BRITAIN’s biggest carmaker exemplified the country’s misery in the 1970s. British Leyland, state-owned and subsidy-sodden, produced underpowered rust-buckets—when it was working at all. At the heart of the company’s misfortunes were the anarchic industrial relations at its biggest plant, Longbridge in Birmingham, stoked by an unofficial union leader who revelled in the nickname “Red Robbo”.

Derek Robinson was indeed as red as red could be, taking a self-study Marxism course as an apprentice toolmaker in his teens, joining the Communist Party in 1951, and standing four times as a parliamentary candidate. After reformers booted him out in 1985 he co-founded a hardline successor party, which still struggles on.

The class-ridden incompetence of British post-war industrial management offered easy pickings for left-wingers. Capitalism looked as inefficient as it was unfair: surely workers knew best who should make what, how and where? Britain’s mighty motor industry had an impregnable brand and market share, so the only immediate issue was dividing the spoils.

In that respect, Mr Robinson’s fiery socialist rhetoric masked a keen business sense. Workers should sell their labour as profitably as possible, he reckoned: for the best pay, the least effort and with the greatest security. Success meant hard bargaining à la Trump, ignoring wider considerations and treating all deals as temporary.

The result was chaos: in just two of his years as the grassroots union leader at Longbridge, he was responsible for 523 stoppages. The company was an international joke: “British Lazyland”, the Germans called it, after news emerged of the night shift bringing sleeping-bags to work. The archaic production lines, noisy, dark and dirty, were beset by demarcation disputes. Half a dozen unions zealously guarded their privileges. Woe betide the foreman who got a fitter to change a fuse, or a toolmaker to adjust a nozzle.

The tabloids portrayed him as a wrecker, which he disputed. “We didn’t come out on strike just for the sheer fun of it,” he said crossly. Mindless militancy was for Trotskyists, like the ones who reigned at the Cowley plant, near Oxford. While capitalism survived, jobs and wages were the priorities, though he wanted success for the company too. It would be an important political victory on the road to socialism, he argued, to prove that “ordinary working people have got the intelligence and determination to run industry”. After British Leyland’s nationalisation in 1975, he briefly backed newfangled worker participation in decision-making: “It would enable us to look objectively at some of the changes that were required, outside of being in a bargaining position,” he told Marxism Today. Workers should control new technology, not vice versa. While decrying his politics, this newspaper praised him as a “responsible co-manager”.

The experiment failed. Union input slowed and blunted hard decisions. Critics said he spent so much time meeting management that he lost touch with his members. Collaboration, he lamented, meant “responsibility without authority”; in future, unions should have an outright veto on management actions. The taxpayer, he argued, would stump up the investment which the capitalists had failed to provide, while import controls kept out pesky foreign competition.

Comrades, come rally

It never happened. Success sowed the seeds of defeat, not revolution. Union militancy turned voters against the Labour government, bringing Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives to power in 1979 on a mandate of curbing strikes and inflation. While Britain dozed and squabbled, foreign competitors had munched market share. The unreliability and obsolescence of British Leyland’s vehicles were painfully obvious. A rival even claimed cheekily that its cars were made by “robots not Robbos”.

Mr Robinson’s forte was haranguing mass meetings on windswept playing fields, with strike votes taken instantly by an intimidating show of hands. But in 1979 British Leyland’s new boss, Michael Edwardes, balloted the workers directly (and secretly) on modernisation plans, gaining a seven-to-one majority for drastic job cuts in exchange for investment.

Mr Robinson seethed, but his days were numbered. MI5, Britain’s security service, had infiltrated his inner circle, suborning a close associate with fish and chips. Shockingly by today’s standards, Mr Edwardes was shown its secretly obtained account of a subversive meeting between Communist officials and union activists (though in fact, the D. Robinson attending was Derek’s twin brother Dennis, also a Communist). The company demanded that the burly six-footer disown a pamphlet calling for strikes against the modernisation plan. When he refused, it fired him.

Union bosses joyfully sank the issue of his dismissal in a bureaucratic swamp. Humiliatingly, the Longbridge workers—at a mass meeting, no less—refused to strike on his behalf. Freed of its union shackles, the motor industry thrived, though under foreign, mostly Japanese, ownership. Britain now produces excellent cars—and in greater numbers than in Mr Robinson’s heyday. Unemployable in industry, he turned to teaching trade-union studies, yearning for the tide to turn once more.