25. An avalanche of redundancies



In March came the bombshell of the announcement of the proposed breakup of the Rover car plants in Birmingham. Stephen Byers had offered £152 million in government subsidies. We posed the questions: “Where is the free market now? Why doesn’t he go the whole hog and nationalise?” Rover had been bought by Alchemy Partners just for short-term profit, which had led to the breakup of the group. They wanted to turn Longbridge into a little workshop. We argued that the only way to defend the Longbridge plant was to occupy it. The Mini car line was still there and up and running. The technology of the plant should be protected. There was outrage at the proposals for cutbacks. Fifty thousand jobs or more were threatened in the West Midlands and an extra 25,000 in Oxford and Swindon. Previous owners BMW had already put the gun to the heads of the workers in demanding flexible arrangements or else they would close the plant. Wages had been cut and hours lengthened. Other car companies were planning cutbacks and retrenchment. Nationalisation of Rover under democratic workers’ control and management was posed.

The Socialist Party intervened in the debates and discussions around the future of Rover. Dave Nellist wrote an article for the Birmingham Post in which he denounced “the disposal of the Longbridge factory in Birmingham to Alchemy Partners, a group of asset strippers, sorry, ‘venture capitalists’, [as] a betrayal of  thousands of workers at Longbridge who’ve bent over backwards with concessions to a succession of owners”. He pointed out that some politicians were campaigning for a strong car company to take over Rover, one with experience of the industry rather than a vulture, such as Alchemy. But “it’s a forlorn hope. There’s an estimated 40% overcapacity in car production worldwide.” What was needed was government intervention through public ownership and control and by the involvement of Rover workers themselves. This would allow “the drawing up of a new plan of production to meet the transport needs of the whole of society”.1

Over 100,000 working class people marched through Birmingham the weekend after the announcement against BMW’s plans to shut the plant down. Furious at the betrayal of Rover workers, people were assembling by 8:30am for a march called for 11. A parade of shops was displaying ‘Don’t Let Rover Die’ posters. One union placard portrayed the letters BMW standing for ‘Betrayed Midlands Workers’. A group of young Asians holding a banner, ‘George Dixon Sixth Form Support Rover’, brought press attention as they jumped and cheered to drummers. TGWU official Tony Woodley appeared to boos and heckles to chair the rally at the end of the march. It was the TUC leader Monks who “recognised the efforts” of workers trying to defend their jobs. This met polite applause and comments on how much he was paid. Workers also commented that union leaders should stop defending Labour’s indifference. At the well-attended Socialist Party meeting following the demonstration Dave Nellist pointed out that in 1971, Tory Prime Minister Heath took just 24 hours to nationalise Rolls-Royce and stop the breakup of the aerospace industry. He added: “There is no parliamentary obstacle for Tony Blair to do the same 30 years later. The problem is that New Labour is not a working class party. Join the fight for a programme of action to save jobs.”2

The next day Blair, in an article in the press, bluntly stated that the government would not intervene. We commented: “Both Blair and Byers – in words and deeds – show they are the willing servants of big business.”3 The only way to solve this problem was to take ownership into the hands of the state under democratic workers’ control and management. Then overcapacity could be dealt with, in some circumstances, by shifting to useful alternative production as the shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace armaments factory had proposed in the 1970s. The remorseless grip of recession and job losses in Birmingham was threatening to spread to Ford Dagenham. In addition, shipyard workers in the North-East, Scotland and Northern Ireland would also face the dole. Forty thousand textile jobs had been lost during the previous year, with 25,000 more expected to go the following year. Woodley, under pressure from workers and trade unionists, was now threatening all-out strike action to prevent the closure of production in Dagenham. It was necessary for car workers, we argued, to exert pressure on the union leaders to translate words into deeds throughout the industry.

By May the Rover bosses were stepping up the pressure by declaring that, if they did not have a suitable buyer by the end of the month, they would consider abandoning the whole Rover operation. Blair declared that he would work “night and day to save Rover jobs”. This was an about-turn on his previous statement that the government was powerless to stop BMW. The proximity of a general election was undoubtedly a factor because 27 vulnerable Labour seats were close to Longbridge. However, we warned the workers not to take anything for granted and step up the pressure for the plant to be nationalised. Many workers saw the necessity for such a step.4

It was hoped that even union leaders may echo the call but our approach had nothing in common with the nationalisations of the past. Old-style nationalisations, while a step forward compared to private ownership, were usually dominated by a board whose directors were picked from private firms. This meant they would operate on capitalist lines – as workers in the old nationalised industries would be able to testify. The new publicly owned firm should be run under workers’ control and management, which meant that the managing board should have the majority of its members drawn from the local and national labour movement. Only with the majority of industry owned and run by the working class as a whole will  it be possible to democratically plan the development of society and eliminate permanently the problems which were confronting car and other workers at this time.

By the middle of 2000 the wheels were beginning to come off the Blair government. The opening of the Millennium Bridge was as much a fiasco as the opening of the Millennium Dome and London Eye. We commented that Labour’s new modernisation programme, like the government itself, had “ended up wobbly, mistrusted and viewed as a failure”. A seismic shift in the perception of the government was taking place. They had ignored the first law of holes: ‘If you find yourself in one, stop digging!’ Blair had been slow handclapped at the Women’s Institute conference, which was seen as a turning point. His electoral guru, Philip Gould, described Blair’s predicament in words which could have been taken out of an editorial in the Socialist from the previous period. He said that Blair was perceived as being out of touch, “of not being real. He lacks conviction; he is all spin and presentation and he says things to please people, not because he believes them.” Wasn’t this the philosophy of Gould himself, an arch spin doctor? Et tu Brute! Gould twisted the knife writing that Blair was “unable to hold a position… lacking guts”, and that his rhetoric about traditional values was seen as “risible” by people.

Worryingly for Blair, opinion polls showed that what was until then considered a racing certainty – victory for Labour in a general election – now seemed no more than a probability. All the polls indicated that Labour’s lead over the Tories was narrowing dramatically. We explained that we did not want to see the Tories returned to office and that was still not the most likely prospect. However, the return of a Labour government was also of no real benefit to working class people.5

The announcement in June of 10,000 job losses in one day coincided with an intensification of the infighting in Labour about when and if Britain should join the euro. The job losses at British Aerospace and steelmaker Corus deepened the problems Labour faced with the crisis in manufacturing industry, which was exacerbated by the high value of the pound. We pointed out that being part of the euro would not have averted the job losses which were taking place. The pound had devalued by 10% in the previous six weeks. So, if anything, the outlook for costs to manufacturing industry was looking slightly more promising outside the euro. These job losses had mainly occurred, as was the case with the other 200,000 manufacturing jobs lost since Labour came to power, because British manufacturing bosses could no longer compete effectively due to lack of investment. Moreover, it was easier for multinational capitalists in Britain to shed jobs here because of the Thatcher-Major anti-union laws, which were retained by Blair and meant weak labour protection which suited the bosses.

There were serious differences within the Labour Cabinet on whether or not to join the euro. Some members – Mandelson, Byers and Cook – argued that they could not protect manufacturing industry from crisis while Britain remained outside the euro. But joining the euro was practically ruled out for at least three years anyway because of the imminence of the general election and the need for a referendum. In the meantime, there was a serious haemorrhaging of jobs for which neither of the feuding wings in the Cabinet had a solution. They clung to the hope that the capitalists would come up with something. Yet the bosses were more interested in the lust for profits even if this resulted in chaos and economic anarchy. Meanwhile, on the ground, the Socialist Party was intervening and reporting about the growing angry mood of workers. In steel making areas one worker described the announcement by Corus to axe 1,500 jobs, most of them in Sheffield and Rotherham, as “all about greed. It’s money, money, money, and profit.” Unemployment in Rotherham was already at 17% and a Sheffield worker commented: “What else is there to do around here? The answer is nowt.”6

Then came the shock announcement that the Peugeot management at its Coventry plant was attempting to implement new working practices involving another speed-up of production. The company was hit by two one-day strikes at the end of July and workers stood firm, maintaining a decision in a third ballot to strike against the arrogant management’s plans; they had pushed workers too far.  The workers were quite conscious of the gains that had been made by the employers: “The greedy Peugeot bosses have seen their profits rise 153% to £455 million… There used to be 450 workers on trim [section], now there’s just 143… The company know we’re not robots… We must be united and resolute to win this battle. If we don’t stop them now our lives will be made intolerable in the future.” The engineering union’s official completely ignored the workers’ feelings, declaring that “‘the company had been very reasonable’, even stopping the track to explain the deal! He went on to warn that investment will be threatened [by strike action].” The workers were fuming. The press picked up his theme: “More pay for less hours – what’s the problem with Peugeot?” They pictured the workers as morons who would “strike if that was really the deal”. The workers expressed their appreciation to the Socialist Party: “With the help of the Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist, we got across why we’ve had enough.”7

A very successful meeting with 80 attending was held by the Coventry Socialist Party in support of the Peugeot workers. A car worker declared at the meeting: “As for the unions, their handling of this issue can only be described as a farce.” Cheering broke out from the Peugeot workers. Another worker announced: “Workers rejected the union recommendation by 86%. Still, they recommended it again. Workers still voted 59% to 41% to strike. The union never articulated the workers’ case, and they and New Labour then tried to silence Socialist councillors,” the Peugeot workers’ real voice. Then they recommended the offer again in another ballot “until they got the result they wanted”.

In other words right-wing union leaders were employing the same methods that the capitalists were adopting on crucial issues for them. For instance, later in the EU  referendum in Ireland they refused to accept the first ballot, which was to reject the measures proposed by the Irish government and the eU, despite the fact that this was the democratic will of the Irish people. Instead, in a new ballot, they pulled out all the stops and eventually got a majority for their proposals. This is capitalist democracy! The lessons were not lost on these Peugeot workers involved in struggle. They condemned New Labour’s snub: “What’s the point of having a local council that can’t even verbally defend local workers against multinational companies? No wonder fewer people vote in elections.”8

Thirty-five people including twelve Peugeot workers attended a Socialist Party branch meeting soon after this meeting. There was general dissatisfaction developing at all levels with the inactivity of the right-wing union leaders. Nigel, a TGWU member for twelve years, wrote: “The gulf between the wishes of the shop floor and the Joint Negotiating Committee has never been so apparent.”9 After the county council’s refusal to discuss a Dave Nellist resolution supporting the Peugeot workers, letters appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph, reprinted in the Socialist under the heading, ‘What about the Workers, Mr Blair?: “Throughout the dispute with the company, Mr Nellist’s party has been the only one to side with the workers… If Labour is refusing to support Mr Nellist and the workers for their own electoral or petty ideological reasons, then Labour does not deserve to run the Council. Keep up the good work Dave!… We need more conviction politicians like Dave Nellist. We need fewer careerists such as those who have found their way into the Labour Party.”10