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International Socialism, February 1975


Notes of the Month

‘Fordisation’ at British Leyland


From International Socialism, No.75, February 1975, p.5.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Granville Williams writes: Wedgewood Benn’s proposals for government intervention in industry, and the involvement of workers in ‘decision making’ in company planning, in the White paper, The Regeneration of British Industry, will come before Parliament in late February.

However, the financial crisis in British Leyland has forced both the government and British Leyland to jump the gun and attempt to implement some of the White Paper’s ideas. These are, broadly, in three areas.

The first is the development of planning agreements on a two-three year duration to ‘bring about a closer understanding between companies – workforce as well as management – and the government on the aims to be followed and the plans to be adopted in pursuit of them.’ On the basis of such agreements the government would make finance available to firms in key sectors of the manufacturing industry. Multinational companies will be included only in respect of their British holdings. Trade unionists must be involved in ‘continuing discussion’ and ‘consultation’.

If the two areas of planning agreements and workers’ participation are vague, the proposal for a National Enterprise Board and its scope is very specific – ‘It will have the former Industrial Reorganisation Corporation’s role in promoting industrial efficiency and profitability by promoting the reorganisation or development of an industry.’ The NEB will be a source of investment capital for industry but the criteria for such cash will be stringent.

In what has happened to British Leyland we can see something of a trial run for the way Wedgewood Benn’s scheme will operate generally. Certainly, BL is a company in a key area of the economy and not one the government could allow to go to the wall. Harold Wilson made it clear in his speech to his Huyton constituents on Friday, Jan 3rd that government backing meant workers toeing the line by not striking or putting in ‘unrealistic’ wage demands. The press, in its usual way, highlighted Wilson’s speech even though he revealed an ignorance of the real reasons for BL’s failure to produce enough cars. Carworkers are always convenient whipping boys for the politicians.

The Ryder enquiry will of course operate under the strict criteria laid down for it, and its personnel will see that it does. These include Stanley Gillen, ex-head of Ford of Europe who will presumably argue for changing from the present set-up in BL where individual plants have the power to negotiate wages and conditions to a Ford style of operation where wage negotiations are centralised and deals run for two years. This method weakens shop floor power and puts it more into the hands of trade union officials. The results show in the comparison between the wages of Ford and BL workers. Another man on the Ryder enquiry is ‘Freddie’ McWhirter, an accountant specialising in insolvency work, recently with the Court Line business.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect to Wedgewood Benn’s proposals is the idea of ‘consultation’ and BL management have eagerly seized on it. On Friday, Jan 10th over 400 trade union representatives of BL’s blue and white collar unions met management at Austin, Longbridge. They, and the rest of the 160,000 odd workforce, are being subjected to a massive propaganda exercise which unless resisted can only lead to a serious weakening of shop floor independence and power.

Pat Lowry, Director of Industrial Relations, presented his document for a national assembly of BL trade unionists and management meeting to discuss the Company’s plans on a twice yearly basis, an ‘inner cabinet’ involved in continuous discussion and divisional councils meeting as a middle layer in the structure. Cowry acknowledges in his document the main theme of his scheme is along the lines of the White paper.

BL trade unionists need a clear policy in relation both to the Ryder enquiry and BL’s consultation plans. The need for this is urgent. John Barber, managing director, insisted there can be no guarantees on redundancy at the Jan 10th conference. If the Ryder enquiry does recommend re-organisation and rationalisation there will be a double threat to jobs. In this situation collaboration with BL management to solve their problems will be fatal. The trade union movement and shop stewards committees need to maintain their clear and definite independence around a fighting policy which would include the demands:

Finally, it needs stressing that the Labour government’s White paper has a dubious ancestry. George Brown’s National Plan of 1965, the Industrial Reorganisation Commission and the Regeneration of British Industry have one central ingredient – all were constructed to operate clear capitalist priorities of increasing investment and profit with jobs and wages seen as the disposable elements. The experience of the GEC/AEI merger under the ’64-’70 Labour government underlines this. We have been warned.

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