Hero or villain? Derek 'Red Robbo' Robinson, 1927-2017

Red Robbo, infamous for his time at British Leyland before his dismissal in 1980, has died aged 90. Here are our top five Red Robbo moments

Divisive figure Derek Robinson has died, aged 90. Nicknamed Red Robbo by the press, the former union convenor at British Leyland’s Longbridge factory has become a byword for everything negative about the power assumed by the unions in the late 1970s among the right, and has been heralded by the left as a supporter of workers’ rights under adverse conditions.

Robinson trained as a toolmaker at Longbridge during WWII, and remained at Austin until his dismissal in 1980. He joined the Amalgamated Engineers Union and the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1951, and stood as a Communist candidate in four separate general elections in the Northfield constituency. By the end of the 1950s he was a member of the Longbridge Works Committee, the shop stewards’ association responsible for much of the plant’s human management. Robinson was appointed works convenor in 1973.

Much has been said of the way Longbridge operated under Robinson’s reign as works convenor. It’s commonly known that the smallest thing could encourage the workforce out in strike – and while some stories are apocryphal there is more than a grain of truth to the majority. But there’s a lot that the world doesn’t know about one of the men responsible for the poor image of the British motor industry. Here are our top five Red Robbo moments.

His own union didn’t want his policies

The infamous sacking of Derek Robinson was prompted by a pamphlet issued in response to Michael Edwardes’ recovery plan. Indications from within the plant suggested that as many as 87% of BL’s employees personally opposed strike action over the recovery plan, which would have led to the dismissal of 15% of the workforce and the closure of multiple plants in order to consolidate the business and reduce working losses. However, strikes were conducted under Robinson as convenor. Following his dismissal, a mass strike was averted by a spontaneous petition of 2000 Longbridge workers opposing a walkout. A subsequent ballot to debate strike action until Robinson was reinstated resulted in votes of 600 in favour of strike action to 14,000 against. Robinson later urged his former union to find a new steward, and to treat him with the respect once afforded to himself.

MI5 assisted in his dismissal

It has come to light that the government deployed MI5 officers to help solve the British Leyland problem. MI5 agents were placed in strategic positions within British Leyland to assess union feelings, and it was from an MI5 source that the management of BL received its information that Robinson was part of a cabal to destabilise the recovery plan. Infamously, MI5 papers suggest that one union official was bribed by MI5 with regular fish suppers in cars by the side of the road, in return for which he would offer information about union plans and those of Robinson in particular. It has also been suggested that MI5 officers within union ranks were instrumental in influencing the vote not to take industrial action over Robinson’s dismissal, and in influencing workers to return the infamous 14,000:600 vote.

His Communist links extended beyond the end of British Leyland

Following his dismissal from British Leyland in 1980, Derek Robinson maintained links with both trade unionism and communism. Robinson spent much of the 1980s teaching potential shop stewards what their roles would entail, and subsequently became chairman of a newly re-established Communist Party of Britain from 1988. He had also served as a sales representative for socialist newspaper Morning Star, following his dismissal from British Leyland. The many obituaries by noted socialist groups and websites stand as testament to the fondness with which he was regarded within Britain’s socialist and communist communities.

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Derek Robinson’s dismissal gave us the Austin Metro

Industrial unrest within British Leyland was centred on the Longbridge plant – a plant which following the recovery plan featured strongly in management’s vision for BL’s future, and also the plant at which Robinson was works convenor. Michael Edwardes has subsequently confirmed that with Derek Robinson at Longbridge, plans to launch the Metro would have been risked by industrial action over the loss of 25,000 jobs. The recovery plan had also been necessary to restructure company finances to the point whereby the launch would become viable. Michael Edwardes has confirmed that the removal of Robinson was a necessary measure and was planned to some extent. 'From a strategic point of view we knew that we couldn’t have the Metro and him. Whether or not we wanted him to go, his actions made it inevitable that he would have to go.'

He cost British Leyland over £200 million in lost productivity

Over the course of 30 months between 1978 and 1980, Derek Robinson was responsible for a total of 523 counts of industrial action over disputes between unions and management – an average of just over 17 per month, or more than one every second day. These did not affect Longbridge alone; many disputes were supported by members of unions at other British Leyland plants and these subsequent strikes are considered to be Robinson’s doing. Production was dramatically affected as a result, with an estimated 62,000 cars and 113,000 engines lost as a direct result of strike action. This lack of productivity had cost British Leyland £200 million by 1980, which at the time of his death in 2017 would have equated to over £1.75 billion.

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