Hilary Wainwright

The real prospect of a radical, transformative Labour government is awakening the imagination. This hope and the felt need to prepare for the opportunities it open up, is going someway to compensate for the industrial defeats that labour has suffered in the past 40 years.

In this context, to inspire our work over the coming months I think it’s useful to consider an attempt to prefigure in a contemporary struggle, the future that a powerful group of workers envisaged for the future. Does it have any lessons for today’s struggles carried out in the context of a possible radical Labour government?

Back in the 1970s, with unemployment rising and British industry contracting, workers at the arms company Lucas Aerospace came up with a pioneering plan to retain jobs by proposing alternative, socially-useful applications of the company’s technology and their own skills. The ‘Lucas Plan’ remains one of the most radical and forward thinking attempts ever made by workers to take the steering wheel and directly drive the direction of change.

Forty years later, we are facing a convergence of crises: militarism and nuclear weapons, climate chaos and the destruction of jobs by new technologies and automation. These crises mean we have to start thinking about technology as political, as the Lucas Aerospace workers did, and reopen the debate about industrial conversion and economic democracy.

So what are the lessons we can draw from this past experience of ‘ordinary’ people organising and sharing their practical knowledge and skills?

Lesson 1: Find common ground
The shop stewards at the different Lucas Aerospace sites forged collective strength by taking action over basic common issues such as wages and conditions. This served to unite groups of workers with very different traditions and interests.

Lesson 2: Build democracy
Immense care and collective self-reflectiveness was needed to bring such diverse groups into a more or less united organisation. All 35 (or so) delegates had the right to speak at meetings of the multi-union Combine shop stewards committee but decisions on recommendations to be taken back to the workforce were on the basis of ‘one site, one vote’.

Lesson 3: Build alliances and look ahead
Although the Combine won victories, they felt as though they were engaged in a labour of Sisyphus – getting national agreement to halt job losses, only to find jobs were being slashed in different places and not because of decisions of local management. The traditional approach of the trade union movement proved inadequate; instead the Combine produced its own experts and made use of outside help to educate and prepare itself.

Lesson 4: Building collective strategic intelligence.
‘We’re in a situation where politics is unavoidable,’ the Combine executive argued, in Combine News.
They went on to sow the seeds of the alternative plan: ‘We could insist that the skill and talents of our members could be used to the full to engage in socially useful products like monorails and hovercraft, and that these skills are used in a much truer sense in the interests of the nation as a whole.’ This led to the presentation of the case for the nationalisation of Lucas Aerospace to Tony Benn, then secretary of state for industry. He did not have the power to agree to nationalisation, but he suggested that the Combine should draw up an alternative corporate strategy for the company.

‘The only way that we could be involved in a corporate plan would be if we drew it up in a way which challenged the profit motive of the company and talked in terms of social profit,’ argued Combine delegate Mike Cooley. The Combine asked site committees questions aimed to stimulate workers’ imagination: ‘How could the plant be run by the workforce? Are there any socially useful products which your plant could design and manufacture?’ This led to 150 product ideas in six categories: medical equipment, transport vehicles, improved braking systems, energy conservation, oceanics, and telechiric machines.

Today interest in democratic economics is growing
We are in new times for trade union organisation but interest in democratic economics is increasing with the spread of green and solidarity economies, commons-based peer-to-peer production, and grassroots fabrication in ‘hackerspaces’ and ‘fab labs’. All of which has deepened ideas about connecting tacit knowledge and participatory prototyping to the political economy of technology development, as was the case with Lucas.

The lessons from the Lucas plan provide Labour’s proposed arms conversion agency with elements of a methodology for a network of organisations with an understanding of technological development not as a value-neutral process, autonomous from society, but shaped by social choices over its development – choices that the Lucas stewards showed need to become democratic.

This ‘ordinary’ group of workers demonstrated how it was possible to create a democratic economy. It is they, after all, who have the practical knowhow on which that technological development depends.

Hilary Wainwright is Co-editor, Red Pepper: www.redpepper.org.uk (if you don’t yet subscribe why not look at the RED PEPPER PAY-AS-YOU-FEEL SUBSCRIPTION? go to the website and click ‘subscribe’ . Fellow, Transnational Institute:www.tni.org http://www.tni.uk, tel 00447973 215351. Twitter hilarypepper