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Raymond Challinor

Workers’ Control Conference

(June 1969)

From Survey, International Socialism (1st series), No.37, June/July 1969, pp.6-7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Conference at Sheffield called by the Institute for Workers’ Control failed to even discuss the crucial question of whether the organisation was going to have a revolutionary orientation or not. Yet, on the answer to this all else depends. No effective struggle against the existing order can take place except on the basis of a revolutionary Marxist position. It is not us but the development of capitalism that has decreed this.

Industrial concerns, growing bigger in size and smaller in number, have now become intertwined with the State. The State, by its purchases, subsidies, loans and countless other means, underwrites capitalist industry. The State’s welfare – the so-called national interest – has become inextricably linked to that of big business. Gone are the days when groups of workers could wage their private feuds against an isolated employer or employers in a single industry; right from the start of a conflict, the State is there, battling away on the side of the employers. Consequently, trade unionists’ attitude to the State is of vital importance. Reformist unions, even when they indulge in left phraseology, must ultimately capitulate. For they accept the fundamental basis of society, the same as their capitalist opponents, and hence are unable to fight effectively. Eventually, they are compelled to succumb, becoming transformed through productivity agreements and other compromises, into instruments for speed up and disciplining the worker.

Leon Trotsky saw this clearly in 1940, when he wrote:

‘In other words, the trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class. They cannot any longer be anarchistic, i.e., ignore the decisive influence of the State on the life of people and classes. They can no longer be reformists, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.’ [1]

The organisers of the Sheffield conference – people like Coates, Kendall and Topham – are aware, at least in theory, of the validity of Trotsky’s position. But they are also confronted with a new phenomenon. Opposition inside the trade-union movement, mass discontent with the Government’s incomes policy, has resulted in the emergence of left reformism (Jones, Scanlon, etc.) as an important trend within the union bureaucracy.

It is to gain friends and influence people – people who are on the General Council of the TUC – that Coates & Co. indulge in ideological backslidings. They have to back pedal on their political views: Scanlon would be scandalised were he to be told that the most urgent current need is the creation of a revolutionary movement in Britain, and so Coates & Co. remain quiet on this point.

But their silence does not end there. They also have to keep quiet about the betrayals of the left bureaucrats. Coates has not uttered one word, for instance, about their shabby behaviour during both the busmen’s and dockers’ strikes on Merseyside, disputes in which the men courageously battled on without any help from the Transport & General Workers’ Union. Indeed, on one memorable occasion, the workers were so angry with the unprincipled conduct of their union official – to wit, Jack Jones – that they would have thrown him in the River Mersey. It was only prompt action by the capitalist state (in the form of the police) that prevented this watery version of workers’ control.

Similarly, Danny McGarvey, of the Boilermakers’, is a darling of the Institute of Workers’ Control. He wrote an article for the special Sheffield Conference bulletin. He is the same gentleman who made the agreement at Fairfields’ shipyard, Glasgow, signing away the traditional rights of men. Likewise, he sat on the Cameron Commission, the enquiry into the Barbican building workers strike, whose notorious report came down entirely on the side of the employers. It would be interesting to hear, from the Institute’s spokesman, how they think McGarvey helps in the struggle. By publishing his left-wing speeches while not criticising his right-wing actions, the Institute helps to camouflage McGarvey’s devious conduct.

And then there is Hugh Scanlon. Whenever any criticism is levelled at him, Coates & Co. reply by referring to his tenuous position on the AEF national committee. The assumption is that, once a bigger majority has been won, a more militant policy will be adopted. It is worthwhile noting, in passing, that this argument has a family resemblance to that used about Wilson during the 1964 to 1966 period, when he only had a majority of three or four in Parliament. ‘Wait until he has a workable majority,’ some people said, ‘And then we’ll see.’ We have!

But allegations of Scanlon’s supposed powerlessness to act does not – as Coates & Co. seem to believe – make criticism of him less justified. Indeed, it makes it more so. For, if Scanlon is in a minority, then this is even more reason why he should open his mouth. There is a long tradition in the AEF for union officials, such as Ernie Roberts, speaking in their personal capacity. So, if Hugh Scanlon believes in workers’ control, then let him argue openly and publicly for it. Let him spell out what it means for the membership to control their unions – the right to recall officials, officials to have the average pay in the industry, all strikes to be automatically official. Yet, on these points, points which are essential to any introduction of workers’ democracy within the unions, Hugh Scanlon has remained strangely silent.

Coates & Co. realise the vulnerable position of their left reformist friends. Consequently, they indulged at Sheffield in the most undemocratic, unprincipled example of conference-rigging. The conference arrangements committee, acting in a way Sara Barker could hope to achieve in her giddiest dreams, only accepted resolutions from a carefully selected people. Of the twenty it accepted, it only bothered to print four of them. Of these four, it admitted making ‘various improvements of wording’. But its bureaucratic handling did not end there: because it saw the conference as a staged affair, dominated by few prima donnas, to be given limitless time, the rank and file found their time limited to an hour. Labour Party conferences are less bureaucratically run. Indeed, one of the slogans that should now be raised on the left is: ‘Democratic control of workers’ control conferences’!

Coates & Co., it must be realised, do not behave in this way out of spite. Their conduct arises from their political views – that of being centrists, hovering somewhere between a reformist and revolutionary position. They are essentially eclectics, living on a hand-to-mouth ideological basis, always careful to stigmatise as ‘sectarian’ any criticism of their unprincipled conduct. In an attempt to answer left critics, Coates claimed the resolutions passed at Sheffield were ‘reformist in form, revolutionary in content’. In fact, as the whole history of the Workers’ Control movement shows, the most left-wing it gets is its reformist form; its content is reactionary.

The first Workers’ Control conference was held in the spring of 1964 and sponsored by Labour’s Voice, a journal published by left reformist MPs, who saw nothing incongruous in mouthing a few phrases in favour of industrial democracy while they got down to the main job in Parliament – namely, voting for Wilson. Along with these wishy-washy parliamentarians went a number of academic economists, like John Hughes and Barratt-Brown. These Visionaries’ heralded the Wilson administration’s incomes policy as a great socialist advance. In Tribune‘s columns they played a pernicious role, using left phrases to support the most reactionary parts of the government’s policy. [2] Had it not been for the confusion caused by these gentlemen, opposition to the incomes policy would have emerged more strongly and more swiftly.

The Institute for Workers’ Control, in its own flat-footed way, supported John Hughes and its weaker brethren. At its Nottingham conference (25-26th April 1964), only the two IS members present, Paul Foot and Ray Challinor, favoured all-out opposition to the incomes policy. The majority line has been accurately described by one of its advocates as the ‘Cousin thesis’. [3] (Six months later, Cousin applied his thesis by joining Wilson’s administration.)

In New Left Review, Tony Topham explained why the Institute for Workers’ Control disagreed with the position of IS comrades:

‘absolute opposition to an incomes policy, although presented as being the most concerned for the unions’ autonomy and the most combative, in fact risks being proved to be ineffective, to the extent that it offers no perspective for the solution of those problems which in recent years have seized the British socio-economic system.’ [4]

It is perfectly true that we did not visualise the rejection of the incomes policy as solving Britain’s problems. We regarded these problems of British capitalism as far too intractable to be solved by acceptance of an incomes policy. Indeed, it was through mobilisation of opposition to an incomes policy that IS saw the way forward, a change in the structure of society which could only be come as a result of a change in the relationship of class forces.

But people like Coates and Topham, with the Institute of Workers’ Control behind them, saw things a different way. When the preliminary discussions were taking place between the government and trade unionists, which led to the Declaration of Intent, Coates characterised the situation in the following:

‘The current negotiations with Mr. Brown are fraught with peril for the unions, and for the Labour Government itself ... The unions have been caught in a dilemma. If they said no to Mr. Brown, they might be responsible for the fall of the Government. No responsible trade unionists could will that.’

Coates, so concerned about the fate of the Labour government, counsels these confused tactics:

‘Say neither no, nor yes. Say, instead, that we will begin talks when we know the facts: we will negotiate our policy after the books have been opened, and all can know what is the real position. Such a response does not imperil the government.’ [5]

‘Open the books’ is a reasonable slogan. Obviously it should be supported. But it is not the answer to the challenge of Wilson’s incomes policy. For, suppose the books were open and we discovered that ICI’s profits for last year were £154 million, not £153 million – as we previously thought – would this have made a profound difference to our attitude? And, in any case, should our attitude be cabin’d cribbed, confin’d by fears of bringing the Labour Government down as apparently Ken Coates was? The Institute for Workers’ Control represents an amalgam of three groups – left reformist trade union leaders, for whom it provides a useful platform; centrists, who control the apparatus of the Institute and issue the bulletins; and, finally, a growing number of workers, disgusted by the Labour government and looking for an answer.

It is because of this third group that revolutionaries must take an active interest in the Institute for Workers’ Control. It is important that we bring workers an alternative to the Coates-Jones alliance, which leads down a dead-end. To do this, we must be act in a tougher, more organised way than we did at the Sheffield conference.


1. L. Trotsky, Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, p.8.

2. For my critique of these economists, see R. Challinor, Incomes Policy and the Left, International Socialism, Winter 1966/7. Also John Hughes, International Socialism, Summer 1967, with my reply.

3. Tony Topham, New Left Review, No. 25, May-June 1964.

4. Ibid.

5. Ken Coates, International Socialist Journal, April 1965.

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