From International Socialism 2 : 8, Spring 1980, pp. 105–109.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
It has become clear that the SWP has decided that workers’ alternative plans are a diversion from the revolutionary strategy, although some individual Party members hold an opposing view. Apart from some rhetorical statements in Socialist Worker, the only sustained critique that I and the Lucas Aerospace stewards know of, is the recent article by Dave Albury in International Socialism 2:6. This comment is intended to contribute to the honest debate over alternative plans called for in that article.
The constitution of a strategy titled ‘alternative plans’ by Albury is remarkably a-historical and non-materialist. A rich, often contradictory, and complex history of struggle of thousands of workers over the past five years or so is crassly put together, including cooperatives for some reason, to form a straw person. None of us directly involved in some of these struggles presume any a priori coherence; few if any of the Lucas stewards consider that they have anything in common with the Singer workforce for instance. And as Albury knows, there is a debate about alternative plans, he recently attended a Conference held by us titled Workers’ Plans: Cutting Edge or Slippery Slope? and certainly in Lucas Aerospace there is a continual appraisal and reappraisal of tactics and strategy.
In the same issue of International Socialism, Jonathan Bearman argues the need for some alternative to the Bennite Left, and the requirement to mobilize workers in opposition to this and Callaghan-type incorporation is vividly expressed by the workers’ recent experiences in BL, BSC, Rolls Royce, and many others besides. Bearman complains that the SWP is too small for this task, and maintains that the CP is in decline and disarray, yet he offers no alternative. Similarly, Albury can only reiterate the need for an organised working class, which can create a society in which workers can decide on policies about what is to be made, under what social relations and so on.
Yet it is precisely because the Bennite Left failed to deliver the goods in 1974/5 that the Lucas Aerospace stewards felt they had to create an alternative. Demands for nationalisation, a high level of wage militancy, occupations etc. had failed to prevent massive job losses, the break-up of multi-union work organisations, management attacks on the Combine, de-skilling and so on – this was why an alternative was proposed.
Albury correctly states that the Lucas plan did not come out of the blue or from a Welsh commune, but fails to account for the reasons why such a strategy emerged. It is insufficient to place the experience of job loss, proletarianisation of white collar workers, and something called the Alternative Technology Movement into a triumvirate determination of the Lucas plan. For instance, the SWP demand for occupation and nationalisation was already in the collective experience of the Lucas Aerospace workers and was rejected as inadequate to the material problems of the workforce’ The form of struggle which emerged from these experiences, the alternative plan was a far more subtle process than Albury allows for.
The Plan had to address concrete threats to jobs, caused not simply by a downturn in demand (as Albury states), but primarily by capital restructuring, which continues to the present. The plan also had to define extensions to collective bargaining, for instance in the field of work organisation. In addition it had to try to create industrial relations conditions more unfavourable to a company management that seemed capable of overreaching wage militancy and occupations, by increasing the unpredictability of the workforce response to restructuring, rationalisation and redundancy. It had to create and sustain a relatively high level of shop and office mobilisation if it was to provide any sort of effective challenge. It had to find ways of politicizing that mobilization beyond Benn or Callaghan. And it had to form a coherence in order for it to be visible and to be discussed by workers in Lucas Aerospace and elsewhere.
Many of the production proposals created demands which could not be met. In January 1976 the Combine clearly stated that Lucas (under some form of dual or workers’ control) could never be ‘an island of responsibility in a sea of depravity’, they were and still are anxious to combine with others, both for the development of linked demands, and for a much wider mobilization. The Lucas plan struggle has also made explicit the appropriation by management of knowledge and information produced by or via the labour process; rather than going ‘cap in hand’ to management for information (usually presented in an alien form), they present their own labour process knowledge to management as a challenge. This process of reappropriation, the development of more unpredictable responses, is based on the original Plan concept, but has extended it into a continuous struggle; the original Plan, launched in January 1976, and up to a year earlier in other forms, has a material existence, but the tactical and strategic decisions and actions that have emerged since cannot be analysed solely within the confines of the original plan.
Few of these issues are raised by Albury, instead he makes a critique on the basis of a supposed failure in its intentions, on its diversionary characteristics in respect of mobilization and combination, and on its purported cooption by liberal and Left reformism.
The Plan has in fact succeeded in its opposition to job loss. Some 5,000 workers were made redundant between 1970 and the development of the plan, only a little over 1,000 jobs have been lost in the last four years, a significant reduction in the rate, despite the fact that the company have tried to cut 4,000 jobs between 1977 and 1979. Since the latest restructuring proposals were announced in March 1978, some 50 jobs have been lost, not 1,500 as Albury states.
The Combine has supposedly dropped out of the vanguard on health and safety and anti-racism issues since the launch of the plan. But it is Albury that has put them in the vanguard, an illogical argument. The Combine is also accused of diverting and reducing wage militancy, whereas, for instance, numerous lock-outs and industrial actions occurred on wages during summer 1979. If the Lucas Aerospace white collar workers have not struck advanced wages bargains in the past few years, most of the blame can be attributed to TASS, the bargaining agent, which itself has consistently tried to undermine the Combine’s power and organisation; there is significant discontent over TASS’s performance in Lucas Aerospace.
Albury also maintains that the plan strategy has reduced mobilization and support for the Combine. But despite vigorous attempts by the company to split the Combine, with the aid of a number of union officials in the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (a documented fact), the Combine survives. Admittedly it is weaker than it was before it was operated on by the CSEU, but it is still capable of mounting powerful attacks on the company, and of organising rank and file members in 13 unions – itself a major achievement. Bearing in mind the scale of attacks on it, if the plan had been as diversionary as is suggested no union combination would now exist in Lucas Aerospace.
It is asserted that the plan could form a pillar of Left reformism over the next few years, although this assertion is not supported by argument or material fact. It is only ‘substantiated’ by implication, by allusions to support given to the plan by bodies such as the CSEU, TUC, TASS, APEX, the Labour Party, and the CP. As well as being an oversimplified argument, the facts point to the very reverse. The Confed has been used by the company to break up the Combine. The TUC was unable or unwilling to help, supposedly because the employer representatives on the relevant Neddy refused to consider the issue. TASS for instance recently prevented some Lucas Aerospace TASS stewards from attending a conference on alternative plans. The General Secretary of APEX led the CSEU’s attempts to muzzle the Combine and its alternative plan. The Labour Party was embarrassed into supporting the plan, but this culminated in a Conference Resolution, and no other support was received from the Party. And the CP has not been averse to reprimanding Lucas stewards for their attacks on Gill, or ensuring that stewards and others associated with the plan are excluded from certain CP publications.
Surely it is naive to equate rhetorical support with material support, yet this is the basis of Albury’s contention that the plan is incorporated. The plan lies outside, and in opposition to the incorporation of the unions into the administration of capitalism exemplified by the Neddies, IDAB, and the other apparatuses of economic planning and control.
Despite the assertion that the Combine is narrowly nationalistic, the terms of the economic debate in the plan are far removed from the economic restructuring proposals of the Bennite Left. The stewards for instance have tried to create and maintain links with Lucas Aerospace and other workers in a great many countries, and have been anxious to define mutually advantageous and non-exploitative technical relations with workers in the Third World; they have never called for import controls either. They have consistently raised use value in place of exchange value in the determination of production proposals, and reject entirely at a theoretical and practical level arguments for greater productivity. Their involvement with government and parliamentary apparatuses has been almost entirely based on a campaign for different uses of the massive sums of public money administered into the private sector. This is an attempt to draw attention to the levels and types of union incorporation into the drive to make Britain more ‘competitive’.
It would appear that in most respects the Lucas plan strategy is in opposition to the Bennite Left strategy, and the plan has been pursued almost entirely outside of the agencies of state capitalism. It is also the case that Bullock-style so-called industrial democracy has been fundamentally rejected by the Combine, their praxis has little to do with Worker Directors, and, far from trying to take responsibility for the enterprise they have endeavoured to expropriate control.
Unless Albury can substantiate this assertion of incorporation with more materialist arguments, whatever pillars the Bennite Left constructs, none are likely to be founded on the Lucas plan.
What the Combine cannot control is rhetorical support by the Bennite Left, and this applies to Albury’s references to the Nobel Peace Prize nomination, and to its take-up by Swedish and other reformist organisations. This merely heightens the need to clarify the struggle, not just the debate. Perhaps Albury would wish the LACSSC to formally make statements rejecting a number of organisations, unfortunately most of the stewards are busy inside Lucas, their trade unions etc. and find little time for this type of defensive rhetoric.
What is perhaps a more serious criticism is the fate of some other alternative plans. Whether Singer or coops should be included here is a major problem not addressed by Albury. But some experiences in Vickers, Talbot etc. demonstrate that alternative plans must not become intellectually or practically separated from mass mobilization and action. But this is not in itself sufficient to condemn alternative plans, rather it points up a number of problems. Many of these other plans are primarily agitational or propagandistic, and the SWP has accepted the utility of that, presumably as it raises socialist issues ‘this side of the revolution’. The possibilities for incorporation however are no greater than those found in wage bargaining, health and safety and so on. Indeed, the possibilities for incorporation are often greater when managerially-based structuring of collective bargaining is accepted.
This also raises the question of contradictions itself. Predictability of response to management and government attacks on the working class is an issue of major importance. The ability of managements, whether they be in companies, governments or unions, to ‘administer out’ challenges is far more sophisticated than many wish to believe. The much-maligned nomination for the Peace Prize did in fact have tactical advantages for the Combine, and the continual raising of issues in Lucas Aerospace has had beneficial effects on mobilization.
Albury’s position on the issue of elitism is in fact contradicted by the Lucas experience, for example, the current negotiating document on closures was produced by a delegate committee, eight of whose 14 members were not white collar workers. The general presumption of elitism merely demonstrates the profoundly unsocialist assumption by some socialists that industrial workers are incapable of creating alternative proposals. The whole thrust of the strategy assumes that workers as a whole are capable of this.
Of course, if workers in most companies produced alternative plans that would not in itself create socialism. But this ignores the politicizing process and dialectical nature of posing and struggling for alternative production relations and purposes. Albury also accuses the Lucas Combine of ignoring the State and state power, yet major elements of their struggle were concerned with precisely this, forcing Labour government ministers to show their hands, clarifying important issues in the industrial strategy, raising questions about the relations between the civil service and financiers and industrialists.
At a recent SWP debate on alternative plans the Party dismissed them as reformist, and counterposed three slogans, ‘occupy, nationalise, fight for the right to work’, yet of course, Lucas workers, and many others have engaged in all three forms of struggle, and have been defeated. Without confusing sectional success with revolutionary strategy, it is possible to argue that the three demands are themselves historically prone to incorporation and/or to being administered out of politics, UCS, Fairey and other groups of workers know this to their cost.
Somehow the SWP critique of alternative plans is profoundly negative. Workers in Lucas Aerospace for instance have achieved certain successes through this strategy, but they are far from adhering to any simple conviction, and have consistently asked for constructive criticism. With no guarantee that the crisis will be resolved to the benefit of the working class internationally, the need to develop transitional demands and to mobilize around them, indeed to form mobilization in those demands, is paramount. Thousands of workers are trying to combine extensions to collective bargaining with the development of those demands, if they are pursuing an incorrect course, an opposing case must be based on somewhat more substantial and materialist arguments. Does the SWP for instance oppose the development of rank and file independent bargaining positions, if so, on what grounds? Many questions like this have yet to be answered by the Party.
Last updated on 17.8.2013