Occupation, worker co-operatives and the struggle for power: Britain in the 1970s

Britain in the 1970s was a period of crisis and polarisation. Workplace closure led to resistance by workers, which defined the relations between capital and labour for subsequent decades.

Occupation, worker co-operatives and the struggle for power: Britain in the 1970s


The bursting of the financial bubble has also been the bursting of the expectations of the ‘neo-liberal’ dream, the vision of the good society which had gained dominance in the 1970s and 1980s.  What we have seen internationally is a return to collective mobilisation by workers facing the ultimate consequences of this vision in the form of job cuts and closure.  While only a decade ago there were arguments internationally, echoing the 1960 (Ross & Hartman 1960), of the ‘withering away of the strike’ (cf. Hyman 1999; Gall 1999) a recent commentator on 2009 in Britain has seen “a year of factory occupations, indefinite walkouts … there is a sense of heightening industrial militancy.”(Davies 2009) This change has not just been in Britain which has seen occupation at Prisme in Scotland, Visteon at a number of sites in the UK, as well as that against closure of Vistas’ plant producing blades for windmill turbines on the Isle of Wight. Resistance of this type has also taken place elsewhere. Workplace occupations has been widely publicised at Republican Windows and Doors in Chicago in the USA, Waterford Crystal in Ireland,  the more widespread reclaimed factories of Argentina (see Laval Collective, 2007), and a wave of ‘boss-napping’ in France (Jeffries 2009).  Workers in occupation have been besieged by police at the Ssangyong car plant in Pyeongtaek in Korea.   Such developments have meant a revision of interest in worker industrial action and previous periods of crisis which included worker mobilisation and workplace occupation: the occupation of factories in Italy in 1920 (Spriano 1975), the sit-downs in the USA in 1936-7(Fine 1969), of the Popular Front (Danos & Gibelin 1986) and 1968 in France (Hoyles 1973), as well as in the UK (Coates 1981) and elsewhere in the 1970s. 

The essence of occupation as a form of industrial action is that it inherently challenges the basis of private property under capitalism, that workers appropriate the means of production.  The political potential of industrial action has been recognised since William Benbow, a chartist, proposed a ‘Grand National Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes’ in a pamphlet of 1832 (reproduced in Benbow 1936) and continues through to the ‘mass strike’ proposed by Rosa Luxemburg (1906).  However these expressions involve the abandonment of the means of production by labour. The temporary occupation of the workplace immediately raises the issue of the commodification of labour in the form of ‘job rights’ of the worker investment of their labour as “a momentary of the disposal by the capitalist” (Pannekoek 1948 reproduced 2003, 68). Even when they occur individually or in small number,  occupation often requires a renegotiation of relations with the dominant economy as worker cooperative or nationalised enterprise - be it with the demand of being ‘under worker control’ - as their conclusion.   Waves of occupation, such as in both France and the USA around 1936/37, define the condition of compromise between capital and labour for subsequent decades.  Other waves may spark reactionary forces.    The rise to power of Mussolini in Italy may be attributed to a reaction to the apparent weakness of the state and employers in the face of the occupations in 1920 (Williams 1975; Clark 1977).  The very condition of such workplace occupation is the crisis within capitalism. Such a crisis undermines both economic and ideological reproduction and therefore creates the conditions for political polarisation.

This paper concentrates on Britain in the 1970s which was just such a period of crisis and polarisation.  Crisis and workplace closure led to resistance by workers, initially in the Upper Clyde Shipyard work-in (see Foster & Woolfson 1986), with more than 260 further occupations recorded in the next decade (Tuckman 1985).  Quickly, also, the occupation entered the mainstream of industrial action deployed by workers in over fifty plants during the 1972 engineering dispute (Chadwick 1973; Darlington & Lyddon 2001). Extending the spirit of 60s radicalism into the workplace, debate opened into new forms of ownership and control. Bridges seemed to be emerging between alternative politics, including an emergent feminism (Wajcman 1983; Cunnison & Stageman 1995), environmentalism and the increasingly militant labour movement. 

Whilst considered in only a few occupations in Britain in the 1970s the movement of the period will continue to be associated with the establishment of the worker co-operatives around 1975 with the support of the then Secretary of State for Industry in the Labour Government, Tony Benn; the three ‘Benn co-operatives’ (Coates 1981).   This paper considers these co-ops in the context of factory occupation and the broader political debate of the 1970s. It indicates a polarisation reflected in the reaction to the occupation movement, the support for co-ops, and the more militant turn in the labour movement in the period.  This reaction constituted the base for establishing the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and hence to the dominance of free market ideology and neo-liberalism more widely (Harvey 2007; Klein 2007).  

In the mid-1970s the political consensus that had held in British politics since the 1940s began to crumble.  The two main political parties, Labour and the Conservatives, while both themselves essentially an alliance of differing persuasions, had accepted to varying degree the welfare state, a level of state enterprise, and Keynesian management of the economy.  This apparent consensus masked clear divisions in the parties, as alliances, which were increasingly becoming visible at the fringes with the growing disillusion and erosion of the middle ground (see e.g. Leys 1983; Gamble 1988).  Critique within Labour, a party bankrolled by the trade unions, was increasing focussed around Tony Benn who had, himself, shifted from the mainstream of party policy-making to an increasingly left opposition. By the 1970s Benn was increasingly promoting workers’ control as a means of redistributing power in society.   Within the Conservative Party, and the right of politics, opposition initially revolved around Enoch Powell whose ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1968 had both mobilised opposition to immigration but also masked his strongly neo-liberal economic perspective (Powell 1969).  However this apparent economic remnant, shared by some other Conservative Members of Parliament on the fringes of the party during the ‘consensus years’ were to move centre stage in the mid-1970s (see e.g. Hall 1988; Gamble 1988). Initially this was through the ‘road to Damascus’ conversion of the Senior Conservative politician Sir Keith Joseph, but more dramatically promoted by his protégé Margaret Thatcher.

While a cautionary warning to possible reaction, the paper also indicates that some of the counter-arguments of the 1970s have now been neutralised.  The debate on alternative ownership may have greater resonance in an environment where the state has played a more active role to counter the banking crisis.  Also, and illustrated well by the action around the closure of Vestas, the move towards the development of alternative production fostered by the 1970s movement (Cooley 1980; Wainwright & Elliott 1982) now resonates with the  environmental movement. Finally, many of the attacks on the Labour left industrial policy in 1970s – that they where the road to collectivism and communism - anticipated those levelled against the Obama presidency on their health proposals.  One feature of the Presidential campaign was also the way it seemed to ally to the Republic occupation in the candidate’s home town of Chicago.  As in the 1970s popular support may be mobilised in resistance to plant closures, redundancies and job loss.

The paper is based around earlier research into occupations involving direct participant observation and interviews, as well as a search of newspapers and other documentary sources (Tuckman 1985).  This data was checked against other searches which covered shorter periods,  two Metra studies covering six month period in 1972 (1972) and 1975 (Hemingway and Keyser 1975) plus the study by Mills (1982) which covered 1971 to 1975. This initial research has subsequently been supplemented by further work in archives, particularly with access to Tony Benn’s archive, documents from John Prescott lodged at the Brynmore Jones Library in Hull, as well as public papers made available through the Margaret Thatcher Foundation (www.margaretthatcher.org) covering the period.  The paper initially addresses the emergence of the occupation in Britain in the 1970s following the work-in at UCS before examining the debate around industrial policy in Britain and the three separate – and very different – Industry Bills introduced between 1971 and 1975. The paper moves to place the Benn workers’ co-operatives into the context of this debate on industrial policy generally and around the particular travails of the British motorcycle industry.  We consider the context of the growing dominance of neo-liberalism and the decline of the occupation in Britain in the early 1980s.  It concludes with an examination of the sediments of the occupation movement, a concern with co-operative development and alternative forms of production which initially were a feature of the ‘alternative economic strategy’ deployed by a number of local authorities in opposition to the early policies of the Thatcher government.

The break-up of political consensus and the emergence of occupation in Britain

By the early 1960s the post-war political consensus based around industrial expansion and economic growth, underpinning increased consumer affluence, was beginning to appear frail.  The Macmillan Government underlined these problems by the introduction of the National Economic Development Council (NEDC), containing trade union as well as state and employer representation, to plan economic and industrial development.  The Wilson Labour Government, taking office in 1964, extended planning – launching Britain into ‘the white heat of technological revolution’ - by attempting a rationalisation of key industries to meet international competition. Principally this was to be achieved through the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation (IRC) whose purpose was “to promote structural change which will improve the efficiency and profitability of British industry.” (HofC Debates  30 January 1968 vol. 757 cc278-9W) . 

By the late 1960s there were growing criticisms, from both left and right, of the workings of industrial renewal and economic policy.Framing their future election strategy the Conservative opposition had formulated a ‘quite revolution’ (Bruce-Gardyne 1974), arguing that the market ought to operate to allow failing companies – the ‘lame ducks’ of the economy – who were not to be given state support so allowed to collapse.Such an approach was clearly contentious in the economic climate of the 1960s.  Trade unions were growing in membership as well as influence in the new corporate state (Crouch 1977; Panitch 1976), with a significant shift in influence to the shop floor organisation officially recognised in the Donovan Report (1968, see also Hyman 1975) acting as a ‘lubricant’ in the turbulent industrial relations of the period.  The late 1960s saw the first attempt at legislation whose title captures a dominant image of industrial relations of the period, In Place of Strife, which, in contrast to the Donovan proposals, sought to regulate the actions of trade unions.  With unemployment rising towards a million, blamed largely on factory closure, there was speculation about an escalation of industrial action to challenge closures.  Increasing insecurity in the labour market drew inspiration from the recent experience of student sit-ins and the occupations in France. In February 1969 the BBC transmitted a play, The Big Flame, directed by Ken Loach, which portrayed an occupation of the Liverpool docks.  An extension of industrial strategies into occupation was also current amongst left organisations, particularly associated with the new Institute for Workers’ Control (IWC) established with support from some trade unions and Labour politicians (Barratt-Brown & Coates nd). 

One of the key targets of IRC support, receiving £15 million of the £18.8 million committed by the government by early 1968, had been the electronics and electrical power conglomerate GEC-AEI, formed from the merger of three companies in order to achieve economies of scale and hoped to achieve competitiveness in an increasingly global market.  At the merger the company operated on one hundred and thirty five sites in Britain with 228,000 employees making it the largest private sector employer at the time in the UK (Anti Report 1972; IWC 1969). Rationalisation following merger precipitated large numbers of redundancies (see e.g. Newens 1969; Schubert 1970).  When workers at three Merseyside plants were faced with closure, the shop stewards considered occupation.  However the proposal was abandoned because of concern that this might lead to loss of redundancy pay, that there might be criminal prosecution, as well as division between shop stewards and the shop floor over the strategy (IWC 1969; Schubert 1970; Chadwick 1970).

It was not until 1971, after the election of Heath’s Conservative Government, that the ‘big flame’ was lit by the occupation at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS), itself the creation of the IRC, merging shipyards on the River Clyde.  The ‘lame ducks’ policy meant a government rejection when the company approached for continuing financial support, leading to threats of redundancies to the workforce.  The Clydeside area had long traditions of militant unionism, going back to the ‘Red Clydeside’ of the First World War period (McLean 1983).  Shop stewards had discussed some form of occupation and, when redundancies where announced they informed the gatekeepers at the yards that they had taken over control.  In practice a system of ‘dual powers’ existed for the following eighteen months between the shop stewards trying to keep employment and the receiver appointed to realise the capital assets. Shipyard workers, made redundant, were encouraged by the stewards to continue coming to work in the yards. After eighteen months government support was finally forthcoming to support three of the yards while another was sold off to a company using it to fabricate rigs for the expanding oil field of the North Sea (Foster & Wolfson 1986).    

Given the protracted length of the UCS dispute it could not have been its marginal success in saving jobs but the very act of resistance that had impact on the UK labour movement and particularly in mobilising occupation.  UCS, however, was not typical of the occupations to follow.  Perhaps the first incident typical of the UK occupations in the 1970s was at a Plessey plant which started about a month after the work-in at UCS at just a short distance from Glasgow on the River Clyde.  The workforce at the armament plant had been run down and, when the last 250 workers were told to report to collect their remaining wages rather than attend for work they jumped the locked gate.

The workforce at Plessey occupation was to last four months until a deal was reached for a takeover which protected seventy of the jobs (Labour Research March 1972; The Times 29th January 1972; Coates 1981, p 55-56).  These seventy workers where likely to have been the number still participating after such a protracted occupation and highlight two significant factors concerning the development and outcome of occupations.  Numbers are subject to decline as participants find alternative employment or, possibly, get disillusioned or pessimistic about prospects. However where solutions emerge, be it a takeover or the establishment of a worker cooperative, then number offered reemployment and the qualification for it seemed to equate with those remaining in occupation.   

By the end of the year occupations had spread further south to steel and engineering works around South Yorkshire and into Wales, all resisting redundancies. Most of the reflection on occupation and property rights initially revolved around property rights in the sale of labour, that somehow employment vested property rights in the job alongside those of shareholder.  This was the very ethos – never explicit – that developed around redundancy pay.  Initially introduced, reflecting Keynesian views on labour mobility, to assist the flow of industrial change enhancing the mobility of workers in declining sectors and regions of the economy to move to developing areas, its practice was to commodify jobs by putting cash payment in place to buy out any job ‘possession’ by workers (Fryer 1973; 1981).  Two important occupations were also to take place around this time; one at Fisher-Bendix in Merseyside which, after a further sit-in in 1974, was also to become a much publicised worker co-operative; the other, at  Sexton Son and Everard in Fakenham, was, however, to initiate the association of occupations with worker co-operatives.

Fisher-Bendix had experienced several changes of ownership in the previous decade, sometimes also changes in product moving to Merseyside to capitalise on Government grants. The plant had been purpose-built by a motor components company in 1961 attempting to diversify into domestic products. Within a few years it employed two and a half thousand workers, producing sinks, radiators, washing machines and dryers as well as the Moulton bicycle (Clarke nd; Eccles 1981; Solidarity 1972).   However, much of this was divested especially after a change of ownership. Shifts were cut from three to two with commensurate loss of jobs. In May 1971 the Kirkby plant was taken over by the Thorn Electric Group.

The workforce soon became suspicious of Thorn's intent, with rumour that washing machine production was to be transferred abroad. While this was denied, the workforce were soon to find evidence that negotiations had already taken place for them to be produced under licence in Spain (Clarke n.d. p 7).  A nine week strike against this transfer, and consequent redundancies, followed.  While the result of the strike was the reinstatement of those made redundant, and a halt to new redundancies, there still remained considerable insecurity amongst the workforce (Marks 1974).   

Thorns were still trying to move machinery out of the plant, against which the workers threatened a sit-in; they had already had contact with the occupations at UCS and Plesseys in Alexandria (Eccles 34; Solidarity 1972 p. 4).  In early 1972, as talks took place between management and stewards, rumour circulated that redundancies or closure were about to be announced. Almost spontaneously a group of workers headed for the administrative block, collecting the master key to the plant on the way.

Intervention by Harold Wilson, constituency M.P., Leader of the Labour Opposition prompted transfer of ownership between Thorn and International Property Development Ltd. Given the company name and the speculation boom of the period, the workers were rather suspicious. However, with no other immediate solution to their employment problems, they were willing to accept.

So far the occupations contesting closures had concentrated on the physical seizure of plant. While some stress had been placed on the skills of the workforce, solution had been sought in convincing existing employers of the error of their decisions or in finding new employers willing to take over the enterprise. This had often been at some cost, not all redundant workers being re-employed, although divisively they had achieved something out of their action with those taking part in occupation qualifying for reemployment. A rescinding of some redundancies, however divisive, was considered better than nothing. At a small footwear plant this division was to lead to an early and much publicised worker co-operative.

In February 1972 Sexton, Son and Everard announced bankruptcy and that their factories in East Anglia, which manufactured shoes, would be closed and the seven hundred workers would be made redundant. A meeting of the employees voted almost unanimously to contest the closure by means of occupation and controlling machinery and stocks (Wajcman 1983; Socialist Worker 11th March 1972).  Before the resolution was implemented the firm was bought by a local developer who guaranteed five hundred of the jobs. But amongst those who were still to lose their jobs were forty five women workers at a satellite factory in Fakenham which machined leather uppers for the main factory. Feeling ignored in the discussions they decided to go ahead with the action that had previously been agreed by the whole workforce. When the first of the women lost their jobs they declared the factory "under workers' control".

A major division occurred between two unions representing women at the plant. The majority experienced hostility from their official who told them "not to be silly girls" a comment later backed up by the union General Secretary's, that the union could not "officially condone the 'sit-in'" (Wajcman 1983 48-9; also Libertarian Struggle 1973).  Only one woman, the supervisor and a member of another union, got dispute pay. Her local union official had initially suggested the occupation at the mass meeting of the company. This limited dispute pay could not be supplemented with state benefit as the local unemployment office ruled that the women were not available for work.  The means they had of maintaining some income was through continuing work within the occupation by both producing and selling what they made. They had machinery and scraps of leather, later supplemented by purchases of materials, from which they could produce bags and other leather items for sale locally with the label Fakenham Occupation Workers. Disheartened by the prospect of either available work in the area, or the long term prospects of the factory even if they found a buyer, the women began to contemplate the prospect of working for themselves in a worker co-operative.

In early 1972 the occupation entered the mainstream of British industrial relations with the tactic used in almost fifty disputes in the engineering industry.   On the breakdown of national negotiation employers – represented by the Engineering Employers Association – opposed negotiation beyond a basic wage.  Working hours and holiday entitlement which the unions wanted to discuss in a strategy to counter rising unemployment was ruled out by the employer side.  The union moved the campaign to the regions.  The Manchester region, perhaps the best organised and most militant, put forward national demands on a plant by plant basis.  Submission of the claim was often accompanied by the imposition of sanctions – an overtime ban, work-to-rule, etc – to which some employers responded with threat of lock out (Chadwick 1973).  Commentators have tended to see the escalation of the dispute into occupation in about thirty plants in the region as being promoted by the integration of the left, predominantly Communist as well as a few Socialist Worker shop stewards and union officials (Mills 1974; Darlington & Lyddon 2001).  However it was the organisation and discipline of the EEF which targeted a challenge at particular plants where there were, as they saw it, ‘communist stewards’ (interview with EEF).  In plants with shop floor representatives more amenable to compromise with the EEF position the workforce were rewarded with offers of pay increases beyond – and in some cases substantially beyond - the national claim but without any other benefits. While the regions’ trade union strategy had been to move to plants and fragment any action the EEF ‘took a leaf out of the trade union book’ (interview with EEF) and maintained unity and discipline amongst its membership, holding the Federation line that plant settlements should only be reached on pay.  Most of the settlements that the union claimed had been made with companies outside of the EEF. The few members of the EEF who made agreement also covering holiday and working hours faced expulsion.  Not only was this an attack on militant shop stewards, and a support of the more acceptable face of workplace representation (cf Batstone et al 1979), it also highlighted what was to become the initial neo-liberal position on bargaining: collective bargaining should be premised on what a company could afford, the relative market situation of the company, rather than extraneous subsistence concerns of workers, considerations of the cost of living.

By April 1972 occupations had spread to the Sheffield region where employers at two plants threatened to withhold pay in retaliation to trade union sanctions.  Elsewhere some long standing grievances gelled with the national claim escalating in a similar way.  However, the occupations where still spreading in Engineering, with some continuing into August.  The Manchester shop stewards dropped opposition to cash-only settlements and gradually the national union could impose its own discipline over disputes which had not had explicit union sanction.  In practice the unions, nationally or regionally, never had the control. Regional solidarity of the Manchester EEF alongside some rogue employers willing to confront their employees over sanctions dictated the dynamics of the dispute.

Contemporaneous with the disputes in engineering there were occupations taking place elsewhere in the country.  At Briant Colour Printing, workers occupied to resist closure of their East London plant. This became a work-in when occupying workers gained contracts for printing often for left or labour movement organisations. Members of this work-in also seemed to have addressed the possibility of establishing a worker co-operative but, according to one contemporary account:

Forming a co-operative would have meant raising money to buy the factory. It would have meant a desperate attempt to survive as a socialist island in a capitalist sea - which would have been the only source of supplies and the main source of printing contracts. And it might have forced one set of workers into the appalling position of making fellow-workers redundant. (Inside Story  1973)

Mass pickets were held when the plant was threatened with eviction and, eventually, a new owner was found.  However only fourteen weeks after the takeover the plant was again closed.  This time the workforce could not respond with an occupation: receiving redundancy notices through the post they arrived at the Plant to find it already closed and guarded by a security firm. (Labour Research, January 1973).

Workers at Leadgate Engineering in Durham also began an occupation against closure.  The plant had only been opened in 1969 after the ten acre site and machinery had been purchased from the National Coal Board.   In establishing the plant the firm received government grants (Mooney 1973) meant to support new employment in declining mining areas.   The plant was successful and employed over three hundred workers, mainly ex-miners.   Three years after the opening of the plant its closure was announced to the surprise of both management and workforce.  The company planned that the machinery would be moved to a new factory located near their headquarters.  The date of the closure had been strategic, and would have allowed the movement of machinery without the repayment of government grants; it also meant  the minimum redundancy pay to the workforce.  However one hundred of the three hundred strong workforce occupied the site prohibiting any movement of plant and machinery. Ultimately, after a six month occupation, the owners came to an agreement with the remaining thirty workers for a plan to establish a workers’ co-operative. In exchange for the machinery still held in the plant, the workers could lease one of the factory buildings supported by a loan to the co-operative and guaranteed against subcontract work with the previous owner (Mooney 1973, 609; Labour Research, February 1973).  The workforce seemed no less cynical about a workers’ co-operative than those at Briant Colour Printing but occupation in itself could not constitute a solution on its own.  One of the Co-operative’s Directors, who had been a union convenor at the plant, reflected on the end of the occupation:

 I remember watching them come and remove the machinery, and wondered if we had done the right thing.  Perhaps we should have stuck it out. Then someone else might have bought the whole place ... I’d have stayed for ever, but you can’t expect men to hold out indefinitely. We had our backs to the wall and took the best way out without giving in. (cited by Mooney 1973, p 609)

The co-operative repaid the loan by the end of the year even taking on extra workers (Labour Research February 1973) and gained extra contracts although it collapsed in late 1975 and work ceased (Coates 1976 137).

Before turning to the debate around industrial policy which emerged around the same underlying developments in the UK in the 1970s, we need to consider the consequences of a series of disputes at the UK motor parts and aerospace conglomerate. Some problems were integral to the national Engineering industry dispute, prompting strikes and a number of occupations at Lucas plants and CAV, Lucas’ diesel component division.  The Aerospace division, like Rolls Royce, was also involved in the RB211 engine development for Lockhead. It was already planning redundancies but the initial cancellation of the project, which had precipitated the Rolls Royce collapse, allowed them to accelerate these. While the redundancies at Lucas Aerospace affected all the factories, one in particular had been earmarked for total closure - the plant at Willesden which had been the company headquarters. At the time a Combine Committee of Aerospace shop stewards was being established but it was, as yet, incapable of any consolidated action. Resistance was left to the Willesden workforce to organise alone. After a six month struggle, including possibly an occupation (Wainwright and Elliot 1982 p.75; Cooley 1979 p 94), management were able to remove the machinery and tear down the roof. A smaller plant, to employ 350, was opened nearby. The dispute which appears to have first mobilised the Shop Steward Combine Committee at Lucas Aerospace was a thirteen week strike, initially an occupation, at the Burnley plant which emerged out of the national engineering dispute.  When the national claim was submitted at the Burnley plant, management offered a 50p a week increase.  After one week of sanctions management turned off the power and the workers occupied. 

Within a few weeks the occupation became a strike sustained by financial support through a Combine Committee hardship fund. Eventually they received an increase of £1.50p.   The  Combine Committee  considered  the  sustaining  of  the  Barnsley  dispute  a vindication of their existence and were, through the following  years, increasingly able to mobilise action over  corporate  strategy.   But, while they could be reasonably effective in this, they also  began  to question some of the  implications  of  continued  employment  in  the context of the Aerospace  Industry  integrated within  armament production.   The Combine began countering claims  of  redundancies with ideas of alternative work that could be carried out.  The argument  gradually took shape within the Combine over the following years,   in the ‘alternative plan’ launched in 1976. A contemporary ‘swords to ploughshares’, this proposed and planned a transformation to the production of socially useful products (see Cooley 1980; Wainwright and Elliott 1982).

The debate on industry

We have indicated how, with the Conservative establishment of the NEDC followed by Labour’s IRC, successive Governments of the 1950s and 1960s sought to give state assistance to halt the relative decline of British – private sector - industry.  In 1970 the then Conservative opposition, against the inclination of their leader Edward Heath, whose perspective fitted the Keynesian consensus of the post-war years (Turner 2008), drew up the ‘Selsdon’ Program which sought a return to the market to shake out inefficient firms – the ‘Lame Ducks’.  On taking power the Conservatives introduced the 1971 Industry Bill which “... repeal(ed) the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation Act 1966; ... terminate(d) the power to make industrial investment schemes under the Industrial Expansion Act 1968.”  This withdrawal of government support came with the collapse of both Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and Rolls Royce.  While the first could be presented as a flaw of the interventionist economy, as Frank Broadway (1976) an early exponent of this ‘new right’ perspective was to argue, Rolls Royce was the flagship of UK industry synonymous with the best of manufacturing.  Even before the introduction of the 1971 Act the government moved to the nationalisation of the Aero-Engine Division with a separation from the Automotive Division which was not considered impacted by the RB211 crisis.    The turn to neo-liberal economic policies seemed stillborn as the government moved to rescue both companies.

Within a year of taking office the Conservatives introduced, with the 1972 Industry Bill, the means for wide ranging assistance to industry. This indicated the fundamental reversal in Government policy – the infamous ‘U-turn’ - allowing for the provision of public funds for industries when "it is likely to provide, maintain, or safeguard employment in any assisted area" (Clause 7). It also provided £550 million, over five and a half years, when assistance was "in the national interest" and "likely to benefit the economy" (Clause 8). John Davis, who had been the first to talk about "lame ducks" during the election of only just over a year previous, in introducing this Bill, played down the significant reversal that this policy represented.  The reversal was not lost on the Labour opposition whose Industry spokesman, Tony Benn, in giving support to the Bill pointed out that:

Anyone not knowing his history and reading that speech today would think that he invented socialist intervention in a mixed economy.... (Labour would) ...make use of the powers of the Bill, when we inherit power again, more radically than the Right Hon. Gentleman (John Davis) himself will use them. (HoC  Debates (Vol 837) 1027 & 1036)

The significance of the Bill does not seem to have been lost on the "neo-liberal" wing of the Conservative Party although there was little open opposition. It has been suggested that the then Minister of Education, Margaret Thatcher, voted against the Bill in Cabinet (Norton 1978) although there is no evidence of her making any public statement (www.margaretthatcher.org).  Opposition rested on the belief that the legislation could be used as a means to extend nationalisation under executive powers. To ameliorate this an amendment was introduced to the Bill which limited the Ministers independent action to aid of no more than £5 million to any individual enterprise.

By mid 1972 the extent of the Government's reversal on economic and industrial policy, its "U-turn", was realised. It had nationalised the aero engine division of Rolls Royce. But this measure, the Government insisted, would only be temporary; until it could be rationalised and handed back to the private sector. The solution to the UCS closure was causing greater problems. One of the yards was sold to an American company, Marathon, for the construction of oil rigs.  The workforce were reluctant to accept some of the terms of the sale - which included a no-strike guarantee. To this sale the government contributed grants worth £6 million, and declared that it was not a "lame duck".  The remaining yards were re-organised receiving £35 million in government aid, a sum considerably more than they had previously been refused; the decision that had prompted the liquidation the previous year. The work-in appeared vindicated and the Labour opposition set to formulating its own extension of industrial policy – The Regeneration of British Industry - which was to be initially authored by Benn and to become a a platform in their legislative program on taking office again in 1974.  However, before considering this, we should look at the case of the motorcycle industry, increasingly a recipient of state intervention.

Norton Villiers Triumph and the travails of the motor cycle industry

Motorcycle manufacture epitomised the type of industry which was being addressed by the Industry Bill and was to be the first to receive aid under Clause 8 - to promote industries in the national interest. The industry was also one which - through events at the NVT plant at Meriden - came to symbolise the post-UCS occupation movement. While the market for motorcycles was thriving, the British based industry was struggling to survive against competition from Japanese mass production.  In the 1950s around seventy per cent of world production of motorcycles had been in Britain (Bruce-Gardyne 1978, 3; Smith 1981), now the industry itself was under threat, seen as precursory to assault on the far more significant automobile industry.  This led, in the early 1970s, to a wave of mergers and rationalisation in what remained of the British industry. In 1971 BSA, based in Small Heath, Birmingham, merged with the Meriden based Triumph. In July 1971, with some reservation from the unions, workers agreed to forgo their annual productivity bonus and accepted greater mobility of labour (Times 22, 23 July 1971).  In October, with a threat of 3,000 redundancies, in the immediate wake of UCS, the workforce considered a work-in. The union had doubts about duplicating the UCS style of action.  Unlike shipbuilding the motorcycle industry needed a steady supply of components.  Also most of the workforce had worked for less than two years so did not qualify for redundancy pay. Opposition to a work-in was also coming from workers at the other BSA-Triumph plant at Meriden so the plan for a work-in was abandoned. In the end it was a rescue from Barclays Bank, extending overdraft facilities of £10 million, which allowed continued production at Small Heath (Times various Oct & Nov 1971: Socialist Worker 6 Nov 1971). But in 1973 BSA-Triumph were again facing collapse, their shares having been suspended on the stock exchange.

Having steered the Industry Bill through Parliament John Davis, showing continued reservations about its implementation, was replaced by Christopher Chataway at the Department of Industry who was to be instrumental in constructing the initial salvage for the motorcycle industry using powers of the 1972 Bill. Having received an approach from the Chairman of BSA, he proposed a merger between BSA-Triumph and the only other remaining British firm, Norton Villiers owned by Manganese Bronze. Norton Villiers was itself in the process of rationalisation, having recently announced the closure of a plant in Andover whose workforce resisted with an occupation (Labour Research June 1973). 

As part of the Government rescue plan NVT was to close the Meriden plant and build up production at Small Heath. Chataway announced that NVT would be receiving £4.8 million under the terms of the Industry Bill.  In September it was announced that the Meriden plant would be closed with work transferred to either the Small Heath or Wolverhampton plants.  1,750 workers would be made redundant.   The Meriden workforce imposed an embargo on the movement of plant and motorcycles and, when the details for the closure were announced, the workforce evicted management and continued producing Norton motorcycles until parts ran out and insurance cover was withdrawn. The work-in became a sit-in which was to last for over a year.

At the suggestion of one of the union officials and a local MP the NVT management were asking if the company would be willing to sell the Meriden plant to the workforce so that a workers' co-operative could be established. This was originally to be financed by about one million pounds in redundancy pay from the workforce themselves with possibly a national subscription to provide the rest. The initial idea was agreed to "readily" by NVT (1974, p10) who saw this as a means of disposing of assets. They were also interested in an end to the occupation which was obstructing the movement of completed motorcycles, spares and - probably more important - drawings and machine tools. After four weeks the negotiations broke down.

NVT did not want a plant which would compete with Small Heath, nor were they keen to allow the Meriden workforce adequate use of the plant to resume production. In November redundancy notices were issued. Initially the company informed Chataway that they intended to apply for a court order for the recovery of their assets held by the Meriden workforce. The plan for the co-operative was, however, receiving a sympathetic response from the media and other trade unionists. Because of this the Minister counselled against this course of action. As NVT's own account describes:

... the Minister was adamant that there should be no recourse to the law and that he, the Minister, would now see what he could do. It appeared later that he was under considerable pressure from the Department of Employment not to allow the use of any force at Meriden and had been told that the pickets would be able to mass up to 5,000 supporters from the other factories in Coventry who would arrive on the site in coaches within the hour if there was any sign of the use of police!  (NVT 1974, 14)

Instead, a further meeting was held at the Industry Department where a compromise solution was drawn up.  Work would resume at Meriden under a labour only contract, to continue until July 1974; essentially only continuing the run down that was already planned. But an option on purchase was also given to the Meriden workforce to be exercised before April. While the Meriden Stewards were confident that an agreement had finally been reached, (Fleet 1976 94) this was not an end to their problems.

As this stage Government assistance was to be directed into NVT to rationalise motorcycle production around the Small Heath and Wolverhampton plants. Meriden workers’ opposition was delaying NVT's implementation of the agreed plan, and Small Heath workers were on short time working.  However any progress in these plans became dependent on outside political developments.

Political Changes

In January 1974, with the oil crisis and the threat of a miners’ strike, the Government introduced the three day week as a crisis measure supposedly to save energy. This reflected both the growing crisis in British political and economic life and the growing polarisation and further added to NVT's problems. While there might have been agreement to use some of NVT's resources to fund the scheme at Meriden, the changed circumstances made this impossible. With continued impasse, with NVT increasingly desperate to transfer blockaded resources from Meriden, the company again considered applying to the courts for a possession order. Again the Department of Industry counselled against such action but more importantly, at this stage, the events that had led to the three day week now prompted Edward Heath to call an election.  The slogan posed by Heath – ‘Who governs Britain?’ –reflected the anticipated threat from trade unions in general and of the miners in particular.  The negotiations on assistance to both Meriden and to NVT went into abeyance.

On 4th March 1974 Labour took office as a minority Government with policies of establishing a National Enterprise Board to manage and extend public enterprise and to extend industrial democracy. The architect of the industrial policy was to be Tony Benn, who had revised his views on state intervention since his term as Minister of Technology between 1966 and 1970 when he had been responsible for the formation of UCS. He made clear the effect of the subsequent UCS work-in on his new outlook.  “If you wanted an example of the old type of state intervention” he reflected

         masterminded from the top, you could not have a better one than (the establishment of UCS) ... the policy ran like this: the accumulation of a number of sick shipyards into a single privately own shipbuilding firm: the injection into it of technocratic management, much of it from outside the industry: and of course the rejection not only of public ownership but also of the idea that in the solution of the problems of the shipbuilding industry those who actually worked in the  industry had any contribution to make. If I was educated by my experience, which is what I have tried to be, I was educated by the experience of trying it another way.

The first great example of change in the thinking of the Labour Party on this question was undoubtedly the work-in at UCS ... the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders gave vitality to the concept of industrial democracy in a manner we had not seen for many years... the fact that such a campaign was linked to a demand to be allowed to continue to work, coming not from the top, but from the people in the yards: that was a very important development....

During our period of opposition this was absorbed into the manifesto so that it became absolutely clear that an incoming Labour Government could not, and should not, think of its industrial policy simply in terms of what a Labour Minister might do in his office, but rather in terms of a partnership between the trade union movement and the Labour Government. That was the first step beyond the corporatist idea of public ownership planned from the top. This must be attributed entirely to what was being done on the shop floor during that period, and if those events had not occurred when they did and in the form they did, the Labour manifesto of 1974 would not have reflected any aspiration beyond the traditional … approach to public ownership. (Benn 1979)

In the limbo of the election period, as a means of freeing machines, spares, company records, and "the contents of the engineering department", NVT had come to an agreement with the Meriden occupation. This would allow the prospective co-operative assets of between £2 and 7 million, from a shopping list compiled by the company, as long as evidence of their ability to pay was provided before the end of March (NVT 1974). When Benn arrived at the Department of Industry this plan was on his desk.  Previously the Government assistance to the motorcycle industry had been directed at NVT itself but Benn now encouraged the Meriden workforce to formalise their plans for a workers' co-operative into an application to the Department of Industry for assistance under the 1972 Industry Act. The consequences of what had previously been an attempt at state intervention to rationalise the motorcycle industry around two factories, and the third’s resistance to this solution, was then turned into an attempt at a rescue of all three plants.

NVT management presented their two plant rationalisation, drawn up by them in association with the Department of Industry under the Conservatives, as the only feasible solution to the problems of the British motorcycle industry at the time, (NVT 1974).  This met scepticism from the workforce and resulted in divisions between plants. For some years rationalisations under various, often contradictory, schemes had been attempted or planned. While the latest anticipated a run down and closure of the Meriden plant in favour of Small Heath, this superseded one which had proposed exactly the opposite.

Benn facilitated rapid assistance to the Meriden workforce. It set up as a separate entity so that it could qualify for £4.96 million aid awarded separately from the assistance that NVT had already received. This not only allowed the establishment of the co-operative but also allowed NVT to get the release of the machine tools and plans they had been waiting for. It also gave them a ready buyer for the factory and excess plant. It also meant the creation of, essentially, a sub-contractor to produce the Triumph Bonneville motorcycle.

The Meriden and NVT experience had a profound effect on Benn's perspective within the Department of Industry. It seemed that, through the discovery of the worker co-operative - reminiscent of the roots of Labour radicalism - he had resolved the paradox between extending "socialisation" of the economy with commitment to extending industrial democracy. The workers' co-operative, which the Meriden workers had proposed, seemed the answer; especially when similar plans were forwarded from Beaverbrook newspapers in Glasgow. This was to allow the establishment of a newspaper, The Scottish Daily News, run for a few months as a workers’ co-operative. When he was also approached by workers occupying against the closure of IPD in Kirkby, which had itself been set up after the intervention of Harold Wilson, it was Benn that suggested, to initially sceptical shop stewards, that they should put forward similar plans for a co­operative so that they would qualify for assistance under the Industry Bill (McKay & Barr 1976; Eccles 1981); a Bill that,  significantly, he had inherited from the Conservative Government.

With all the assistance being below £5 million per enterprise Benn's action had not required Parliamentary support which might, anyway, have been problematic with a minority Labour Government. The plans for both Meriden and the Scottish Daily News were announced to Parliament in July along with announcement of similar action likely in the case of IPD. This prompted two editorials, on consecutive days, in the Daily Telegraph.  As a guide to the impact of this action over the co-operatives on the restructuring of hegemony they are most informative. According to the Telegraph leader the establishment of the Scottish Daily News was:

in itself an admirable project, so long as the new journal meets a public demand. Indeed, the fact that the staff will be confined to a few hundred ... suggests that its members are displaying a welcome reasonableness which too few of them would show if 'capitalist' owners were footing the wage bill and bearing managerial responsibility. Some of those connected with the project have been putting it about that the paper will be campaigning, investigative, independent and all that.

So long as the sceptical folk of Edinburgh and Glasgow are prepared to part with their daily cash for this sort of stuff, all well and good - although a diet of sub-Trotskyism has seldom proved a surefire seller in the past, outside Hampstead. But each time the proposed paper flaunts its independence its readers should bear in mind that it is dependent on (£1,750,000) extracted not willingly from readers and advertisers, but forcibly from taxpayers. That is the upshot of the disgraceful hand-out announced by the Government yesterday (26 July 1974).

Some important features were beginning to become clear, if we leave aside the Telegraph's equation of campaigning journalism with sub-Trotskyism. Firstly that unlike in other industrial disputes the particular blame could not be put on the workforce themselves. When their aspiration is to save their jobs then their action could even be laudable, the experience of a workers’ co-operative might even given them lessons in the problems faced by capitalist management and the free market. The Telegraph were to have reservations about such rewards being given to a workforce who had engaged in militant action, but this was mainly seen as the fault of the Government, and particularly Benn, in providing aid from his Department. While there was to be no "moral panic" over occupations their opponents were to find a "folk devil"(see Cohen 1972) in the person of Tony Benn. This becomes clearer in the following day's accusatory editorial:

... the Labour Left's uncrowned king, Mr Benn, took his plans for financing the sitting-in workers' project at Meriden a stage further. They are to get some (five million pounds) from the ample purse that he controls ... Apart from the fact that such schemes seem in a general way an abuse of taxpayers' money, there are two grave, particular objections to them. One is that they must act as an encouragement to workers to think that unauthorised occupation of premises ... is a sure ticket for Mr Benn's cornucopia. The other is that ... Mr Benn has acted against the advice of the Industrial Development Advisory Board ... For Mr Benn no doubt Socialist ideology overrides such considerations. It must be noted, however, that his ability to do those things without going to Parliament is derived from the last Conservative Governments' Industry Act. (27 July 1974)

This did not just constitute a direct attack on Benn it was clear condemnation of the action of the Heath Government in providing the means by which such Government intervention could be carried out. Also, while the Daily Telegraph – an established and establishment voice of Conservatism – might be considered an important means of mobilising a free market reaction to the radical intervention now being practiced from the Department of Industry in the Labour Government. An ultimately far more significant voice was emerging within Conservative opposition.  Sir Keith Joseph, responsible for Health and Social Security in the Heath Government and now a ‘roving commissioner on Party policy’, began a political reflection on the loss of power. This led him to believe that “it was only in April 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism” (cited Halcrow 1989, 56).  In June 1974 he had given a speech at Upminster, arguing that “intervention is destroying us” which was a direct assault on Benn and the proposal in The Regeneration of British Industry (Joseph 1974).

 The path to Benn is paved with 30 years of interventions: 30 years of good intentions: 30 years of disappointments.  These have led the collectivists to say that we are failing only because we are taking half measures. The reality is that for 30 years the private sector of our economy has been forced to work with one hand tied behind its back by government and unions.  Socialist measures and Socialist legacies have weakened free enterprise – and yet it is Socialists who complain that its performance is not good enough.

This was to follow in September with another speech, in Preston, which began to articulate a clearer ‘monitarist’ position that the current inflation was caused by Government (Halcrow 1989, 71).  Joseph had moved close to the fringe which had continued to argue for a free market against the tide of the Keynesian orthodoxy.  Joseph established the Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank whose major task was “to make market economics acceptable in a society that had for years taken a measure of socialism, or at least of state intervention in the economy, for granted (Halcrow 1989, 67).”  Joseph became Chairman of the CPS and his more junior colleague, Margaret Thatcher, a Director.  An early CPS study criticised the state intervention in UCS (Broadway 1976) while another, authored by a Conservative MP with strong neo-liberal views, on Meriden (Bruce-Gardyne  1978); both works had Forwards by Sir Keith Joseph.

This opposition was developing an alternative strategy to consensus politics that post-war Tories, as well as Labour, had advocated; central to this, along with an ‘authoritarian populism’ (Hall 1988), was a fundamentalist belief in neo-liberalism.  Primarily advocating the free reign of the market and opposing any suppression of its unhindered operation, it condemned all state intervention as restrictive of individual freedom, whatever its initial motive for its introduction. The condemnation elaborated in The Telegraph editorials merely reflected more elaborate criticisms that were developing of post-war hegemony.

With a minority Government in office a further election was called for October 1974. In an election address near Oxford its is clear that Edward Heath identifies the threat of occupations - seeing them resulting in more co-operatives – remarks also directed at this "neo-liberal" solution;

The threshold of sit-ins will become lower and lower in a democratic society because people are less and less prepared to accept a system which says we are going to deal with our problems only by creating unemployment... A fact of democracy is what will happen if you get more and more sit-ins will be the destruction of the private enterprise system. As firms are taken over by co-operatives and so on,, then you will see that individual firms will disappear and you will lose free enterprise altogether from our society."  (Sunday Times 29 Sept. 1974)

However, while Heath could point to workers possible reactions to allowing market forces to operate - he had the experience of UCS and the collapse of the Selsdon policy - the "neo-liberals" could identify the consequences of his succumbing to these pressures, with Benn's more recent, and seemingly more radical, state intervention in the outcome of the ‘U-turn’ of the previous Heath Government, a Government that some of the key figures in this had served in. Such an experience of intervention aslo seemed to be the very vindication of the key axiom of neo-liberal theory, articulated by Frederick Hayek, that intervention, however well intended, was ‘the road to serfdom’ (Hayek 1944).

Following the failure of the Conservative Party to win a further election in October, Labour gaining a slim but working majority, Heath’s leadership of the party was challenged.  Joseph appeared a strong candidate from the right.  However, possibly because   of a further speech made at the time of the election which seemed to advocate a eugenic solution to poverty, the extension of contraception to the poor to protect ‘the human stock’ (cited in Halcrow 1989), he left the field open for Margaret Thatcher – articulating the ‘neo-liberalism’ in terms of the household budget - to stand as Conservative leader. As Opposition Spokesman on Industry, Joseph attempted to mobilise extra-Parliamentary opposition to the 1975 Industry Bill (Joseph 1975) amongst top industrialists. 


Following the second election of 1974 the divisions in the Labour Government increasingly became apparent.  This was initially most transparent on the issue of membership of the European Community, an issue that was to remain prominent in subsequent UK politics. When the result came in favour of membership, Tony Benn, who had campaigned against on the ground that it would stifle an economic strategy protecting domestic industry, was moved from the Industry Department to responsibility for Energy.  In 1976 the Government, following Callaghan’s replacement of Wilson as Prime Minister and also an emergency loan from the IMF, began a program of cutting public spending.  That year Callaghan addressed the Trade Union Congress and, heralding the end of the Keynesian consensus, ended commitment to full employment.  As part of a pact with the trade unions, however, the Government introduced protective employment legislation, including the Health and Safety at Work Act which was for the first time to recognise a role for workplace trade union representatives and, importantly for the development of the occupation wave, the Employment Protection Act which introduced the period of notice of redundancy of thirty days.

Occupations continued with early 1975 perhaps being the most active outside of the period of the Engineering disputes in 1972 (Tuckman 1985; Hemingway & Keyser 1975).  Workers at Imperial Typewriters occupied the site in Hull, barricading the gates and displaying a sign announcing that “Tony is with us”. They had lobbied Tony Benn at the Department of Industry in their campaign prior to occupation and, in his address to their delegation, had advised them to “stick together”. This the workforce interpreted as advocating the occupation of the factory.  When they arrived to find the factory closed, on what was supposed the last day, they climbed the gate and took over.  Plans to establish a workers’ cooperative with Government aid (TGWU 1975) proved unsuccessful.  Working on a rented site, a product already obsolete, and without much concern from the owners of the Imperial brand to sell off any remaining assets, there was little enthusiasm to proffer the assistance.   As importantly, coinciding with the departure of Benn from the Industry Department, there was no enthusiasm for radical intervention from Benn’s successor.  The Benn cooperatives themselves rapidly failed.  Principally the limited Government support had been used to compensate the owners for the workers takeover in the purchase of usually obsolete plant and equipment.  Each was undercapitalised and lacked any real research and development capacity which would have been essential for them to maintain a presence.  Prototypes were manufactured of new products, a motorcycle at NVT and even a manual typewriter at Imperial, all based on minimal readjustment of available components so at best lacked any innovation.  Also, while resolving immediate problems for three groups of workers it did not solve long term relations with capital: embroiling the new co­operation in a more complex web of commodity exchange. Each, with unstable initial foundation, had to attempt their own salvation within "the cash nexus". Not even "islands of socialism", the imposition of the profit motive inevitably transformed the relations amongst the workforce, within the co-operatives, to meet the constraints placed on them. As Clarke (1977) has pointed out:

Although at each of the three new co-operatives the venture was approached with a fair degree of idealism, much of this was destroyed as the co-operatives were impelled to conform to many of the practices of private industry on matters of pay, hours, intensity of work, management control and so on... pay was generally lower than in outside industry and, for various reasons, the co-operatives provided few intrinsic benefits to compensate for this. (p 373)

Occupation continued to be used as a tactic in industrial action in Britain into the 1980s however, while there were some significant incidents against redundancy and closure – such as at Meccano in Merseyside in 1979, Lawrence Scott and Lee Jeans in 1980, at Timex in 1983, and at Caterpillar in 1987 (see Woolfson & Foster 1988) – a decline in number is noticeable even before the election of the Thatcher Government in 1979. It is probable that the Employment Protection Act of 1975 which introduced the obligation for consultation over redundancy and the 30-day period of notice dissipated collective action as individual workers used the period to find alternative work which, even if search wasn’t successful for many, meant increased numbers leaving; unions increasingly directing their actions around maximising redundancy payment.  The occupation became, for a while, a tactic used to resist cuts in public expenditure and particularly in the health service.  From the mid-1970s the most protracted occupations were carried out in resistance to hospital closures with campaigns particularly by staff along with supporters at Hounslow and the Elisabeth Garrett Anderson.  However while there was some resistance to the dramatic decline in traditional industry which followed the Thatcher Governments acceleration of neo-liberal economic policies after 1979 – the steel strike (Hartley et al 1983) and of course the miners strike of 1984-5 – there was no significant recourse to occupation.  Legislation introduced in the early 1980s, by the Thatcher Government, limited industrial action of any sort and made it a more planned and strategic enterprise when it did occur.  This effectively ruled out recourse to the, often spontaneous, occupation tactic.

This does not mean that the heritage of the occupation movement did not remain emedded in the social sediments, increasingly submerged by the rising neo-liberal hegemony.  In the UK much initial resistance to ‘Thatcherism’, an ‘alternative economic strategy’, took shape amongst some Labour run local authorities.  These promoted local initiatives to create jobs – with the withdrawal of central government – often modelled on small scale developments in a fragmented supplier chain drawing from ‘flexible specialism’ (Cowling & Sugden  1990).  Within this some authorities saw a place for co-operatives, setting up, with some success, Co-operative Development Agencies. As some local government researchers noted in 1990:

         A concern for the quality of work has been most obvious in the considerable assistance which has which has been forthcoming for worker co-operatives.  Forty co-operatives were created in the West Midlands in three years, Sheffield created thirty over the same period, while up to 1985 (Greater London Enterprise Board) had provided assistance to ninety-five co-operatives. (Butcher et al 1990, p 105)

As importantly the ideas germinated with Lucas Combine Committee, for alternative products, also began a, perhaps slower, germination within the emerging environmental movement.  While taking root, however, these ideas became increasingly detached from a labour movement which itself was experiencing severe decline.  Hitting a peak around 1980 trade union membership has continued to fall since (Barratt 2009).  Underlying this has been the general attempt to de-collectivise the labour market through increased ‘flexibility’ and general HRM methodology and techniques (see e.g. Legge 2005) within free market orthodoxy.  In the individualisation of the economy it was not just the public sector which was the target for private appropriation but also national debt in what became a carnival of individual expenditure, accumulating debt, in the ‘neo-liberal’ binge of acquisition of consumerism and the property owning democracy of home ownership.  The consequent bursting of the consequent financial bubble of ever expanding expectation has, perhaps, heralded the demystification of the free market, neo-liberalism and the state where that very state is seen to mobilise public funds to protect the very financial institutions that precipitated the crisis while the workforce at companies failing in the crisis, or public sector workers increasingly sacrificed to balance government spending, might legitimately seek collective solutions to their own travails. What is more, the growing concern with environmentally acceptable solutions gels with the pioneering work of the Lucas Combine alongside a rethink of consumerist ideas about obsolescence. A market rationale challenged by the occupation at Vestas where, in contrast, it was just the area of production which may have helped contribute to a solution sacrificed to the logic of competitive economy.  Finally, and at the time of writing, it was announced that the Conservative party have put forward proposals to convert parts of the remaining public sector in the UK into worker co-operatives if they win the imminent election:

         It would allow the vast majority of public-sector employees … to negotiate a contract with the relevant department to run their service. Once established as a co-op, the workers could decide everything from who was on the staff to how they operated.  Financial surpluses would be ploughed back into services and shared amongst staff.  (Timesonline 16th February)

On this news the Daily Telegraph has resurrected debate on the Benn co-ops; opposed by Conservatives at the time as ‘a failed business model’ and by some Socialists as ‘a recipe for collaboration’(Kirkup 2010).




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