementioned newspaper Editors dance to their tune in return for the odd peerage here and there. Nothing changes, and this then becomes the history that people remember.

Letting the truth get in the way

The death of Derek Robinson in November 2017, bizarrely virtually on the 40th anniversary of his nemesis, Sir Michael Edwardes, taking over British Leyland, highlights how an individual can be tarnished with something that might not stand up to close scrutiny, but becomes accepted as the truth.

Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite trade union, is quoted as saying: ‘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.’

Now I am no left-wing zealot advocating massive state intervention and the nationalisation of everything from financial institutions to road-side burger vans. I would probably describe myself as a liberal Conservative, but I agree with Len McCluskey. Derek Robinson was the victim of a smear campaign by the media who were given the ammunition by BL’s management.

By the late `70s Robinsons power was gone. Workers backed the recovery plan of BL and voted a staggering 16,000 to 600 votes in favour of upholding the management decision to dismiss Robinson.

How many strikes?

News media have regularly repeated the claim that Derek Robinson was credited with causing 523 walkouts at British Leyland between 1978 and 1979, costing an estimated £200 million in lost production.

This claim was first made on 31 January 1980 on a BBC TV programme called ‘Platform One’ by BL Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes. Sir Michael claimed that there had been 523 disputes and 62,000 cars lost in the 33 months Derek Robinson had held office as the Longbridge Convener.

This claim was repeated in a letter on 7 February 1980 by Ray Horrocks, the Managing Director of BL Cars. The letter also claimed that 113,000 engines had also been lost.

This claim has become accepted as fact by the media and repeated over the years, but does it stand up to scrutiny? As Convener at Longbridge it was Derek Robinson’s job to solve disputes, not create them or lead them. Wildcat strikes by small groups of workers often led to mass lay offs, leading to loss of earnings by thousands of other employees.

It was Derek Robinson’s task, like his predecessor Dick Etheridge, to act as a facilitator between management and strikers in order to resolve disputes and get the mass of the work force earning money again. His task was not to lead a workers’ uprising.

‘Red Robbo’ started them all?

It is indeed possible that there were 523 disputes in 33 months at Longbridge, an average of 15 per month, but I do not believe Derek Robinson inspired them, and few of this alleged number of disputes ever reached the ever vigilant news media that had British Leyland under the microscope.

I suspect what lay behind this claim was an attempt by BL management to decapitate the British Leyland (Motor Corporation Combined) Trade Union Committee (BLTUC). This body, which was not officially recognised by BL management or the trade unions, claimed to represent all BL’s employees. Since 1968, this organisation had effectively resisted rationalisation, redundancies and the introduction of more flexible working practices.

Derek Robinson had succeeded Dick Etheridge as the BLTUC’s Co-Chairman in 1975. The BLTUC had welcomed the nationalisation of British Leyland in 1975 and the injection of taxpayers’ cash, but refused to discuss redundancies. However, unlike previous BL management, Michael Edwardes and Ray Horrocks were prepared to take on the BLTUC, probably viewing them as an impediment to the company’s recovery.

An easy target

Derek Robinson made it easy for them, leading an ill-judged strike at Longbridge in February 1979 in protest at BL’s decision not to pay a productivity bonus. This appears to be the only time the Longbridge Convener was actually photographed leading a strike, the images of Derek Robinson speaking in Cofton Park to the assembled multitude have been used ever since to illustrate his status as an agitator.

This error of judgement on Robinson’s part resulted in an official warning from BL in March 1979. Then, in November 1979, he officially backed the booklet ‘A Trade Union Response to the Edwardes Plan‘, which advocated active resistance to Sir Michael Edwardes’ rationalisation plan after the majority of the BL workforce had voted for it in a ballot. This was seen as seditious by the management who had Derek Robinson’s head on a plate.

Derek Robinson’s dismissal resulted in 30,000 BL workers going on strike and this was all played out in front of the TV cameras. BL management got the factories working again by agreeing to an inquiry by the AUEW union into Derek Robinson’s conduct.

It was in this interregnum while the AUEW prepared its report that the 523 disputes in 33 months claim was made. BL management and the media successfully tarnished Derek Robinson as some sort of firebrand agitator out to bring down British Leyland. It was during this period that the name ‘Red Robbo’ first appeared in the media. Was Derek Robinson called that before November 1979 or was it a fabrication of the media?

The agitator ousted

The AUEW found that Derek Robinson should not have been dismissed, but left the final decision to the whole Longbridge workforce at Cofton Park.

The Longbridge workforce then rejected its erstwhile Convenor in February 1980 by a show of hands. I have no doubt that many of those present swallowed the story that Derek Robinson was a dangerous agitator hook, line and sinker. Many had probably never met him face to face.

If the sacking of Derek Robinson was meant to decapitate the BLTUC, it was an ill-judged venture. The whole event was played out in front of the media from February 1979 to February 1980. In 1978, BL had a 23.5 per cent UK market share, in 1979 it slumped to 19.6 per cent and, by January 1980, it was 15 per cent. It was a damaging affair…

So, was Derek Robinson a dangerous man? I think not.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. “This appears to be the only time the Longbridge Convener was actually photographed leading a strike”

    I don’t believe it is.

    At the “Battle of Saltley Gate” the mass picketing of a fuel storage depot in Birmingham, England, in February 1972 during a national miners’ strike I recall seeing film of Scargill’s flying pickets being reinforced by a mass walk outs at the British Leyland plants and one of the Union officials at the front marching their “troops” down the road to the cheering miners is Derek Robinson.

  2. The right wing media safeguarding their own interests by rallying support for the Tories, whose tax policies benefit them hugely. Non-dom status to be exact. And the unthinking public fall for it time and again.

    • We have an electoral system that puts middle-class voters in the driving seat, and all they care about is getting the latest Chinese-made electronic gizmo and an overseas holiday.

      The function of the poor is to provide goods and service at the lowest possible price for the middle classes so that they can afford the aforesaid latest Chinese-made electronic gizmo and an overseas holiday. That is why the poor are at the bottom of the pile.
      Everybody wants something for nothing, and some people end up with nothing.

      Unless we have an electoral system that truly represents the cross section of opinion in this country, then nothing will change. To change the government, the opposition have to appeal to the same nationalistic, xenophobic, self centred and ignorant electorate that voted for the current mob.

      The part of the UK where I reside seems to have a population that embraces English nationalism, xenophobia and a hatred of immigrants. God help us if that is what we have become.

      • I am not sure how the Middle Class get to dominate out electoral system, other than they turn out to vote in a higher percentage than those on lower incomes. As Brexit shows and the 2019 election vote, the issue is not one of a system that favours one class or another, but that a large part of the population have chosen to disconnect themselves from Politics. As a result they are very easy to fool into voting against their best interest, which is why we see focus on the “Culture war” in the right of centre media.

        • The unions got good pay, good conditions, good pensions at the car plants. Without them there are temporary contracts, poor conditions, instant dismissal, no pensions, no sick pay. I know thAt Longbridge has all but disappeared, maybe with robbo there it would not have done.

          • @ Pete, Longbridge managed to continue for another 26 years without him and Cowley, once the home of Alan Thornett and even more militant than Longbridge, now is a very successful factory producing cars people want to buy and hasn’t lost a day to industrial action for 39 years. Also Nissan has done very well without far Left unions fighting the good fight and causing endless disruption.

  3. I grew up in the Midlands in the 1960s and ’70s, strikes at BL were the staple diet of the early-evening “Midlands Today” news-show.

    When it wasn’t car-workers striking [Ford and Chrysler had their problems too] it was pit-workers, dockers, railwaymen, power-station workers newspaper-printers or council staff. Things were disrupted, I lost quite a few schooldays as a result, and have since detested the ‘class warrior’ type of trade-unionism that seemed prevalent back then [and seems to be creeping back in now].

    Some unions did get it right – I’d cite Eric Chappell’s visionary leadership of EETPU – signing single-union-representation deals and no-strike agreements which really did benefit their members.

    The Robinson/Scargill types of militant unions though, they annoyed normal people, crashed their members’ livelihoods and I was truly happy to see the back of them.

    Like his predecessor Longbridge convener Dick Etheridge, Derek Robinson was openly Communist and indeed stood for election to Parliament as a Communist. He went on to chair the Communist Party in the 1990s.

    Enough said…

  4. My dad and his mates were trying to produce motor cars and earn a living whilst these union clowns ruined productivity and workers incomes – perpetrating their desire to beat the ruling classes (i.e management and government). Doing it for the good of the people – my foot! I was there as a teenager seeing my dad struggle to get quality up whilst the unions trashed every move! This kind of latter day justification for appallingly selfish behaviour dances on the grave of all those good and hard working people. I have read every word Ian has written for years and so much admire his work. But not this. You needed to be part of it not just read about it.

  5. With respect to my critics, I don’t think you have comprehended the article wot I wrote!

    I’m not saying Derek Robinson was an angel, but in the events surrounding his dismissal he was subjected to a smear campaign orchestrated by the BL PR machine to justify his firing, which found ready acceptance in the media at the time. I find the 253 disputes in 33 months directly attributed to him difficult to swallow. It smacks of a PR offensive to influence his eventual rejection by the Longbridge workforce. There may well have been that many disputes in this time period, but the notion that Derek Robinson was the author of them all is for me difficult to believe. I believe that Derek Robinson was the victim of a concerted PR campaign by BL management. It is what Public Relations people do, that is what they are for, to justify the actions of the company they represent.

    As my forthcoming series on the Michael Edwardes era will demonstrate, far from decapitating the Combined BL Shop Stewards Committee, the sacking of Derek Robinson was a prelude to a series of publicly damaging disputes with his successors.

  6. I gather that Ian Nicholls was not around at the time, and I am afraid that the impression of naivete that his article creates is increased by his willingness to think that current union leaders ( particularly those representing some of the best paid manual workers such as the train drivers ) are acting purely in good faith . Frankly, quite why this Blog needs a politically slanted column escapes me. Knock it off, please!

  7. I am not sure if we can paint Derek with a white brush. My father wasn’t at BL, but at Ford, the unions were “there” to protect the workers. That they went out on strike because the toilet paper was the wrong colour is just a sample of the mess that existed on the 1970s at Fords. It was probably the same at BL and if he was anything like the union guys at Dagenham he was part of the problem!

    My own personal experience of unions is that they are there to protect their own interests, not those of their members.

  8. The right wing press in this country play their readers like a fiddle. They present themselves as “common sense” mouthpieces for the moral majority – but are all owned by establishment figures such as Lord Rothermere (Daily Mail), or right wing media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch – all with an agenda to keep the proletariat in their place. No coincidence that like the 1970’s the current round of industrial unrest follows a cost of living crisis after catastrophic mismanagement of the economy by a careless, disinterested government.

  9. But then it probably evens out ‘cos the BBC are so anti-government and trash everything they do! We miss the tough but fair treatment by the old PM team – Brian Redhead etc. now we just get ‘kick the government for everything’ from Evan Davis and his cronies! Most of the time they don’t even wait for an answer but interrupt constantly – dammed rude but it’s the face of modern interviewing.

    • I agree that I don’t always like their style but the BBC as the UK’s world-renowned public broadcast service does at least try to hold the govt of the day to account. They do it because they can, and not all countries are so fortunate as to have such an institution, whether we like all of its output or not. And as for Red Robbo, a folk hero to some and a disruptive influence to others. But a massive distraction either way. I’ll get off my hobby horse now….

    • To be honest, this government is so terrible it is quite right they are challenged. That is the job of the BBC and journalists that leave are absolutely clear that they operate under strict impartiality. As for interrupting, I agree with you if the interviewee hasn’t spoken nonsense, but is they are developing an argument based on a false premise, then that should be challenged immediately. Also, to stop them talking nonsense running the interview out of time.

      I’m afraid we are in a terrible mess and much is down to this dreadful government and the dogma it follows. Here’s another £4-6 Billion to dig out unregulated power companies – all the profit for them, all the risk for us. Brexit, water quality, everything sold off, Paris stock market overtaking London, trade down, GDP still down. An absolute shambles and you know it. It’s not the BBCs fault.

  10. The problem in 1979, when Red Robbo was dimissed, like now, was inflation, which led to workers, whose pay had fallen behind prices for some years, demanding inflation busting pay rises. A 5% pay limit introduced in the last days of the Labour government, when inflation was 10%, was the last straw for many workers and a massive outbreak of industrial unrest started. Ford settled a strike with a 17% pay rise, then the BBC saved Christmas Day by offering its technicians a 16% pay rise, and then everyone else joined in, determined to break the 5% limit.

    Fast forward to 2022, and a similarly weak and tired Tory government, is trying to beat a 10% inflation rate by offering the public sector rises well below this figure. Nurses, civil servants, ambulance drivers and teachers are walking out, while there is a long running dispute on the railways and Royal Mail, where workers have rejected pay rises below inflation. Also to annoy these unions, strikes by bus drivers and local government workers have been settled by offering 10% pay rises, and while little mentioned in the news, assembly workers at Rolls Royce managed to achieve a 16% pay rise when they threatened strike action. Sounds very familiar to those of us who remember 1978/79 and it’s been bitterly cold recently.

  11. The difference between today and 1978, is in 1978 we still had an economy. No record trade deficit, industrial base to build on and British owned companies that could have been world beaters. All pissed away by the Tories and New Labour. Who built their economic model on debt and asset stripping.

    The UK economy is a disaster area after 12 years of Tory incompetence. The sooner they are booted out, the better.

  12. Derek Robinson was no victim, those he represented were, that’s why they ultimately turned against him. He and his ilk are almost directly responsible for the company’s failure all those years later. All the energy of the company were sucked out by having to deal with the horrific industrial relationship issues. Those today who work in our car industry (and there are many) should celebrate his failure.

    • @ george, don’t forget Alan Thornett at Cowley, who was even further to the Left than Red Robbo, and whose only interest was overthrowing capitalism and was involved in numerous extreme Left organisations that probably considered Red Robbo to be too moderate. These were the sort of people who didn’t give a damn about British Leyland or making a decent product as all they cared about was using the workforce to start a class war. Sadly, their behaviour led to thousands of people losing their jobs.

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