Derek Robinson, the CP and the decline of the BL stewards movement

October 31, 2017 at 4:17 pm (Brum, CPB, good people, history, Jim D, RIP, unions, workers)

Derek Robinson, trade unionist and Communist Party member, 1927 – 2017

Derek Robinson with Phyllis Davis and Leslie Huckfield, the then Labour MP for Nuneaton in 1979
Above: Derek Robinson leads a demo in the late 1970s (to his left, Les Huckfield MP)

For a brief period in the 1970’s, Derek Robinson (who has died, aged 90) was widely regarded as the most powerful trade unionist in Britain. Yet he was wasn’t a full-time official, but a shop steward (albeit a convenor, or senior steward, allowed time off ‘the job’, by management, to devote himself full-time, to union duties).

His downfall, and that of the shop stewards movement he led, is worth recalling because one day our class will rise again and start exerting the kind of influence it did in the 1960s and 70s: we must not repeat the mistakes that were made then. I was a shop steward at the same car plant as Robinson (Longbridge, Birmingham) in the 1970s, and was one of those who went on the picket line when he was sacked in 1979. If some of what I say below about Derek seems harsh, it’s because it’s essential that the political lessons are learnt. I would like to make it clear that I have never doubted or questioned Derek’s personal integrity nor his commitment to trade unionism, socialism, and the working class. I should also add that although we frequently clashed in the 1970s, when we occasionally met in later years Derek was unfailingly friendly and unsectarian.

In 1974 British Leyland (as it then was) went onto the rocks as a result of years of under-investment and over-generous payouts to shareholders. Tony Benn described a meeting with union leaders shortly after Labour narrowly won the February 1974 election and formed a minority government: “170,000 people were involved and they thought that government intervention was inevitable.” They were right: when the company went bust the Wilson government promptly nationalised it.

The difference between the response of the Wilson government of the mid-’70s and the Blair government that presided over the terminal decline and eventual closure of Rover between 2000  and 2005 can be explained in part by the global ascendency of neo-liberal economics and the corresponding transformation in official Labour politics. But abstract ideology is not the decisive factor (after all, Heath’s Tory government nationalised Rolls Royce in 1971). The crucial factor is the strength of the organised working class as a whole and, specifically, within the threatened workplaces.

In 1974 our class was strong and the Longbridge plant was probably the most powerfully organised (as well as the largest) workplace in Britain. The story of the Longbridge shop stewards’ movement contains important lessons for a generation of trade unionists who have known little but the defeats and humiliations of the last thirty years or so.

The shop stewards’ movement

Longbridge had been gradually unionised after World War Two. Communist Party members played a central role, often risking their jobs in the process. The plant’s first recognised union convenor, Dick Ethridge, was a CP member and in those days it seemed a natural step for active, militant trade unionists in the plant to join the Party. By the 1960s, the Party had a factory branch numbering around 50, and sales of the Daily Worker (later Morning Star) inside the plant (not on the gates) were in the hundreds. Management once tried to prevent sales by seizing a bundle of Workers and were forced to back down by immediate strike action.

The CP’s influence went far beyond its formal membership and permeated the entire Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee (JSSC), numbering around 500 stewards from the AEU, TGWU, Vehicle Builders, Electricians and the multitude of smaller white and blue collar manufacturing unions like the Sheet Metal Workers.

Apart from a few bastions of right-wing (or “apolitical”) trade unionism, the shop stewards’ movement at Longbridge was dominated by the ideas of the CP, even though the Party never had a majority of card carrying members on the JSSC.

When, in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the old British Motor Corporation merged with Standard-Triumph and Leyland to form the giant British Leyland Motor Corporation, the influence of the Longbridge-based CP stewards spread throughout the whole combine. The only organised opposition was the much smaller number of Trotskyist and semi-Trotskyist stewards grouped around the Socialist Labour League in the Cowley Morris plant.

When the big battles against Edward Heath and the Industrial Relations Act erupted in the early ’70s, the Austin JSSC banner would be there on all the demos, and an impressive Longbridge turn-out could be guaranteed for the CP-inspired Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions (LCDTU).

By now, Ethridge had retired and handed the convenor’s job to his protégé, Derek Robinson. When I worked at the plant (in the late 1970s) Ethridge was still remembered with affection by old hands and even people with no political sympathy for the CP conceded that he was a “bloody good convenor”, etc. Feelings about Robinson tended to be less enthusiastic. The reason for this is that in Ethridge’s day the CP’s role was essentially to be the best and most conscientious union organisers at shop floor level – a task they combined with low-key Stalinist propaganda. When Robinson took over in the early ’70s he was immediately faced with a series of crises that demanded political answers and exposed the underlying weaknesses of the CP’s approach.

First, there was the whole question of the abolition of piece-work and the introduction of measured day work (MDW). The shop stewards’ movement throughout the motor industry had been built around the piece-work system: stewards determined staffing levels, arranged work patterns, negotiated the “price for the job” and, ultimately, their effectiveness could be judged by the weekly wage packet.

Piece-work had many draw-backs from a socialist point of view, but it did at least ensure that stewards were directly accountable to their members and it gave the union a central role in determining the link between work and payment.

Robinson and the CP supported the introduction of MDW, dismissing the widespread shop-floor opposition as “short-sighted”, “money-militancy” and (the ultimate put-down in those days) the work of “a bunch of Trots”. What Robinson and co. didn’t understand was the vital part piece-work played in keeping the stewards’ movement in touch with the membership.

The bureaucratic arrogance and high-handed dismissal of shop-floor opinion was to characterise the CP’s approach throughout the ’70s and finally led to Robinson’s downfall.

Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that for a whole period of time (approximately between 1971 and 1978) it seemed that Robinson and the CP had been right – the workforce enjoyed the security that came with MDW whilst retaining the mutuality and shop-floor organisation that had been built up under piece-work. It seemed like the best of both worlds. Meanwhile, a much bigger crisis was looming: in 1974 the company faced bankruptcy.

The price of nationalisation

The Wilson government decided to nationalise the firm, but the price for the workforce was to be acceptance of the Ryder Report. In essence, Ryder recommended bailing out the company but insisted upon far-reaching ‘rationalisation’ of work practices, with the aim of achieving speed-up of production and a ‘slimming down’ (I’m using the euphemisms of the day) of the workforce, though this last point was not spelt out in any detail.

Ryder recognised that these proposals stood little chance of success without the co-operation of the shop stewards’ movement – and thus was born ‘participation’. This was a comprehensive scheme to involve stewards, convenors and officials in joint committees with management at almost every level of the company from the shop floor to national level – except that Ryder made it clear that management would retain the final say and full decision-making power.

The shop floor overwhelmingly saw ‘participation’ for what it was: a scheme designed to take stewards off the shop floor and draw them into an unequal ‘partnership’ with management.

Robinson and the CP went for ‘participation’ in a big way. As with Measured Day Work, shop-floor opposition was dismissed as an unprincipled alliance of “money-militants”, right-wingers and the hated “Trots”. Robinson (in an infamous pamphlet of 1975, written jointly with CP theoretician Jon Bloomfield) went so far as to describe participation as “a step towards workers’ control”.

Now that the company had been nationalised, so the Robinson/CP line went, the workforce had a duty to pull their weight and make a go of it. Robinson and the Longbridge Works Committee clamped down on unofficial strikes (‘downers’) and insisted that the disputes procedure was kept to at all times. “Continuous production” became the gospel propounded by the CP and by Leyland management alike.

When, in 1977, toolmakers throughout Leyland struck for a wage claim that in practice challenged phase two of the Labour government’s Social Contract, Robinson and the CP joined forces with the AUEW Executive and the bosses in denouncing the toolmakers and breaking their strike.

The behaviour of Robinson and the CP was not the result of individual treachery or corruption (though that was often how it was regarded on the shop floor): it stemmed from a fundamentally bureaucratic political philosophy that equated nationalisation with socialism and regarded the spontaneous actions of the shop floor with suspicion and hostility. The result of all this for the shop stewards’ movement throughout British Leyland (and in Longbridge especially) was nothing short of disastrous. Stewards were seen as little more than the bosses’ policemen and an enormous gulf of distrust and cynicism opened up between the plant-based union organisation and the membership.

The rest of the story is tragic history: at the end of 1977 Labour appointed a proven union-basher called Michael Edwardes as chairman of British Leyland. Edwardes immediately announced a ‘plan’ that would involve 40,000 redundancies and the closure of 13 plants. Shop meetings throughout Longbridge voted to oppose the Edwardes plan and yet at the official presentation of the plan the Longbridge senior stewards (along with most other BL union representatives) gave Edwardes a standing ovation!

Edwardes must have realised then (if he didn’t already know) that the majority of senior stewards in British Leyland were severely out of touch with their members. He dispensed with the soft-soap Ryder approach, drove a coach and horses through participation and, finally (with Thatcher’s Tories now in power), thanked Derek Robinson for his past co-operation by sacking him on a trumped-up charge in November 1979.

The Robinson sacking (in which the Duffy/Boyd leadership of the AEU was complicit) was a traumatic blow to union organisation in Longbridge and throughout BL. In fact, it was nearly a death blow: Leyland bosses gave serious consideration to the idea of withdrawing union recognition throughout the Group and creating a company union. Probably because they realised that they already had a de facto company union in the AEU, they pulled back. But they had won a decisive victory and wasted no time in following it up with a purge of militants and left- wingers at Longbridge and Cowley in the early 1980s. Union organisation in the company survived but never recovered and was powerless, when in 2000, the then-owners, BMW, ‘sold’ (for the token sum of £10!) Rover Cars and the Longbridge plant to the dodgy asset-strippers of the Phoenix Consortium, who renamed it MG Rover Group. At the time many financial commentators claimed that the plant was not modern enough and that the company would surely run out of money within a few years. In April 2005, this happened; the Phoenix Consortium put the MG Rover group into administration, leaving more than 6,000 workers without jobs. Again, the union movement and the stewards were unable to prevent what, by then, seemed like an inevitability.

But the virtual collapse of the British Leyland shop stewards’ movement was not inevitable: it happened because the tremendous strength built up under piecework was frittered away in participation committees; because stewards lost their roots in the shop-floor and became petty bureaucrats; most of all, it happened because the dominant politics of the movement (i.e., the CP) had no answer to the financial crisis of the company beyond giving full support to everything that flowed from the Ryder Report. In the mid-’70s they had the strength and (for a while) the shop-floor support to fight for real workers’ control: what they lacked was a coherent political perspective.

That’s why the good militants of the ’50s and ’60s turned into the compromised figures of the ’70s. It was down to politics, not personal weakness or (as some shop floor workers occasionally suggested) personal corruption. In fact, the best of these people – Derek Robinson, for instance – were personally principled and even courageous individuals, who devoted the best years of their lives to trade unionism and socialism, as they understood it.

So I feel I can say now, without any hypocrisy, farewell comrade Derek: you fought for what you believed in and you never sold out.

6 Comments

  1. Andrew Coates said,

    Although I recall very clearly, being in the West Midlands during this period the role of the Birmingham Evening Mail (as it was known at the time) and the Coventry Evening Telegraph in witch-hunting these trade unionists.

    They did this on a daily basis, on a scale which makes even today’s press look pale.

    • rotzeichen said,

      In support of your comment, we constantly read attacks in the press, about the mad trade unions and poor workmanship of British goods.

      People were also oblivious of the damage that the lying media did to our motor industry and manufacturing as a whole.

      I lived and worked in Germany in 1969 and a German friend was reading a notorious paper “Das Bild” the German equivalent of the Sun, whilst reading it he said, “Look here, all English workers are lazy and British goods are of bad quality”, I said “well that stupid paper would say that wouldn’t It”, He then said yes “but it’s a quote from an English Paper called the Daily Express”, that is an English Newspaper isn’t it”. I naturally agreed. But it just goes to show how damaging our Media has been over the years, with their lying propaganda, and I believe they have done this country serious harm.

  2. tedjedwards said,

    I remember meeting Derek when he was constantly being villified in the press, there’s a surprise, and being impressed by what he had to say and his whole demeanor. He was far from the bully boy he was portrayed as but rather someone who was articulate and stood up for workers. Where ever he stood politically I am not sure but what I do know he stood up for those he represented and the working class. At least he never sold out which many of his contemporaries have done. Form a list here ! Hopefully his family will take comfort in knowing he stood up and fought for his members.

    • rotzeichen said,

      The establishment always praise the dead though hated them in real life.

      I like you do hope that his family know that he stood up for workers and that there are those of us that remember him with fondness for his strength of character, and he was right, we would still have a British car manufacturer had his plan been adopted instead of how it finally turned out.

  3. Glasgow Working Class said,

    Jim, I recall that the manger of BL was photographed on a hill overlooking a mass meeting of the workers.

  4. charliethechulo said,

    Funeral: – Stourbridge crem, weds 22 Nov, 1.30.

    after at cradely heath liberal club, 60 upper high st, b64 5hu.

    ps, family request only family flowers, donation to Alzheimer’s society.

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