Stalwart vessels of early British satire, Ronald Barker and Ronald Corbett had a fine line in jokes about the perceived work ethic of the country’s factory fodder. “An aerial photograph of the track at British Leyland,” they announced, “was spoilt when somebody moved.”
You see, it had become an establishment trope that the car workers of Britain – and those in Longbridge, Birmingham in particular – were not industrious and prone to stoppage. That was of course untrue, the workers of those car plants were hard-working: not a house in Birmingham wasn’t freshly painted in mini green at least once a year.
But there was media and establishment bias against the workers of Longbridge, and that was often focused on one man: Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson, of Northfield (you wouldn’t want to live too far from where you worked in those days, the cars were terribly unreliable).
Born in 1927, Robinson started work there during the height of the Second World War and joined the Amalgamated Engineering Union (now lost in a midst of mergers like most left wing organisations). The political situation at work was very different then, the Communist Party dominated the factory’s workforce, and many hundreds of Daily Workers were sold there every day. You can imagine the lads on their tea break, talking about last night’s game (and Birmingham City were often on top in wartime football) when one holds up a page three essay on the theories of Antonio Gramsci. “Phwoar, eh lads? Look at the critique of bourgeoise hegemony on that.”
You might think that the bosses have a lot of weight behind them these days, but in the late ’70s the real boss was the real establishment: the government. Nationalisation (in 1975) ensured that any futures disputes could be framed by politicians and the papers as not just bad for business, but bad for Britain.
The creatives back then were more Austin 7s and ermine robes than flannel shirts and fixies. Leonard Lord, the designer of the Mini, which was Longbridge’s main output, became Baron Lambury of Northfield. Although it can’t have been much fun in the House of Lords being Baron of Northfield, imagine having to explain that, yes, there is game and shooting on your estate, but not a huge amount of grouse.
When Derek Robinson, by then trade union convener, took on the management he was taking on both the Commons and the Lords. But he was used to large odds, having stood as a Communist candidate in four consecutive general elections in Northfield between 1966 and 1974 (he lost his deposit on each occasion).
Whilst it’s true that the company lost a lot of cars and money through strike action, what ended up being the real problem was the effect that the strikes — mediated through the news establishment — had on the public’s perception of the company and the cars it made. British Leyland began to symbolise all that was supposedly wrong with Britain, what we were told the rest of the world was calling the ‘English Disease’ – which would seem a bit rich, especially from the French.
The narrative became that, alongside the strikes there was a marked decline in build quality, for which the unions and the workers were blamed. Brummie craftsmanship was now being called into question, with ‘a Brummagem screwdriver’ becoming a poor comedian’s unwitty euphemism for a hammer.
The story goes that he was getting in the way of the company’s preparations to bring the new Austin Metro into production, probably the only thing on which he would ever see eye-to-eye with Jeremy Clarkson. Longbridge was being redeveloped and heavily automated, there would be job losses and Derek wouldn’t stand for that.
MD Sir Michael Edwardes admitted, “The answer is ‘Yes’, from a strategic point of view we knew that we couldn’t have the Metro and him.” Robinson was eventually sacked by British Leyland in 1979.
Taking on the management took guts, but Robbo had to contend with Spooks too. At the time of his dismissal one of his union officials was rumoured to be in the pay of M15. You may think this sounds plausible, we couldn’t possibly comment.
Derek Robinson has been credited with causing 523 walk-outs at Longbridge between 1978 and 1979, costing an estimated £200m in lost production. So next time the media talk about productivity losses caused by an early football kick off or some inclement weather, pay tribute to Red Robbo: a great British worker, strong enough to take on the establishment, and a Brummie to boot.