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Bob Gillespie (1937-2023)

The lessons Bob Gillespie learnt in the tenements of 1930s Glasgow inspired a remarkable life dedicated to improving workers’ lives here and across the world. He was one of Scotland's finest socialists.

‘Class struggle,’ Bob Gillespie was fond of saying, ‘is 24 hours a day, seven days a week.’ It was a lesson he learned in his poverty-stricken childhood, during national service as a bombardier in Hong Kong, and as a printshop labourer fighting for a somewhat shorter week of 40 hours. And he held to it till his dying day, supporting workers in struggle, fighting for a socialist Labour Party and evangelising the cause of the working class to anyone who would listen.

I first met Bob in 2018 to interview him for Tribune on the 30th anniversary of the Govan by-election, which he had contested unsuccessfully for Labour in 1988. Our meeting was at one of his regular haunts in retirement: Minnesota Fats, a pool hall on the southside of Glasgow. Bob, who had given up drinking decades before, could be found here on a daily basis, sitting in front of two—always two—cans of sugar-free Irn Bru. There he would regale neighbours and comrades old and young with tales of the heyday of Britain’s labour movement.

As a member of the Young Socialists, Bob had listened to Willie Gallacher, a Red Clydesider and Britain’s last Communist MP, espouse the ills of capitalism. In the 1960s, he had been a leading Scottish voice in the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, a group inspired by Martin Luther King’s visit to London in 1964. During the 1984-85 miners’ strike, he worked closely with Mick McGahey to raise thousands of pounds for miners and their families. And as a national official of the printworkers’ union SOGAT, he had played a key role in the Wapping dispute.

Bob’s 1930s childhood was one of ‘a feral kid on the streets’, his son Bobby, the frontman of Primal Scream, wrote in his memoir Tenement Kid. ‘Teachers would humiliate him because he would be wearing rags, no underpants, holes in the arse of his trousers, and the teacher would parade him in front of the whole class, compare him to the best dressed boy, point at the holes in his trousers then make him stand in the corner facing the wall and encourage the class to laugh at him.’

Looked after by his older sister, Bob spent his early years sleeping on the floors of other families’ tenement flats in Kingston, near Glasgow’s shipbuilding district. Evacuated to the countryside during the Second World War, Bob ‘went and sat by the river in the woods, picked berries and felt like Tom Sawyer,’ Bobby wrote. In spite of—or perhaps because of—his experience of school, Bob developed a love of reading and cinema, which he sought to impart to his sons Bobby and Graham. His bookshelves included not just political tracts but Austen and Dickens, his records ranging from Ray Charles to the Dubliners via Bob Dylan.

After the army, Bob became a print worker at book publisher Collins in Glasgow, working alongside his first wife, Wilma. He became a branch secretary in SOGAT and rose through to ranks, eventually becoming a national officer at union HQ, before taking on the same position at the Graphical, Paper and Media Union following SOGAT’s merger with the National Graphical Association in 1991.

As a negotiator, Bob was famous for insisting on the presence of shop stewards in negotiations. During his own time in the rank and file, he would seek local uplifts above national agreements, deploying his extensive knowledge of labour history and avuncular personality to outmanoeuvre bosses. On one occasion, his friend Sammy Morris quipped in a tribute at Bob’s funeral, he even won an extra tin of Whiskas every week for the works cat.

By the time Bruce Millan resigned as Labour MP for Govan in 1988, Bob had ‘been around the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Labour party in Scotland fixing things for years,’ the New Statesman opined. He defeated the Kinnock leadership’s favourite, Anne McGuire (later a Blairite MP in Stirling), for the candidacy and immediately faced pressure to toe the line over the defining issue of the day: the Poll Tax. Bob was defiantly in favour of non-payment, but Kinnock, in naïve desperation to fend off tabloid attacks on the ‘loony left’, insisted that ‘lawmakers must not be law-breakers’. The resurgent Scottish National Party had no such internal differences and positioned itself firmly on the side of resisting the initiative, which was being rolled out in Scotland a year before its introduction south of the border.

The reaction of right-wing papers to Bob’s selection was a predictable display of class prejudice. ‘LABOUR PINS HOPES ON TATTOOED KNUCKLE-HEAD’, the Sun bellowed: Bob had, after all, the words ‘HONG KONG’ tattooed across his knuckles, a legacy of a drunken night during national service. More jarring was the hostility of the Daily Record, Scotland’s premier Labour-supporting tabloid, to his campaign. The Record was part of Robert Maxwell’s media empire, and Bob maintained that Maxwell feared he would use parliamentary privilege to expose his dodgy dealings.

‘Although Bob Gillespie was as left-wing as I was, he was put in a cage by the Labour leadership in London,’ his victorious SNP opponent Jim Sillars recalled when I interviewed him about the by-election. Bob insisted that Kinnock and London were not at fault and that the real obstruction came from the Scottish party, including from future First Minister Donald Dewar. He would not be the last Labour activist to realise that in spite of appearances and nationalist narratives, the Scottish party’s hierarchy can be well to the right of even the most desperately sycophantic UK leaders.

After an overwhelming defeat in Govan, Bob returned to union work and led efforts to raise over £1 million for children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. But he remained active in Labour Party politics, becoming famous for his prowess in erecting corex boards during election campaigns and seeking the de-selection of right-wing Labour MP Tom Harris, who, after his defeat in 2015, would become a right-wing journalist and Conservative Party supporter. Bob was a steadfast supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Leonard in the leadership of the UK and Scottish parties, and while some older Labour activists shied away from the label, he would proudly announce to newcomers at party meetings: ‘We are the Corbynistas.’ When right-wingers got up to speak, he would offer a running commentary on their past antics, gratefully received by whoever was sitting next to him—including, on at least one occasion, me.

Shortly after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bob was knocked down by a bicycle on Cathcart Road, his local high street, and never—much to his frustration—recovered his mobility. But to his friends, family, visitors and carers, his spirit was undiminished, and his determination for a better world unhindered. They don’t, after all, call it the struggle for nothing.