The Workers Are Restless: From the City of the Full Monty Comes the Forgotten Rumble of Revolt, as the Shop Floor Sends "The Man from Nowhere" to Lead One of Britain's Top Unions. Robert Taylor Reports on an Industrial Earthquake. (Cover Story)
Taylor, Robert, New Statesman (1996)
Derek Simpson has brought about an earthquake in the British labour movement. "People ask me: what has changed? I reply: everything." Simpson's victory over Tony Blair's favourite union leader, Sir Ken Jackson, to head the country's largest manufacturing trade union, Amicus (the former AEEU), has transformed industrial politics. "I am the right wing's ultimate nightmare. I am the man from nowhere," he declares.
Nobody should be in any doubt about his left-wing, indeed socialist, credentials. "I can't stand injustice. It burns in me. I want to cry out from the rooftops." He is unimpressed by the trappings of national power. "I don't care about chauffeur-driven cars, expense-account lunches, plush hotels. I am here to voice the views of the workers represent." But unlike many of the other young militants coming to the top in the union movement, Simpson's outlook is formed by long, hard years in the wilderness. At 58, he is, he says, "a mature student".
He has spent his entire life in Sheffield, once the steel capital of the world. The birthplace of Roy Hattersley and David Blunkett, it is known for its high-minded municipal socialism; its council fell to Labour as early as 1926. But Simpson's outlook was shaped by the remarkable cadre of shop stewards who dominated the city's engineering firms in the postwar years. Most were communists and it came naturally to the young Simpson to join their party. He insists: "It was the industrial appeal of communism and not its political side that attracted me. Everything the stewards told me made sense." This was never a mindless militancy. Paul Allender, a labour historian, explains that, in Sheffield, "the trade unions and the Communist Party did not in any way attempt to wreck industrial organisation. Instead, they enhanced the efficiency of companies by disciplining the workforce and by contributing a sense of pride in the job."
As a skilled craftsman at Firth Brown Tools, the young Simpson worked his way up the shop-floor union hierarchy. In the late 1970s, for three years in succession, in the dying period of the Callaghan government's social contract with the TUC, he was elected to serve on the national committee of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. He became a full-time elected AEU district official in 1981, in succession to the veteran communist George Caborn, father of the current sports minister. He drifted out of the Communist Party before the fall of the Berlin Wall because "it lost its industrial relevance". His own union had already turned decisively to the right after the retirement of the AEU president Hugh Scanlon in 1978; and Simpson found himself part of a dwindling band of leftwingers, clinging to what looked like an increasingly obsolete tradition of class war.
He came to local power at the very moment that Sheffield's industrial base plunged into irreversible decline. "All I saw after 1981 was a world in retreat," he says. Local firms closed, thousands of workers lost their jobs and the intricate network of shop-floor power that had lasted since the 1920s fell apart. The film The Full Monty became the symbol of the city's plight. Simpson's Sheffield redoubt became a left-wing backwater in a union where the national leadership was dominated by the West Midlands and Scotland.
In 1992, the AEU merged with the EETPU (the right-wing electricians' and plumbers' union), becoming the AEEU. Drastic internal reforms ended the tradition of elected local officials and district committees where shop stewards had wielded authority; power was centralised more and more at head office in Kent, eventually under Jackson's leadership. Two years ago, Simpson's Sheffield office was shut down and moved to Derby as part of a rationalisation scheme. He saw it as a move to marginalise him, but perhaps it was the application of such Leninist principles of democratic centralism that ultimately allowed him to defeat Jackson. …