Obituary: Trade unionist Bob Gillespie dies at the age of 84

The lifelong socialist has been described as a 'true old Labour guy who stuck to his principles'.

Bob Gillespie: Trade unionist and dad of Primal Scream frontman dies at age of 84 Getty Images

The term ‘old school’ could have been coined for Bob Gillespie, the trade unionist and lifelong socialist who has died at the age of 84.

The STUC said that Gillespie was a ‘credit to our movement’ and Glasgow Labour councillor Frank McAveety recalled his ‘generosity of spirit and his profound understanding of solidarity and the positive role trade unions play in society’.

The SNP MSP James Dornan wrote on Twitter that Gillespie was “a true old Labour guy, one who always stuck to his principles”.

He added: “He’ll be missed.”

Former Scottish Labour Party chairman Bob Thomson said: “I first met Bob in the late 1970s when he was Glasgow secretary of SOGAT.

“The print unions were powerful because of the closed shop and wages were high. He was a working class guy who never forgot his roots.”

The trade union movement was his first love and he represented workers with a dogged determination and a matter-of-fact pragmatism which meant he was always in touch with the rank and file. Bob Thomson describes him as a competent national negotiator.

He attempted to become an MP but had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Labour’s hierarchy unfairly scapegoated Gillespie when the party lost the rock solid constituency of Glasgow Govan to the SNP in the now famous by-election of November 1988.

At the height of controversy over the introduction of the Poll Tax, Gillespie, who was sympathetic to the concept of a non-payment campaign, stumbled in a by-election which was won by the SNPs Jim Sillars. He fought the contest on a platform of ‘can pay, won’t pay’ the hated levy.

Labour changed their selection rules following the defeat which catapulted the highly articulate Sillars to Parliament on a swing of 33%.

Had this been a general election and not a by-election then the chances are that Gillespie would have arrived at Westminster.

He was actually rather good at talking to voters. He was direct and warm and understood instinctively the issues faced by working class electors in the southside constituency.

His problem was that his natural personality was imprisoned by minders who tried to school him in a manner that demanded he play against type.

The media mocked the fact he had ‘Hong Kong’ tattooed on his knuckles, the result of a prank during his navy days.

His disastrous ramblings on an STV candidates programme sealed his fate. The result reignited support for the SNP.

It would be wrong to analyse Gillespie’s contribution to the Labour movement through the searing defeat in Govan, although the contest left a mark on him but never dimmed his commitment which was from the heart.

He rarely talked of the defeat but told The Guardian in 2015, ‘that was six weeks, seven weeks of my life. I went back to work’.

Employment was representing workers. Gillespie was a full time official of the trade union SOGAT which represented print workers at a time of revolutionary change in the newspaper industry.

His tenacity made an enemy of both Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell but he would never be intimidated for Gillespie was as hard as any vessel that was Clyde built.

He was active during the Wapping dispute of 1986 which ultimately led to a defeat for the Unions, hard on the heels of a similar outcome in the miners’ strike of 1984/85.

He loved music and crooned naturally although it was on the folk scene in the 1960s that Gillespie would be found even venturing the opinion that one Billy Connolly would never make a singer. Singings loss was comedy’s gain.

The musical bent ran in the family. His son is Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie.

Primal Scream frontman Bobby Gillespie is the son of the late trade unionist Bob Gillespie. Getty Images

Bob was a throwback to an age when trade union leaders were household names and when politics crackled with debate. Gillespie was at home in this ideological hot house and his blunt manner left no one in doubt where he stood on the issues of the day.

This was also an age of hard drinking although Bob would give this up and in his later years would be found analysing events over an Irn Bru, normally in the Clutha or Scotia bars which are citadels of articulate if folksy left-wing debate.

He had an acute charitable sense too and helped raise over £1m for children scarred by the Chernobyl disaster.

Bob Gillespie was a good man who made his mark and never wavered in his trying to do right by the less fortunate. His practical socialism stands tall and more significant than his unfortunate by election candidacy in his native city nearly 35 years ago.

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