Robin Murray obituary
Robin Murray, who has died aged 76, advocated and implemented new forms of social and economic organisation by applying humanist principles to practical experience. In Britain and internationally he sought to tease out of today’s structures clues for a more equitable tomorrow.
He wanted to get beyond Fordism – industrialised mass production and mass consumption – and neoliberalism, with its emphasis on the private sector and free trade. As chief economic adviser to the Greater London council (1981-86), Robin led a team working for an inclusive, democratic economy. Their London Industrial Strategy involved trade unionists and user groups in economic planning, invested in child care and adult education, developed cultural and creative industries, gave a boost to co-operatives and other social enterprises, and helped set up the London Food Commission, whose work included the study of additives and the effects of food poverty.
Learning from the small-scale enterprises of Emilia-Romagna, the region of Italy with Bologna at its centre, his team encouraged networks of decentralised production units with an emphasis on flexible specialisation, particularly in the furniture industry. This was the enabling state in action.
The influence of this approach went far beyond London and outlived the GLC, led by Ken Livingstone and abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1986. Ever enthusiastic about local democracy, Robin advised a consortium of local authorities that produced the South East Economic Development Strategy, which contributed to the 1997 Labour government setting up Regional Development Agencies.
Drawing on his GLC experience, Robin wrote for Marxism Today on Benetton Britain (1985) and Life After Henry (Ford) (1988) – explaining the post-Fordist transformation of the production process to the wider left. Aware of the widening gap between the market’s winners and losers, Robin argued that the new technological and organisational forms of production could facilitate democratic self-management and collaborative creativity, and help the transition to democratic socialism. Guided by Bertolt Brecht’s maxim that “truth is in the concrete”, he organised a series of initiatives “in the interests of labour rather than of capital”. Self-realisation for the marginalised and exploited, for women, for the young, was at the heart of his mission.
In 1985, with Michael Barratt Brown, Robin founded the Third World Information Network (Twin), a trading organisation designed to ensure economic equity for producers in a global market, and of which he was a director for 20 years. Out of Twin came the trailblazing fair trade brands Cafédirect and Divine Chocolate. In 2008, in Kerala, southwest India, at a global assembly of Liberation Nuts, and in defiance of the company’s perilous financial condition, Robin’s voice boomed out to 3,000 farmers: “We are about people and community.”
Liberation Nuts lives on, the Twin group of companies now acts as a trading and marketing arm for more than 300,000 small farmers, and fair trade sales in the UK in 2016 totalled £1.65bn. It all began with Twin importing cigars from Cuba and rocking chairs from Nicaragua.
From 1994 Robin worked for two years with the province of Ontario. He brought Canadian expertise in sustainability back to England, founding the London Pride Waste Action Programme, which started pilot schemes showing how cost-effective and popular recycling can be with new methods and technologies. Across England recycling rates soared.
His book Creating Wealth from Waste (1999) was followed by the Greenpeace report Zero Waste (2002), in which he argued that product design for repeated use was as important as recycling. His achievements in redirecting UK waste policy led the Guardian to identify him in 2008 as one of the “50 people who could save the planet”.
With the deputy mayor of London he worked to establish the London Climate Change Agency in 2005, and two years later a green homes advice service. For the Young Foundation he co-authored The Open Book of Social Innovation (2010), a worldwide survey and investigation into ways new technology could reduce carbon footprints, sustain health and alleviate poverty – work premised on the belief that only globally equitable approaches would avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change.
His teaching at Schumacher College in Dartington, south Devon, deepened his connection to ecology through economics, combining his knowledge and love of farming and his faith in a sustainable future. More recently he focused on work with co-operatives, believing that they were the appropriate institutional form for a human-centred 21st-century economy.
Born in Westmorland (now part of Cumbria), Robin was the son of Stephen Murray and his wife Margaret (nee Gillett), who had a strong Quaker background and in the 1930s were communists. In 1951, his father dropped his legal career and moved his family from Hampstead, north London, to a hill farm in Cumberland, where his sons worked in the school holidays. At Bedales school, Hampshire, he met Frances Herdman, later an artist; together they went to Oxford, where Robin studied history at Balliol College, and married in 1965.
After postgraduate studies at the College of Europe in Bruges, and at the London School of Economics (LSE), Robin taught at the London Business School. For the May Day Manifesto (1968), edited by Raymond Williams, he drafted an alternative economic strategy that became a central issue on the left in Britain in the 1970s.
From 1972 to 1993 Robin worked at the Institute for Development Studies at Sussex University, and subsequently at the LSE. He advised governments and civil associations in Jamaica, Ethiopia, Honduras, and most recently the Syriza government in Greece. In 1980 he helped establish a new educational system for the then socialist government in the Seychelles. To all his activities he brought optimism, warmth, curiosity and good humour.
He is survived by Frances, his daughters, Marika and Bethany, grandson, Joseph, and brothers, Alexander and Hubert.
Robin Murray, industrial and environmental economist, born 14 September 1940; died 29 May 2017