Obituary: Ernest Roberts
Wednesday 31 August 1994
TO tens of thousands of members of the trade-union and Labour movement, Ernest Roberts was a highly respected, indeed a revered figure. This quietly spoken, handsome, smartly dressed man played an important part in the massive Amalgamated Engineering Union, as its Assistant General Secretary for 20 years, after working for 25 years as an engineer and as an AEU shop steward in Coventry's biggest firms. He was also active on the City Council and was elected Labour MP for Hackney North in 1979; he was 67 at the time and the oldest new-entry MP since the Second World War.
Throughout his life Ernie Roberts was on the left of the Labour movement. Unlike some other leaders who forgot their original causes when they obtained office, Roberts adhered to them till the day he died. He played a prominent part in the Anti-Nazi League, the Movement for Colonial Freedom, CND, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, unemployed and workers' control organisations, and also many left- wing groups within the Labour Party, such as Victory for Socialism and the Bevanites. He often spoke from their platforms (sometimes to audiences of as many as 80,000) despite the hostility of certain right-wing AEU executive members, in whose office he worked as AGS.
Throughout his workshop life Roberts was blacklisted and dismissed by most of his employers. After that he was witch-hunted by Conservative newspaper proprietors and by right-wingers in the industrial and political movement. But he was a fighter: when he was attacked he counter-attacked. On one occasion his firm could not sack him as his fellow workers would have have walked out on strike. Instead, the manager built a wire cage for him on the factory floor as the only way to separate him from them.
This and other lively experiences are described in Roberts's 308-page autobiography, Strike Back, which will be published next week. There are forewords by Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill. It was his sixth and last book.
He won a scholarship as a boy to Shrewsbury School of Art, but he did not take it. He started work down the pit at the age of 13 in order to help keep and feed his seven brothers and sisters who grew in number each year until there were 10. He had to walk five miles to the colliery every morning and five miles back at night. 'It also made life very uncomfortable for me when the weather was cold or wet, arriving at work in broken boots, without a coat, and then having to work through the day without a change of clothing. Curiously enough,' he writes 'it was this, rather than the General Strike, which impressed me as being my first experience of comradeship among workers.'
In his formative years Roberts joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, from which he was expelled in 1941. The CPGB, he held, took the line that, while the war against Fascism continued, the class struggle should be held in abeyance. He believed that the employers were taking advantage of the war to engage in profiteering and exploiting their employees. The class struggle should be fought alongside the anti-Fascist war. Otherwise the workers would suffer setbacks which would take years to overcome once the war had ended.
Roberts joined the Labour Party as a devoted but critical member. What especially irked him (along with many others in the rank and file) was the failure of some elected leaders to respect and campaign for decisions taken by the annual delegate conference. As a leading engineer he took part in a Labour Party committee chaired by the late Ian Mikardo MP which planned alternative work for redundant arms workers. The Labour government of that day did not act on its report.
That, of course, was not a conference decision, but he was also angered when several policies, such as cutting arms spending to the proportionate level of the other European Nato countries, which were carried overwhelmingly by conference, were also rejected by Parliamentary leaders. 'Until party conference decisions are made binding on Labour governments,' he said, 'much good work will be intended by rank-and-file members at conference only to be politely ignored when the party gets into office.'
Nevertheless Roberts held that socialists should join the Labour Party. 'None of the so-called 'revolutionary parties' ', he contended, 'contains the miracle ingredient which is in the hands of the Labour Party: the confidence of an average 12 million voters, most of them working-class.' 'What's the point, ' he would say, 'of starting again from scratch? Far better to work inside this Party to bring it back to the socialist principles which the founders wrote into the constitution, and elect a leadership which will for the first time carry out the decisions of its
He asserted that the working people are not yet ready for a revolution, even of a minor kind: without a step-by-step progress of small victories the working class will never see that it is strong enough to break the old system and substitute the new. He believed change must come from the mass of people as the result of a constant process of political learning through their own experience.
Ernie Roberts was a very serious man, but he could tell plenty of stories at his own expense. He recounts in his autobiography being approached by a lady who asked him: 'You're Ernie Roberts, aren't you?'
'I remember you well. You were living in Coventry when you were on the council, and my husband often talked about you.'
'Indeed?' (Politely with an inner glow of satisfaction.)
'Oh, yes', he was always saying: 'That bloody Roberts]' '
Much of Ernie Roberts's lifelong struggle could not have been sustained without the ceaseless efforts of his wife Joyce. She and her daughter will be present with many supporters at a meeting which was intended to launch his book next week but will now also commemorate those efforts.
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