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Public purpose

Past experiences suggest that public ownership of industry doesn’t guarantee a more socially useful purpose. But it is a necessary condition, writes Raymond Morell

5 to 6 minute read

Two red flags which both have Unite the union's logo on them

When the issue of changing the purpose of production arises because of widespread social pressure – for example, over military production or a shift away from high carbon production – so too does the question of public ownership. Indeed, a necessary condition for the effective diversification in both is a combination of struggle in the workplace uniting with social movements demanding public ownership.

As we saw from the limitations of old-style nationalisation, state ownership, while a necessary condition, is not sufficient for changing the purpose of production. The nationalisations of 1945 certainly allowed for greater economic efficiency for public benefit – for example, with public transport – and an effective public infrastructure for private companies. But the centralised, war economy-style public ownership of the post-war years did not open up the possibility of necessary democratic control over the purposes and priorities of production.

To achieve such democratic, hence truly public, forms of production there needs to be powerful workplace and social movements campaigning and struggling for the new, alternative priorities for production. And this popular movement needs to pressure any party in government to commit it to socially useful and environmentally sustainable alternatives.

Glimpse of an alternative

We had a glimpse of what might be possible when Jeremy Corbyn came close to winning the general election in 2017. At that time, the possibility of defence diversification seemed, all too briefly, to be a possibility – no longer dismissed as ‘pie in the sky’. Corbyn committed himself to setting up a defence diversification body that aimed to bring together union reps and Labour policy in support of diversification initiatives. This presented an important opening for those of us who had been trying to shift the focus away from simply campaigning for more defence work in a sector that’s been shrinking year on year as technology changes and defence contracts are increasingly made with foreign contractors.

However, the major weakness in 2017 was the lack of support for diversification in the defence industry within the shop stewards committees. Since the 2018 policy conference, Unite has formally adopted a positive position on defence diversification, which sits alongside a commitment to campaign for defence contracts to be honoured with pressure to ensure that skills are retained in the UK.

To achieve democratic, truly public forms of production there needs to be powerful workplace and social movements

This has seen the union facing both ways on the question of diversification. Though the practical focus is on campaigning to ensure that contracts are awarded in the UK, the commitment to set up a defence diversification combine, which is also Unite policy, has never been taken forward. The result is that any attempt at looking at alternative technologies to defence is stillborn.

The obstacles to defence diversification are huge. Defence has been a strategic priority of Conservative and Labour governments alike as they have tried to maintain the UK’s military position on the world stage. It’s a hugely profitable industry for the employers and so simply trying to persuade them to shift to alternative technologies won’t work without pressure from workers that could lead to support from a sympathetic government.

One of the other and more insidious problems we have is that Unite and other unions have been tied into a ‘partnership model’ that concludes that ‘what’s good for the employer is good for the workers’. The hostility to defence diversification largely comes from this mindset. It also leads reps to conclude that little can be done to oppose the closure or rationalisation of defence sites where workload is in decline. The partnership mindset makes it impossible to comprehend alternative technologies in defence.

Global warming

In civil aviation, the picture is different. As global warming is now accepted by the industry, major employers are attempting to develop new technologies to manufacture clean airliners. We are a long way off flying jet liners across the Atlantic with clean fuel. However, this shift has changed the thinking of reps who are now campaigning for a ‘just transition’ to protect jobs, wages and terms and conditions in the industry. There are more prospects here of campaigning for green technologies and a real just transition with the space that’s opened politically.

The general secretary of Unite, Sharon Graham, has supported activists developing ‘combine committees’. These bring together shop stewards from different factories/workplaces in multi-plant companies to organise around common issues. They are controlled by workplace reps and are independent of the union officers.

It was exactly such a combine committee that brought together shop stewards from the 13 or so sites of Lucas Aerospace and led the process of creating an ‘alternative corporate plan for socially useful production’ in the 1970s. The Lucas model was pathbreaking in demonstrating how workplace reps in defence could develop alternative and socially useful production. The weakness was in not developing the political leverage to make those ideas a reality.

It reads 'Lucas. An Alternative Plan' with an image of workers with megaphones beneath it

The Lucas Plan, a document produced by the workers of Lucas Aerospace in January, 1976

Today in Rolls Royce, the combine is collaborating with Coventry Green New Deal to investigate the development of green alternatives as part of its resistance to redundancies and site closures. The combine has its own strike fund and the potential exists for reps to campaign around this alternative to defend jobs and conditions at the same time as building the grassroots power for a just transition to a low carbon economy.

Building workplace power

A Labour government is again on the agenda at Westminster but with a party leadership that has positively rejected public ownership and has no plans for urgent government action for a just transition. In Scotland, both the SNP and the Greens have reneged on plans to nationalise energy. However, they have recently released funds to private sector companies for the development of energy renewables from a ‘just transition fund’.

We need, therefore, to focus on building power in the workplaces responsible for carbon production, in order to develop low carbon alternatives. Aligning workplace struggle with movements against climate change can help pose the political questions necessary to put pressure on governments in Holyrood and Westminster into using public ownership as an instrument for changing the purposes of production to meet public priorities.

This article first appeared in issue #238, Winter 2022, Deluge and Drought. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Raymond Morell is a Unite union workplace rep in the aerospace industry

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