Of all the people intimately involved in MG Rover’s fall into administration and the devastating aftermath in the community, Gemma Cartwright MBE is probably the most qualified to speak about events. Her husband was one of those made redundant – and, since April 2005, she’s campaigned hard for the workers.
She continues to do so to this day…
Gemma is best known for being the founding member of the Longbridge Wives, and the organiser of the annual Pride of Longbridge event, which started out as a show of support for the Longbridge workers the weekend after the fateful announcement of MG Rover’s collapse into administration. Since then, the event has grown each year, and has become the main focus of MG, Rover and BMC/BL enthusiasts, who enjoy the return to the factory on an annual basis.
And that might explain why the Pride of Longbridge continues to grow, while MG Rover’s footprint on the UK’s roads continues to subside. Here are her memories of the closure of the factory 10 years ago.
‘On the fateful day, I was watching the TV and saw the news as it happened. My husband, Andy, was actually at work and on shift, and I found out before he did. I remember telephoning him and saying “say put on the TV, you’ve lost your job”. It was the strangest feeling I’ve ever experienced.
‘The next week found us in a state of abject disbelief. I remember lying in bed and wondering what we could do constructively to help the workers and their families. And that’s when I decided that we should create the campaigning group Longbridge Wives to raise awareness of what the area needs. At the time, I wasn’t sure what we were fighting for, but I knew we had to do something.
‘Over the next week, our house was as busy as New Street Station, and we had press from all over the world visiting us. They were just coming in, one after the other, with no agreement beforehand. Actually, that was quite funny.
‘While that was going on, we put posters up everywhere to tell everyone in the community what we were doing.’
The culmination of the events would see the partners and children of MG Rover employees take their fight against job losses to Downing Street on 13 April 2005, when a convoy of coaches arrived from Birmingham. The families then delivered a letter calling on the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to ‘pull up his socks’ in his efforts to save the company’s 6000 jobs (right).
‘So we took a coach-load of people to London and read out a statement to say that we needed to help the workforce. The community was also crying out for help. It was the biggest collapse to happen in one community at one time.’
Gemma was heavily involved with the organisation of the trip to London, which saw scores of people gathering outside Downing Street, armed with home-made banners and posters. Gemma’s group of six women handed over the letter.
‘During the week after the closure, it became apparent that, if we didn’t fight for our area, then we would never get the chance again. This then led to meeting after meeting – and the most inspirational person I met was Ifor Jones, who worked for Birmingham City Council. At the time, he was the Northfield District Manager, and he listened to what we were saying.
‘The facts were stark and that some people hadn’t actually been made redundant by Phoenix Venture Holdings, but were also not receiving a wage at the time – Ifor Jones arranged for supermarket vouchers to be delivered to them.’
‘The plans that they put in weren’t going to work, though. They were hitting individual targets, instead of trying to support the area and inspiring people. The most important thing that the Longbridge Wives did achieve was the chance for training for anyone who lived in a Rover postcode. When Rover collapsed, the Job Centre saw employers take down jobs, then put them back up for a few pounds per hour less. They knew they could do this because they had an ideal audience that was used to working – so those who had been long-term unemployed ended up further down the employment list.
‘The other point was we was able to get the training law changed. If you trained for more than 16 hours per week, you were not able to claim Job Seekers Allowance. This got scrapped for everyone – not just the ex-Longbridge workforce.’
While all this was going on, Gemma continued to be the driving force behind the Pride of Longbridge event, held on Cofton Park every April. In 2015, it will be an especially poignant one for her, being the 10th anniversary of the original Save MG Rover Rally (see above), held on 17 April 2005, just days after the company had closed its doors. That had been an enthusiast gathering that made the national media, thanks to a huge showing of cars driving past the factory gates – but, in 2006, when ex-workers wanted to recreate the original rally while displaying wreaths and lighting candles, Gemma decided to step in and organise the Pride of Longbridge event as a celebration.
Subsequently, each year, the Pride of Longbridge has grown – attracting new people to come to the event, and mingle with the workers whose lives working at The Austin for so many years enriched. Gemma’s ceaseless campaigning for Longbridge’s workers was duly recognised in the 2009 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, when she was awarded the Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), which she richly deserved for all her hard work.