The Lucas Plan–An Idea Whose Time has Come?
By Dave King
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.
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.
The Politics of Industrial Technology
Because many of these ideas have been lost during the intervening forty years of neoliberalism, we need to remind ourselves of the struggles of the 1970s around Taylorism and technology. The production line system developed by Henry Ford, which dominated the twentieth century, was based upon the ideas of Scientific Management, or Taylorism, developed by Frederick Taylor. Taylorism intensified one of the central processes of industrialism—the abstraction of workers’ skills and know-how and their embodiment in machinery and systems organization. This allows the overall trend of capital intensification of production and the progressive elimination of labor.
Taylorism took the form of “time and motion studies” in which experts minutely observed the movements of workers’ bodies in order to break down tasks, and create a system in which every second of the workers’ time was accounted for and “wasted time” eliminated. Machines were designed to do most of the work, and workers became machine minders, performing repetitive and mindless tasks requiring little skill. As always, the declared aim was a supposedly apolitical increased efficiency, but these systems also serve to discipline workers and reduce companies’ reliance on their skills.
By the 1960s, Taylorism was extensively used by British management and led to a wave of workers’ revolts. Union leaders, fearing charges of “Luddism,” bowed to the gospel of technological progress, but shop floor workers and even white-collar staff were by no means so docile.14
As part of the rise of labor militancy in the late 1960s, as David Noble describes in his book Progress Without People, union leaders and social democratic politicians could no longer contain an explosion of workers’ discontent and militancy about deskilled and mindless work. This took many forms, ranging from skyrocketing rates of absenteeism and labor turnover, slowdowns and shoddy work, and wildcat strikes and sabotage, across the industrialized West, including the US. The San Francisco longshoremen put out a leaflet during their strike of 1971, in which they said:
“We, like many other workers, are faced with a technological revolution of new ‘labor saving’ devices and methods of operation. This is what our employer means by ‘progress.’ But, if this ‘progress’ is left unchecked, it will simply mean that our employer will line up at the bank with ever bigger profits, while we line up at the unemployment and welfare office. …It is essential for labor to challenge the notion that the employer—in the name of ‘progress’—can simply go ahead and slash his workforce or…close an entire port, and to do this without any regard for the people and community involved.”
Noble cites many more examples of trade union struggles around technology in European countries. Amazing as these might seem from the perspective of 2019, they were only one aspect of a deeper shift in the left, its overcoming of dogmas of progress through technology, and a focusing of its concern on the politics of technology. An example is Harry Braverman’s classic Labour and Monopoly Capital. The US International Association of Machinists developed a “Technology Bill of Rights,” which states that “new technology should be used in a way that creates jobs and promotes community wide and national full employment.”15
The Lucas workers made technology issues an important part of their organizing. In 1980 and 1981, it forced the company to accept a one-year moratorium on the introduction of new machinery at all the Lucas plants. During this period, the Combine Committee undertook consultation with workers of all types across the company about how to deal with new technology. They also adopted other strategies, relying on the vulnerability that technology created for the company, such as feeding nonsense data into the company’s computers.
The Lucas workers also developed their own positive philosophy of socially useful technology. They advocated what Cooley calls “human-centered-technology”— machines designed to maximize the use and development of workers’ skills, rather than eliminate them. The Alternative Plan emphasizes the importance of “tacit” rather than formalized knowledge, the sort of know-how that resides in experienced workers’ hands and their feel for the materials, rather than in the abstract scientific knowledge of technological experts. Cooley insists that all work involves both the use of the hand and the mind and that it is vital to overcome the division of physical and intellectual labor and the greater value accorded to the latter in technocratic capitalism.16
This emphasis on skills and workers’ knowledge is central to their notion of socially useful and meaningful work (not just socially useful products), and some of the Alternative Plan’s proposals were designed with this specifically in mind. In Architect or Bee, Cooley gives a very interesting set of criteria for deciding whether products are “socially useful”: at least half of these criteria concern the process through which products are designed and produced and the impact of that process upon workers. Social usefulness is about a holistic concept of both process and product: there is no point in socially useful products that are produced in a way that oppresses and alienates those who produce them.
Automation and the Future
The Lucas workers’ understanding of the politics of technology, is important to help understand current debates about automation. Their critique of Taylorism, and their positive philosophy of human-centered technology, is a necessary corrective to the so-called materialist politics of the left, which is often extremely naive about the actual material realities of production— something the Lucas workers experienced directly. Even when automation does not outright destroy jobs, substitution of human skills with machinery inevitably produces a system that alienates workers and gives them less power and control over production.
This is one example of the left’s need to rediscover the work of the radical science movement. With its general enthusiasm for technology as progress, the left often swallows industrial capitalist propaganda about “liberation from work,” and ends up in technological determinist and techno-utopian visions of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism.” As Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, has recently reminded us, work is a central pillar of society; it is the way that human beings develop their skills, self-reliance, and pride in their ability to provide for their families.17 Control over the means of production is the central power struggle in any society. If workers were to abandon their role in production in favour of Universal Basic Income, that struggle would be finally decided in favor of the owners of capital.
Even when not overtly techno-utopian, one often encounters in left publications the traditional but simplistic idea that socialism will be achieved when workers control industrial production. For example, current responses of the UK labor movement to the Fourth Industrial Revolution often seem to accept the “inevitability” of automation and stress socialization of the ownership of automated production, rather than questioning whether automation is inherently a good idea.18
By contrast, Ivan Illich, another writer in the 1970s movement of technology critique, called for a post-industrial-capitalist mode of production based upon convivial tools that allow workers much more control over their work:
“The transition to socialism cannot be effected without…the substitution of convivial for industrial tools. At the same time, the retooling of society will remain a pious dream unless the ideals of socialist justice prevail.”
Illich’s insistence on the consistency of the philosophy of technology design with that of socialist economic and social values agrees with that of the Lucas workers. It is theoretically possible that in a socialist society in which technology was under democratic control, it might be decided that some automation was socially useful. However, in addition to the class politics of automation mentioned above, the ecological crisis, and the end of cheap abundant energy, means that automated production systems relying on huge amounts of electrical energy will hardly be feasible.
A Socially Useful Economy?
In my view, these ideas are crucial to creating a holistic new sociotechnical vision for an economy based on socially useful production that will allow the transition required by our current crisis. The New Lucas Plan group is working on ideas for such an economy. We have working groups on Arms Conversion/Defence Diversification, Just Transition/climate jobs, automation, and people’s planning, that we believe together create a model for such an economy. Rather than creating our own blueprint, we are trying to follow the Lucas workers’ methods of bottom-up planning by asking workers and communities for their ideas. In addition to the need for socially useful technology, socially useful production must be based on human and social values and industrial democracy.
Human and Social Values, Not Machine Values of Profit and Efficiency
The Lucas workers’ ideas of socially useful production (SUP) insist upon not making socially harmful products (for instance, nuclear and firearms, commercial tobacco, etc.) and instead devoting productive resources to things that people need, but that are not being produced because it is “uneconomical” to do so. A long list of such harmful products and unmet needs could be made.
Human and social values also need to be put before economic efficiency in the way things are made. A new mode of production based on the idea of social usefulness must put the social values of providing livelihoods and non-alienated work for genuine needs and the development of skills and local resilience ahead of economic efficiency. Obviously, there will be differences of opinion about which needs are genuine: the point is to have this debate in a rational and democratic fashion on that ground, rather than assuming that the market will answer the question.
The Lucas Plan was an experiment in industrial democracy/workers control, developed in the process of industrial struggle. It was an example of a bottom-up rather than a technocratic or market-focused plan. In my view, the latter will never address the crisis caused by the failures of industrial capitalism. For example, a major lesson from the Lucas Plan for the green technocrats of the mainstream environmental movement is that sustainability will never be achieved through green industrial technofixes imposed from above. The only way to address the climate crisis is to engage the energy, ingenuity, and goodwill of the working class people who interact directly with the material reality of nature, and whose skills and knowledge are routinely ignored. That means not only empowering them but giving them democratic decision-making power. Thus, a SUP economy must be based upon forms of organization that are democratically controlled by their workers, whether this is in cooperatives or publicly or privately owned companies.
A “Lucas Transition”?
There are currently three main visions of how we overcome the crisis of industrial capitalism. Firstly, there is the “green capitalism” approach, promoted by corporations and much of the mainstream environmental movement. According to this approach, new, “clean, green” industrial technologies, such as industrial renewables, combined with commoditization of ecosystem services will save the world. Perhaps some climate engineering will be necessary. Secondly, there is the eco-Marxist approach, which argues that the problem is the political economy of capitalism, which must be superseded by socialism; this, together with industrial clean technologies, will solve the problem. Thirdly, more radical elements in the green movement, together with more libertarian socialists and anarchists, argue for the vision of small-scale communities powered by local energy sources and small-scale traditional/ alternative technologies.
All of these proposed solutions can be criticized for, in various ways, failing to adequately address the interlocking problems of political economy and industrial technology. The green capitalist approach is a naked technofix, obviously designed to preserve business and industrial technology as usual. These are the people who burned down the forest telling us how to replant it. The eco-Marxist approach, while strong on political economy, has not learned enough from the green and radical science movements about the problems of industrial technology. Its technological approaches often seem little different from the green capitalist advocacy of industrial renewables and more efficiency, and have little to say about the need for radical reductions in consumption in Western countries. The radical green/ anarchist approach often seems naive about what would be needed to overcome the power structures of industrial capitalism.
The Lucas Aerospace workers’ approach is nearest to the eco-Marxist approach, and represents the best middle way between the attempt to deal with the crisis using the same tools that created it and a rejection of all industrial technology. As industrial workers they understood the political economy of industrial capitalism very well. Unlike the proposals of the contemporaneous alternative technology movement, which centered on low-tech solutions for small self-sufficient rural communities, the Lucas workers’ ideas, such as hybrid cars and community heating systems, were intended for a large industrial company supplying products to existing urban markets. But their approach has two decisive advantages over current eco-Marxist politics. Firstly, the Lucas workers’ central idea of socially useful production makes the issue of production for genuine human needs more central than most current eco-Marxist thinking, which focuses mainly on questions of energy and economic growth. Secondly, they also understood very clearly the critical difference to political economy that technology design makes. In particular, like nineteenth-century socialists such as William Morris and the Luddites, they emphasised the critical importance of workers’ tacit knowledge and skills, and the political economic difference between a skills-based manufacturing system and an industrial capitalist Taylorist system, in which human skills are embodied in machines.
I would argue that this difference is also critical for the ecological impact of such systems. The environmental crisis is fundamentally driven by exactly the same philosophy of industrial technology design as the drive for automation: at the root of the problem is the design of technologies and systems, according to a technocratic machine philosophy of maximum control and rationalization, aiming at the production of a uniform output of a single product with maximum efficiency. This inevitably distorts and destroys nature, as we see in industrial agriculture. Two hundred years of industrial capitalism have shown us that this design philosophy, together with the drive to extract profit, has led to our current impending catastrophe. The alienation of the worker from the products of their labor, through the use of machine-capital, also creates alienation of humans from nature. Thus, any attempt to address the causes of environmental crisis must provide holistic sociotechnical solutions, not just socioeconomic solutions as the left tends to believe, or technical solutions as the mainstream green movement believes. In my view, the Lucas workers’ approach combines the best of the eco- Marxist and radical green/anarchist approaches, creating a genuine ecosocialist politics that is based upon both the left critique of capitalism and the green critique of industrial technologies.
It is hard to be specific about the sociotechnical shape of a future post-industrial capitalist society, and undoubtedly a great deal of regional variation will remain. In the 1970s, E. F. Schumacher developed the concept of “intermediate technology” as an alternative route to development; perhaps now is the time for an intermediate technology future for industrialized countries.19 A key principle of such a sustainable and socially just future is that the production system must be based upon human skills, ingenuity, and energy, not algorithms and electrical energy, which will be in increasingly short supply.
In the first phase of a transition away from industrial capitalism and toward ecosocialism, which would still be broadly within an industrial capitalist setting, we need the implementation of the ideas put forward in the four themes/working groups of the New Lucas Plan project: arms conversion, Just Transition, people’s planning, and strict limitations on automation. As part of Just Transition, we need implementation of the One Million Climate Jobs Plan and a similar plan for a circular economy.20 All this needs to be within the context of a general policy of redistribution of wealth, creating a cushion for those impacted by the ongoing climate crisis and by the necessary changes as part of the transition.
To shift toward an economy based on human skills and intermediate to traditional technology would require a great deal of education and retraining, supported by the government. So would a program of research and development of human-centered intermediate technologies. National and local governments can encourage industrial democracy through a variety of mechanisms, including financial support for the creation of cooperatives.
The great advantage of the Lucas Plan as a model for a transition to an ecosocialist society is that it embodies the critical insight gained by the radical science movement about the political non-neutrality of science and technology. The sociotechnical crises created by industrial capitalism can only be overcome through a holistic vision of socially useful production in which the technologies employed embody the same values as the socioeconomic systems we adopt. The Lucas Plan is a positive vision for how we can solve those problems by mobilizing the skills and energies of the majority of the world’s people, rather than imposing technocratic solutions from above.
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.
- Bruce Springsteen “Atlantic City,” track 2 on Nebraska, Columbia Records, 1982, cassette.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- Phil Asquith and Brian Salisbury, “The Lucas Plan, Then and Now,” Morning Star, November 8, 2016.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Plan.
- Wainwright and Elliott, chapter 13.
- Wainwright and Elliott.
- 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.
- The People’s Plan for the Royal Docks, Newham Docklands Forum and GLC Popular Planning Unit, 1983.
- Mike Cooley, Architect or Bee (Nottingham: Spokesman Books, 2016): 180.
- David Noble, Progress Without People: New Technology, Unemployment, and the Message of Resistance, (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1995), chapter 3.
- “Workers’ Technology Bill of Rights,” International Association of Machinists, Technology’s Politics 3 (February 1983): 25-27.
- Cooley, Architect or Bee.
- UniteWorkVoicePay, Twitter post, May 2, 2018, https://twitter.com/workvoicepay/status/991732048397324288.
- “Alternative Models of Ownership: Report to the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy,” Labour Party (2017): part 2.
- E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful (London: Blonde and Briggs, 1973).
- The One Million Climate Jobs Plan is a 2014 report from UK-based Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union group. It can be read online at campaigncc.org/climatejobs. A “circular economy” promotes reusing, recycling, and sharing of resources to eliminate waste.