Born in 1912 in Shrewsbury and the son of a soldier, Ernest Roberts was unable to take up a scholarship at the College of Art as he was required to take up work at the age of 13. He worked briefly as a miner in Coventry prior to the 1926 General Strike but spent most of his working life in the engineering industry. Indeed, he spent most of his life blacklisted by a number of engineering companies throughout the West Midlands. He worked for Armstrong Siddeley, Humber, Triumph, Rootes and many others.
He was influenced politically by the treatment afforded to soldiers after the First World War, the General Strike and the operation of the Poor Law. During the General Strike, and at the age of 14, he became the family's breadwinner. He participated in the 1924 General Election when Labour stood in Shrewsbury for the first time. At the age of 20 he spent some time in prison, taking the blame for an offence committed by his father.
Ernie joined the Young Communist League in 1932, the Communist Party in 1934 and was active in fighting fascism in the 1930s. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1941 on the grounds that he believed that the class war should not be suspended for the duration of the war. He fought this expulsion for two years, despite having joined the Labour Party in the meantime. He wrote: "You can expel me from the Communist Party, but you can't expel me from the working class - it doesn't belong to you."
After the Second World War, Ernie was denied the chance to stand in the 1945 General Election and was both blacklisted by employers and in dispute with the Union hierarchy. As a local councillor in Coventry he was involved in the post-war reconstruction of the city.
In 1957 he left Coventry to become an Assistant General Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and following his suspension from that post he took the Union to the High Court in 1961.
Ernie actively supported CND, workers' control, the right to work and human rights throughout his political life and was a co-founder of the Anti Nazi League in 1977. He fought for the Labour Party to respect conference decisions and was often in dispute with the leadership. He finally became an MP in 1979, winning Hackney North despite considerable local and national vilification during the campaign. Although he worked hard for the constituency, he wrote that "there is no sense of power in the job, only an awareness of limitations", and he was disillusioned by lack of democratic accountability in the Labour Party. He records in his autobiography - Strike Back - a late-night exchange in the Commons with Joan Maynard MP, "I'm going home - I can't find the Labour Party in here." He was subsequently deselected in favour of Diane Abbott.
Ernie was a deeply serious person; he once said that there is "no Ernie Roberts aside from his politics", and that sense of seriousness was emphasised by his lifelong teetotalism and non-smoking. Arthur Scargill wrote that he embodied "the enduring principles on which the British trade union and Labour movement was built."
Ernie Roberts, 1912-1994
Resources about Ernie Roberts in the Library colleciton
The Library holds 31 boxes of Ernie Roberts's papers, plus:
- Britain needs jobs: Britain needs Labour (no date)
- Coventry city council municipal elections 1955 Labour offers you not only a vision of tomorrow (1955)
- Ernie Roberts Labour candidate Hackney North and Stoke Newington (1979)
- Hackney needs better hospitals: Hackney needs Labour (no date)
- Hackney pensioners need a better deal: Hackney needs Labour (no date)
- Introducing Ernest Roberts (no date)
- A message from your Labour candidate - Hackney needs Labour (no date)
- New priorities for Orpington (no date)
- Vote Labour Ernest Roberts (no date)
- Women will win with Labour (no date)
Books and pamphlets
Democracy in the engineering union by Edmund Frow, Ruth Frow and Ernie Roberts (1982) – Shelfmark: Q26D
Strike back (1994) – Shelfmark: Q20
Workers' control (1973) – Shelfmark: B33