By Jim Denham
In the end the MG Rover plant at Longbridge closed not with a bang, but a whimper. The factory that in the 1960s and 70s had been a byword for militancy, just lay down and died. Even in 2000, when the previous owners BMW pulled out, there had been angry mass meetings and a huge demonstration through the centre of Birmingham. The few token protests that occurred in April 2005 were pathetic affairs, more like wakes than any sort of serious resistance.
A large part of the blame must be put at the feet of the national union leaders, who had backed the John Towers/Phoenix takeover in 2000 and ever since had been pinning their hopes on a deal with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). They had no "plan B". In 2000 the TGWU's Tony Woodley (then the union's National Automotive officer), had talked about occupying the plant and demanding nationalisation. It was, of course, only talk: as soon as John Towers and the Phoenix consortium appeared on the scene, Woodley and the other union leaders stopped making militant noises and threw their weight behind the white knights who promised to save Rover.
This time Woodley, Simpson (Amicus) and the rest haven't even made militant noises.
But it would be too easy to lay all the blame on the national leaders. They failed to offer any sort of lead but, in truth, it seems doubtful that even with a strong national lead from the unions, there would have been much rank and file response. In 2000 the anger and willingness to fight was palpable, giving calls for an occupation and demands for nationalisation, real resonance. This time there was anger all right - especially when the full extent to which Towers and the other Phoenix bosses had enriched themselves from MG Rover became known. But it was the bitter anger of despair.
With mounting losses, a collapse in sales, the withdrawal of the SAIC lifeline and (finally) the revelation that Phoenix had already sold SAIC the intellectual property rights to the R75 and R25 models, and the K series engine (meaning that the cars could be built in China), the Longbridge plant leadership and the workforce as a whole seemed tired, demoralised and resigned to their fate “ like a punch-drunk fighter who's taken one too many beatings.
Most Longbridge workers would agree that some form of nationalisation represented the only possible future for MG Rover. What they didn't believe was that it was a politically realistic possibility under the present government - despite the fact that in France Renault, Peugeot and the Alstom bus, train and tram company have all been kept in business thanks to massive state aid (a fact that also gives the lie to the Europhobes who claim that EU rules prevent state support to industries).
Woodley and the national leaders certainly deserve criticism for their failure to offer any leadership to Longbridge workers. But the malaise goes deeper than that. This sad episode is the perfect illustration of the need to rebuild effective rank and file trade unionism, armed with political answers to the crisis of British manufacturing.