John McDonnell and Residents and supporters of Grow Heathrow outside Central London County Court. Photo: Jonathan Goldberg John McDonnell and Residents and supporters of Grow Heathrow outside Central London County Court. Photo: Jonathan Goldberg

After years on the back foot, Labour has shown that ideas of worker-led ownership are back in play

In February this year, the Labour Party put on a conference and released an accompanying report, both entitled “Alternative Models of Ownership” (AMO), which was, in the short view, an attempt to flesh out the ideas behind the highly successful manifesto from the 2017 general election. This would be necessary in itself, because after over four decades of a neoliberalism which could at most be moderated, it’s framework has come to define much of what is currently considered working economics and politics. In the longer view, however, the conference was a part of an ongoing process of building on ideas about socialised work, services and wealth that our movement has finally recovered in the decade since the great financial crisis of 2007 and 2008.

A similar conference was held by the party in 2016, and in some respects, this was a direct progression from it. Main ideas that have been carried forward between the two include the fact that public services, which have been forced into privatisation worldwide since the start of the century, are now being taken back into public ownership, almost unnoticed, in many countries both in the Global North and Global South at a rapid rate. The news of this is not widely promoted by a thoroughly market-orientated international media and intellectual establishment, but the growing pace of the process and significant improvements to these services once brought back into public ownership that one Dutch analyst has called it a “silent revolution” – one that we should be keen to make as noisy as possible.

There was also analysis of how services and work can be managed. Good examples of local democracy do exist, in which municipal bodies have been established that take the needs of the public and the interests of workers into account in the running of things. These, like the process of de-privatisation, have tended to be established in uneven ways in scattered geographic locations and this is increasingly the case the more bottom-up the process has been. So, in France, where an unlikely alliance of grassroots campaigners and public-sector technocrats who had become disillusioned with neoliberalism has come together and created a number of municipal authorities. This has largely occurred without much in the way of help or acknowledgement from national government. Oddly enough, we are even able to point to a fairly good, if flawed, example of a good municipal governing body here in London. Transport for London is actually a quite effective public transport authority. It is one that does respond to passenger requirements, does have trade union representation on its boards and has, particularly in the case of confronting Uber, put good transport standards ahead of the interests of big business. Socialists were right to support TfL against Uber; no other public transport in authority in Britain would have done this, though.

Cooperativsm had been a minor concern before the 2016 event; it was more prominent at this one. John McDonnell has made much of the “workers’ right to buy” policy, which could potentially see workers acquire ownership of their businesses from companies that might otherwise asset-strip them. Co-ops are a big topic and there is no single model, though the AMO report focuses on examples from mostly Western Europe (France, Italy and most significantly Spain) which are often founded using grants or government projects. At the closing session of the conference, however, we were given a speech by Spiros Sgouras, a leading worker at the Vio.Me factory in Greece, which became a co-op after its workers occupied it in a militant bid to prevent it from becoming yet another casualty of austerity. Workers’ occupations and re-opening of workplaces have been a big part of frontline struggle since the Argentine crisis of the early 2000s.

There was additionally an extremely good session about how technology is affecting work and the economy, which looked not only at automation (a huge topic at the moment) but also the rise of the big tech monopolies. These online behemoths like Google and Facebook are a genuinely new phenomenon of the past two decades, and we have to discuss what can be done to resist their power, which even capitalist liberals like George Soros have described as terrifying. Data is a resource, and in some parts of the world, notably Catalonia, steps have been taken to begin to take away its acquisition and monopolisation by a very small group of American corporate giants, in favour of a common ownership.

It would be easy for topics like this to come across as an eclectic jumble of matters of passing interest to eclectic groupings of leftists. I think, however, that the event did a decent job tying the themes together to form something far more radical.

Talking About Workers’ Control

Hilary Wainwright, a veteran of the left in and out of electoral politics, also spoke in the final session of the day, and she made reference to not only the previous economics events that Labour has organised, but also another seminal conference that took place in 2016. That was the forty year anniversary of the Lucas Plan – a historic project in which a group of workers from across various trades unions in the troubled Lucas Aerospace weapons and armaments manufacturers put together a detailed set of designs for socially useful items, ranging from energy efficient engines to household appliances. Aside from generating excitement and debate amongst progressive people across the world, the plan was successful in two very important ways. The first of these is that, in the short term, it did enable the workers to stave off compulsory redundancies (obviously, the original point). The second, longer-term achievement, is that many of the radical designs and inventions that the workers’ proposed have since been industrially realised. In 2016, an enormously exciting anniversary conference in Birmingham opened up the possibility that it might make a third contribution: its spirit of using the talents and creativity of workers’ exercising control over to produce for social and environmental gain, rather than private profit, could help diversify technology away from the carbon economy and create an economy that could fight the menace of climate change.

Wainwright pointed out that Tony Benn inviting Lucas plan workers to meet with him at the Ministry of Technology and influence the London development centre was a rare, and regrettably short-lived experiment in allowing genuine worker-leadership into economics. The Lucas workers and their most advanced thinker, Mike Cooley, had actually been referenced in several sessions, and as reported above, a worker from the front-line of taking control of production was on the platform just fifteen minutes before Jeremy Corbyn came to give the closing address. As Wainwright pointed out, while the ideas of public ownership aren’t altogether new, having a Labour leadership that is enthusiastic for bottom-up approaches is, and the impact of something like a Lucas plan today would be far greater as a result (she actually went so far as to suggest that Benn’s eventual ousting was possibly linked to his willingness to experiment with the Lucas Plan). This shift hasn’t happened simply because of some internal process in the Labour Party, it’s come from a long process of opposition to neoliberalism by our movement.

How Oppositional ideas can become Reality

We have come a very long way here. When the economic crisis reached its height in 2008, the left objectively failed to make the running in providing alternatives within the system that build the organisation and confidence of working people that would be needed to present an alternative to it. In Britain, this led to the paradox of a crisis of capitalism opening the way for the official party of capitalism, the Tories, to regain office and start attacking the public sector. The left as a whole could only go so far with messages that, ultimately, came down to opposition to cuts: it had taken on the form of a conservative force, in the original sense of that word meaning “resisting change” rather than the normal political sense. It was appealing to nostalgia, and opening up the argument that things weren’t really going to get much better than they had been in the Summer of 2007. Owen Jones actually wrote quite persuasively in his book “The Establishment” about this lack of ideological traction leading to what was really a period of significant defeat for the left in the earlier part of the decade, not just electorally but also with industrial resistance from the union movement being historically low. We had our narrative of opposition to the austerity agenda of the political right, but we did not have a strong agenda of our own, leaving the overall left position to be almost that the future should be more-or-less like the Blair years.

I would argue that this conference represents progress in building up the ideological weapons that are needed for future struggle, and moving from a situation of pure opposition into one in which we also have a proposition. In the previous decade, anti-capitalist opinion was thoroughly outside mainstream political debate: there were protests, a worldwide movement that arguably started with the Battle of Seattle in 1999, but has not been until the last few years that those ideas have begun to be expressed in our institutions. Up to now, it has been slow and inconsistent, but decades of work that we on the left have put in are finally bringing the ideas of socialism back into the so-called “Overton Window” of realisable possibilities. More radically, we have brought the notion of workers’ control into this space.

I’m not saying that AMO is a total solution, and there are clearly limitations. We have yet to see a comprehensive challenge to the banking system itself, and this cannot be avoided for much longer. We also need to strongly resist the voices of some on the left who like to talk about social justice in rather “bread and butter” terms, but completely retreat from the opposition to war that was the other component of mass left politics from the start of the 21st century. This is not just cowardly but actually forgets some of the key values that drive our movement. The Lucas workers weren’t just radical because they were creative in economic terms, but also in that they raised a crucial question on the difference between socially useful applications of labour and technology, and weapons and warfare. Less than a week after the AMO conference was the Stop the War Coalition conference to commemorate 15 years since the great anti-war march of February the 15th. One of the best things said in a series of excellent speeches was something Stop the War president Brian Eno said, almost as an aside: there is in the world a massive war machine, we need a world-wide peace machine. That is as good an argument for a new economy, based on the needs of ordinary people, as any.