TRIBUTES poured in from across the labour and progressive movement yesterday in response to news of the death of former British Leyland convener Derek Robinson.
Dubbed “Red Robbo” by the right-wing press, he led a militant campaign against mass sackings at the nationalised car company in the 1970s and was fired after refusing to withdraw his name from a pamphlet issued by the Leyland combined committee putting a socialist alternative to the cuts demanded by BL’s management.
Leyland’s Birmingham Longbridge was the world’s largest car plant in the 1960s, the centre of an empire employing 250,000 people and taking 40 per cent of the British car industry market. But it ran into financial difficulties in the 1970s and the company was bailed out by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1975 — a move that would now be impossible because of EU legislation.
The unions’ plan was to fight for a continuation of mass volume car manufacturing as an alternative to job losses, arguing that if it succeeded it would be a “political victory,” proving that ordinary working-class people could run industry.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said Mr Robinson was a “stalwart of the movement” who was “unfairly maligned by the media” as he sought to find solutions to turn the car company around.
Midlands communist George Hickman called Mr Robinson a “tower of strength for shop stewards everywhere” and Graham Stevenson said communists active in Unite were mourning “their most distinguished mentor and guide.”
Former Communist Party industrial organiser Mick Costello described Mr Robinson as “an outstanding trade union leader” who was “a fighter and a thinker who also knew how to listen to people.” He explained that Leyland conspired with “Thatcher’s guru” industry secretary Sir Keith Joseph, who charged MI5 with gathering — and inventing — dirt as part of a witch hunt against Mr Robinson.
One Sunday newspaper printed notes concocted by one of the spies that were put across as minutes of a meeting of communist stewards at Longbridge. “To their credit, no other newspaper’s industrial reporters used it as they doubted what was, in fact, what these days is called ‘fake news’,” said Mr Costello.