Derek Robinson: the passing of a working-class hero

A staunch and fearless union leader, one of an increasingly rare breed.

Proletarian writers

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Derek Robinson addresses strikers at Cofton Park

Proletarian writers

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Derek Robinson, dubbed ‘Red Robbo’ by the hostile bourgeois press, passed away at 1.30am on 31 October 2017 at the age of 90.

It is a sad indication of the parlous state of the British working-class movement that he is so little known and that, even among those who do remember this class fighter, the majority would probably accept the portrayal of him that was created 50-odd years ago by the media hitmen and one which they still present now, namely that of an industrial ‘troublemaker’.

Derek Robinson was a qualified toolmaker at the Austin Longbridge car plant and already a popular elected shop steward when, in 1951, reading reports of the Korean War in the Daily Worker and understanding the class nature of the world around him, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) at 24 years of age.

In the course of Comrade Robinson’s life, the CPGB went from being a representative of all that was good and progressive in the British working class to being a representative, albeit not overtly, of British imperialism through its tail-ending and glorification of the Labour Party and its abandonment of Lenin’s teaching on the state, proletarian dictatorship and the need for revolutionary ideology.

This culminated in the party’s formal liquidation in 1991, along with the demise of the Soviet Union following a long period of revisionist degeneration and finally Gorbachev’s utter renegacy.

By this time, Robinson was already long gone from the CPGB. Opposed to the Eurocommunist faction, which became increasingly dominant in the party, and which viscerally rejected even a protestation of working-class politics, and particularly, as a member of the management committee of the People’s Press Printing Society (PPPS), opposing the Euros’ attempt to liquidate the Morning Star daily newspaper as a prelude to liquidating the party itself, he was one of numerous working-class militants and other veteran communists who were arbitrarily expelled from the party to which they had given their lives.

He was an early advocate of founding a new party, becoming chair of the Communist Campaign Group (CCG) on its formation in 1984. In 1988, the CCG transformed itself into the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), which claimed to be the continuation of the old CPGB. Derek chaired the founding congress of the CPB and continued as chair until the end of 1989.

Unfortunately, although the CPB rejected outright liquidation and at least verbally stood for the working class, it was not the continuation of the CPGB when it was a genuinely revolutionary party, but rather of the CPGB that had adopted the parliamentary cretinous ‘British Road to Socialism’ – the very road that had ultimately led to its demise.

This was the tragedy of Derek and of so many other good comrades.

In 1975, Derek was elected as the chairman of the joint union convenors’ committee for Longbridge (by then owned by British Leyland, BL) following the retirement of fellow communist Dick Etheridge from the position. This was a time when the postwar boom had ended and the prospect of falling profits was panicking ‘captains’ of industry towards their usual crisis bolt-hole of austerity for workers to ‘save industry’.

The BL management knew that, according to capitalist logic, they would have to reduce the workforce and number of plants within the nationalised company where Derek Robinson was now the main spokesman for all the BL workers across the country. The work was difficult and boring and it was easy for management, or anyone for that matter, to spark a wildcat (unofficial) strike and have it blamed on ‘Red Robbo’ in the newspapers.

Derek was not a lone CPGB member within British Leyland and, like most, he followed his party’s line in wishing the nationalised company success. He also followed the CPGB line of supporting the election of a Labour government and somehow ‘pushing them to the left’. But while this shows that he was no fomenter of wildcat strikes for the sake of it, he would support his workforce to the hilt and always work in their interests.

When in 1977 the Labour government of 1974–79, led first by Harold Wilson and then by James Callaghan, brought in the Anglo-South African businessman Michael Edwardes to oversee the slaughter of jobs and plants, Derek Robinson led the opposition to the plans from the front. It cost him his job, and not because Michael Edwards was too smart or too strong.

It was the treacherous ideology of social democracy, through its main vehicle the Labour Party, and the hydra-like threads that run from it into nearly all trade union leaderships, that really put paid to Derek Robinson and led to the decimation of the car industry in Britain. Within 15 months of Robinson being sacked in 1979, over 18,000 jobs had disappeared and several factories closed. A lot more jobs and factories were to follow.

Derek also showed a willingness to fight against a Labour government when the incoming Wilson regime in 1974 made an agreement – the ‘social contract’ – with the TUC that would attempt to restrain runaway inflation by agreeing wage restrictions in exchange for new employment legislation. Robinson told a communist meeting in London that he was quite prepared “to lead a mighty orchestration of workers” to smash it! Words that must have sent a shiver down the spines of the revisionist leaders of his own party.

Out of work, Robinson worked for the Morning Star. It is not known if he ever saw through the Labour Party or the erroneous line of the CPB in relation to it, but despite tributes on his death, he appeared to be increasingly sidelined and isolated by the leaders of the CPB once he stepped down as the chair.

But whatever the limitations of his own understanding, Comrade Derek Robinson undoubtedly helped others to see the true nature of the Labour Party. As a loyal fighter for the working class and as a courageous militant, he deserves our red salute and that of all class-conscious workers.

The most fitting tribute we can pay is to intensify our efforts to build a genuinely revolutionary communist party that will attract the best fighters from the class, and which will be able to lead in the fight to destroy capitalism and to replace it with socialism.