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.
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.