Shock and bitterness spread throughout Birmingham and the West Midlands as news that Rover was going bust broke on Thursday night last week.
By the weekend the collapse of the car company had become an issue in the general election — as had New Labour’s role in throwing 6,100 workers at the Longbridge plant on the scrapheap. Up to 25,000 more jobs are threatened in the car components industry.
As Socialist Worker went to press Birmingham trades council was set to call a protest for 12 noon, Saturday 16 April at Victoria Square in Birmingham. Wives and partners of Longbridge workers were also set to protest on Wednesday of this week.
“It was like a bomb had gone off when we heard the news—from the media of course,” says Longbridge worker Sana Ullah. “Some people cried. Others couldn’t speak.
“There were men who have given their lives to that company, and now we were told we were going to be out the door. There are people in there who are owed up to £1,000 back pay. They don’t even know if they’ll get that.
“On Friday we were inside watching as representatives of suppliers came round putting stickers on parts and machinery, claiming them.
“It’s sickening. If Labour think they’re going to be getting the votes of Longbridge workers and our families, they’ve got another think coming.”
That feeling goes way beyond Longbridge workers themselves. “I’ve voted Labour all my life, like my parents and grandparents. But not this time,” says Norma Strafford, 74, from Birmingham.
“They are just allowing the industry to be destroyed and then saying it’s nothing to do with them and nothing can be done. Why don’t they renationalise it? They sold Rover for a pittance—they can take it back.
“This government is leaving people with no hope. My three grandchildren are at university. They are starting life thousands of pounds in debt. Labour thinks pensioners like me will be bought off with a winter fuel allowance instead of a decent pension.
“They think men of working age will accept being put on the dole. So whether you are young, middle aged or older, we are all getting it.”
Paul, who has worked at Longbridge for 22 years, says, “Labour are in this right up to their necks.
“Industry minister Patricia Hewitt even rushed out the announcement that the company was going into receivership so that the news would be overshadowed by the pope’s funeral.”
The Department of Trade and Industry has indicated that there might be an investigation into Rover management’s handling of the company.
But it was New Labour minister Stephen Byers who five years ago brokered the deal to hand Longbridge to John Towers and the “Phoenix Four” for just £10.
The government, under intense pressure over the threatened closure, congratulated itself at the time and claimed credit for saving jobs.
Since then the four West Midlands businessmen who took over have bled the company dry, making £40 million in personal fortunes.
They have allowed the Rover workers’ pension fund to go into deficit while they have salted away £17 million for bumper pension payouts to executives.
They have already sold off key Rover assets. They’ve flogged intellectual property rights for just £67 million, diminishing the value of the hard assets that remain.
“All this was done without a peep from the government,” says Andrew McGrath, who has worked at Landrover in Solihull for 25 years and who now fears for his job.
“Then when it came to a deal for the Chinese to take over the plant the government was reluctant to part with a £100 million loan for that to go through. Well, they can always find money when it suits them.
“They found money for the war in Iraq—why not money to save jobs in the West Midlands? And they are still spending millions on keeping hold of Iraq. In Europe they step in to save jobs, why not here?
“I believe it wouldn’t cost much to take over Longbridge anyway. They sold it for a tenner. Paying a tenner to get it back seems only right.
“All those commentators on the telly who say there’s no point because no one wants to buy Rover cars are missing the point. There are thousands of workers with skills and there’s the equipment to make all sorts of things at Longbridge. Public transport is appalling. Why can’t Longbridge be used to solve that?”
For more on Longbridge see Take to the streets at Longbridge