The Lucas Plan–An Idea Whose Time has Come?

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The Lucas Plan–An Idea Whose Time has Come?

By Dave King

Volume 22, number 2, Envisioning and Enacting the Science We Need

This is Part One of a two-part article. Please enjoy this sneak preview of content from our forthcoming issue, “Envisioning and Enacting the Science We Need,” coming in late autumn 2019. Subscribe here to receive the issue in print.
This article is a personal viewpoint, not the position of the New Lucas Plan working group. –Eds.

Everything dies baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back. –Bruce Springsteen1

Although often not associated with the radical science movement, the Alternative Corporate Plan produced by workers at Lucas Aerospace in the UK in the 1970s was, one of radical science’s outstanding achievements. And, like Science for the People, it is currently enjoying an exciting new life, following a celebration of its fortieth anniversary in 2016.

Normally referred to as The Lucas Plan, the Alternative Corporate Plan emerged from the industrial and political struggles of the 1970s and almost uniquely, was a practical enactment of the ideas of radical science, not by university-based radical academics, but by working-class industrial workers. Faced with expected job cuts, a Shop Stewards’ Combine Committee took a different approach to conventional trade union tactics for resisting them: they asked shop floor workers for their ideas for socially useful products that they could make, which would allow the company to diversify away from its core business of fighter aircraft components. The resulting Alternative Corporate Plan created a worldwide sensation, leading many other groups of industrial workers to follow suit, and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.2 Above all, it was their positive socialist vision of production for human need, not war, and the demonstration of the normally-ignored technical and leadership capabilities of working-class people that captured the public imagination.

The New Lucas Plan has been developing the ideas of the Lucas Aerospace workers to address the crises of the twenty-first century.

Developing the plan

In the 1960s, the UK Labour government set up the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation with a mandate to encourage company mergers, investment, and rationalizations, as part of its plan to reorient the British economy toward high technology. As the Lucas Combine members put it, “Workers found that Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of the technological revolution” was simply burning up their jobs.” Additionally, the principles of “Taylorism”—the fragmentation and deskilling of production and design processes to reduce workers’ power—were being implemented throughout British industry. Compounded by Labour’s manifestos of 1974, which pledged to make cuts in defense spending, there seemed much more grief to come at Lucas Aerospace.3

Shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace responded by setting up a Combine, which represented both staff and manual worker unions on all of the company’s fifteen sites. The bridging of the white-collar/blue-collar divide, a rare thing in British trade unionism, made the Combine very successful in a number of conventional campaigns over pensions and wages and a strike at Lucas’s Burnley plant. These victories were achieved despite hostility from trade union bureaucracies toward such an unofficial body, and gained great support for the Combine throughout the workforce. 

Members of the Combine were already thinking about the conflict between the desire to preserve jobs and concerns about the impact of the products they were making. So when the idea of an alternative corporate plan was raised by Tony Benn (the leading radical thinker in Labour party politics for many decades, then Minister for Trade and Industry) at a meeting in November 1974, it was taken up enthusiastically by Combine workers.4

One of the key Combine members, Mike Cooley, brought together the sentiments of many speakers:

“The only way in which we could be involved in a corporate plan would be if we grew it up in a way which challenged the private profit motive of the company and instead talked of social profit. Suppose we said we wouldn’t allow the kidney machines to go (from Lucas Aerospace)?…If we proposed socially useful products what would be said then?…It is an insult to our skill…that we can produce Concorde but not enough…heaters for…pensioners who are dying of the cold…The only way we could do this is to be completely independent of the company.” (author’s emphasis)5

The Combine decided to go straight to the workforce. First it asked members in different factories to compile an inventory of all equipment, workforce composition, and skills. The final question the Combine asked was, “Are there any socially useful products which your plant could design and manufacture?” The Combine emphasized that the criterion of social usefulness included the ways in which the products were made, making sure that workers were not deskilled in the process. Askingworkers and shop stewards these questions, which were traditionally the prerogative of the management, proved empowering.

The results of the workforce consultation exercise were extraordinary, although a major factor was the fact that this was an extremely highly skilled workforce. 150 product ideas were put forward, many of them well ahead of their time, such as wind turbines (which were just one step away from the aircraft turbine blades they were producing), hybrid car engines, and combined heat and power systems for use on social housing estates. The products fell into six categories: medical equipment, transport, improved braking systems, energy conservation, oceanics, and telechiric machines.6 A key medical proposal was to increase production of kidney dialysis machines, which were in short supply in Britain.7 One particularly famous idea was a road-rail bus, designed to transfer from rail to road in rural areas, thus creating a cheaper and more integrated rural transport system. In the recent documentary film The Plan, Phil Asquith recounts how the prototype for the road-rail bus was built using commercially available parts while Lucas foremen were looking the other way.8

Of cakes and bakeries

The Alternative Corporate Plan was enthusiastically welcomed by large sections of the socialist and peace movements, and the idea rapidly spread worldwide with a deluge of requests for speakers from all over the world.9 In 1981 Mike Cooley received the Right Livelihood award for the Lucas Plan and donated the money to the Combine. Unfortunately, by the time the Plan was produced, Tony Benn had been moved from the Department of Trade and Industry to a less important position by a Labour government that was already moving toward neoliberalism, and despite enthusiastic resolutions at the Labour Party conference the government and the leadership of the trade union movement failed to take any action in support of the Plan. As a result of this failure, Lucas Aerospace management felt able to reject the proposals out of hand. As Brian Salisbury says, “Of course, they felt (rightly!) that the alternative plan threatened their ‘right to manage.’”10 The Lucas workers were, in terms of that old socialist slogan, saying, “We don’t want more cake, we want to run the bakery.” They were also saying that they knew how to make better bread.

Some sections of the left criticized the Lucas Plan as a diversion from the traditional work of trade union organisation, but the surviving Lucas shop stewards reject this. They point out that although the Plan was never implemented, it bolstered the fighting morale of the workers and mobilized a great deal of public support, so the Combine was able to defeat repeated attempts by Lucas management to cut jobs and shutter plants. 

Ramifications

The Combine’s plan sparked a national and international movement for workers’ plans and socially useful production. Cooley went on to work at the Greater London Council (GLC), under the radical and very popular leadership of Ken Livingstone. There, he developed a number of Technology Networks, based around well-equipped workshops in different areas of London, which were open to ordinary people to use in order to produce their own prototypes and collectively develop ideas for new technology.11

Another inspiring project that came out of the GLC, based on the Lucas tradition of bottom-up planning, was The People’s Plan for the Royal Docks, developed by local people as an alternative to what became the London City Airport.12 Drawing on support, coordinated by Hilary Wainwright of the GLC, the community developed its own plan for rejuvenating an area devastated by the loss of docks employment, that provided a genuine alternative to technocratic corporate-led redevelopment. Eventually the airport was built, but the People’s Plan for the Royal Docks still serves as a model for how local government can encourage bottom-up planning.

An idea whose time has come?

At the fortieth anniversary conference in 2016, there was huge enthusiasm and a feeling of current relevance about the Lucas Plan that made it more than just an inspiring example from the past. To understand this continued enthusiasm, we have to dig a little deeper and look at the aspect of the Lucas story that has been forgotten by many on the left and in radical movements during the ensuing period of neoliberalism–the political critique of technological systems.

The Lucas workers developed a socialist philosophy of technology that came directly out of their own experience of its impact upon their work, and they made it a critical part of their philosophy of socially useful production. As Combine member Mick Cooney says, “At the start, we thought it [technology] was neutral, but by the end of the process, we knew that it wasn’t.” Or, as Mike Cooley puts it: 

“As we design technological systems, we are in fact designing sets of social relationships…Either we will have a future in which human beings are reduced to a sort of beelike behaviour, reacting to the systems and equipment specified for them, or we will have a future in which masses of people, conscious of their skills and abilities in both a political and technical sense, decide that they are going to be the architects of a new form of technological development, which will enhance human creativity.”13

This understanding of the importance of technology is key: the power of industrial capitalism to dominate all other systems comes from the way that its technological and socioeconomic aspects mutually reinforce one another. The technological system called industrialism is inherently hierarchical and repressive. It is based upon the abstraction of workers’ tacit knowledge and its embodiment in machinery, resulting in the subordination and control of workers as just one small element in a system focused upon production efficiency. In speaking always of “capitalism” rather than “industrial capitalism,” the left has forgotten this. 

Thus the true significance of The Lucas Plan for our present environmental, economic, and political crises, created by two hundred years of industrial capitalism, is that it provided a holistic techno-social alternative to the particular form of industrial capitalism that was then developing: information technology-neoliberalism. That alternative is still relevant and provides many of the technological and socioeconomic ideas we need now. 

Stay tuned for Part Two of this article and more content from Volume 22, Number 2, “Envisioning and Enacting the Science We Need” coming later this fall.

 

About the Author

Dave King did his PhD in molecular biology at Edinburgh University in the late 1980s and has been writing and campaigning on technology politics ever since. He was one of the founders of the campaign against genetically modified food in the UK, and since 2000 has been director of Human Genetics Alert. In 2013 he helped set up Breaking the Frame, and in 2016 was the main organizer of the conference on the fortieth anniversary of the Lucas Plan. He is a member of the New Lucas Plan working group.

References

  1. Bruce Springsteen “Atlantic City,” track 2 on Nebraska, Columbia Records, 1982, cassette.
  2. Including groups at Vickers, GEC LA Parsons, and Clarke Chapman in the UK and IG Metall in Germany. Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliott, The Lucas Plan: A New Trade Unionism in the Making? (Nottingham: Spokesman Books, 2018): 142-144.
  3. See Labour Party (1974), February 1974 Labour Party Manifesto, “Let us work together – Labour’s way out of the crisis,” and October 1974 Labour Party Manifesto, “Britain Will Win With Labour.”
  4. Steve Vines, “The Lucas Aerospace Corporate Plan,” in Democratic Socialism and the Cost of Defence: The Report and Papers of the Labour Party Defence Study Group, eds. Mary Kaldor, Dan Smith, Steve Vines (London: Routledge, 2018), Part 16.
  5. Phil Asquith and Brian Salisbury, “The Lucas Plan, Then and Now,” Morning Star, November 8, 2016.
  6. Casper Hughes, “The Workers Who Wanted to Stop Making Weapons and Start Waging War on Climate Change,” Vice, March 5, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/mbzxb3/the-workers-who-wanted-to-stop-making-weapons-and-start-waging-war-on-climate-change.
  7. Brian Salisbury, “Story of the Lucas Plan,” A New Lucas Plan, accessed July 2019, http://lucasplan.org.uk/story-of-the-lucas-plan; The Plan, directed by Steve Sprung. Lisbon, Lx Filmes, 2018, streaming/download, theplandocumentary.com.
  8. The Plan.
  9. Wainwright and Elliott, chapter 13.
  10. Wainwright and Elliott.
  11. Adrian Smith, “The Lucas Plan: What can it tell us about democratising technology today?,” workerscontrol.net, January 26, 2016, https://www.workerscontrol.net/authors/lucas-plan-what-can-it-tell-us-about-democratising-technology-today.
  12. The People’s Plan for the Royal Docks, Newham Docklands Forum and GLC Popular Planning Unit, 1983.
  13. Mike Cooley, Architect or Bee (Nottingham: Spokesman Books, 2016): 180.