By November 1979, the ‘Winter of Discontent’ was long past, Margaret Thatcher was nearing her first Christmas as prime minister, and everything had changed. But if you were looking to identify the exact moment at which the confident trade unionism of the 1970s gave way to the rising managerialism of the 1980s, you could do worse than choose the day that this pamphlet landed on the desk of British Leyland’s senior managers.
Created in 1968 as a means of rationalising the country’s motor industry and driving the creation of innovative new vehicles, British Leyland had instead come to be identified by many over the next decade as an exemplar of all that was wrong with British industry – poorly run, with unpopular products and disastrous industrial relations. Michael Edwardes, appointed in 1977 by the National Enterprise Board to run the state-owned company, was determined to shake up all that had gone before. His restructuring plans involved devolving control to local managers and shedding tens of thousands of jobs. By November 1979, 18,000 jobs had already gone.
Edwardes’ plan was not entirely about contraction: he had plans for a new small car, the Austin Metro, and lobbied for government investment at the Longbridge plant near Birmingham where it was to be built; but he was also keen to use this opportunity to take on the company’s firmly entrenched trade unions. Though read by relatively few people and largely unexceptional in its content, The Edwardes Plan and Your Job gave Edwardes the opportunity he was looking for.
The pamphlet, which is reproduced in full below, had been drawn up and published by the Leyland Combine Trade Union Committee, and signed by its four leading lay officials, including Derek Robinson the committee’s chair and convenor at Longbridge. Already a well-known figure, ‘Red Robbo’, as he was dubbed by much of the media, was singled out and dismissed for the criticisms of British Leyland and its management contained in the pamphlet, leading to a series of unofficial walkouts in his support.
However, a subsequent ballot of union members voted ten to one against strike action in his support; and backing from the leadership of his union, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, proved lukewarm. Robinson had no option but to accept defeat. His subsequent efforts to return to his trade as a toolmaker or to win a union organiser job at the AUEW were unsuccessful, and in due course he became a sales rep for the Morning Star.
Edwardes did not last much longer in his own job. He left British Leyland in 1982 having lost the confidence of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, over his unwillingness to pursue the privatisation of parts of the company. His post-Leyland life was almost certainly much more comfortable than that of Robinson, however, involving as it did a succession of lucrative business roles outside the car industry.
In common with many other leading trade unionists at Longbridge at the time, Robinson was a long-time activist in the Communist Party of Great Britain. Though often dismissed by the tabloids as a militant and a firebrand, in fact he wanted to make British Leyland successful, and trod a careful political line, supporting changes to simplify the company’s piecework system, the root cause of numerous disputes, in the face of opposition from members of the then Socialist Labour League, who were strongest at BL’s Cowley plant.
Labour History Review published a special issue, Workplace Occupations in British Labour History: Rise, Fall and Historical Legacies, vol 86(1), April 2021, guest edited by Andy Clark, which addresses issues around deindustrialization and workers’ responses to it in the 1970s and 1980s.
See also Why the 70s shop stewards lost, written by Jim Denham, a Trotskyist former shop steward at Longbridge, for the Alliance for Workers Liberty (8 November 2017).