On Saturday the 26th of November, Birmingham was host to “The Lucas Plan – An Idea Whose Time has Come?” and I think it was easily one of the best labour movement conferences held this year. It used the 40 year anniversary of the release of the seminal document as the basis for a wide ranging discussion about the work, technology and social and environmental justice. It is a rare achievement to so perfectly unite the labour, peace and ecological movements.
The conference was opened with a short introductory film, The Plan, and then an address from Phil Asquith, one of Lucas Aerospace trades unionists who, in response to the threat of job losses and following an intense discussion about progressive alternatives with Tony Benn (then Minister for Industry in the Labour government) helped to create detailed proposals for diversifying the use of high technology away from destructive military purposes toward making products that could actually make the world a better place and be socially useful.
Aside from generating excitement and debate amongst progressive people across world, Phil emphasised that the plan was successful in two very important ways. The first of these is that the plan, in the short term, 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, Phil cited hybrid engines as a really good example, have since been industrially realised. The conference opened up the possibility that it might make a third contribution: it’s 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.
Following the opening session, there were three rounds of workshop sessions, with four choices of workshop in each. It is a credit to the quality of the meetings that the Breaking the Frame collective had organised that I and most of the other people I spoke on the day where experiencing genuine dilemmas trying to decide which ones to go to! Myself I went to:
- A meeting by a councillor in the Isle of Wight and an organiser with London-based community organising group on how to draw up policy proposals for green jobs and sustainable housing.
- An introduction to the seminal book “Architect or Bee?”, written by Lucas Aerospace workers leader Mike Cooley, laying out some of the deeper political ideas behind and raised by the Lucas Plan.
- A discussion about workers and robotic and automation, lead off by an agricultural worker and a logistics worker. Getting these two points of view was an extremely good start on this issue, which is a massive controversy within the movement at the moment, and I was pleased to hear an very sophisticated discussion from the floor around the issue.
I was unable to go to meetings I would have very much like to hear on topics like arms conversion and the real meaning of socially useful production. I do hope the organisers make recordings of these available online.
The meeting heard addresses from two union deputy general secretaries, Tony Kearns of the CWU and Chris Baugh of the PCS, and two MEPs, Molly Scott Cato of the Greens and Julie Ward from Labour, and it was really good to see them strongly endorsing the ideas of the event. It felt like a real step forward for a specifically left environmentalism and, as one person said near the end of the day, the theme of workers’ control and ran through everything. This was a concept our movement used to hold dear and ought to return to. Tony Kearns probably put it best when he emphasised that we have already seen that the institutions of the top of society – businesses, governments and even the TUC – have already failed to take the steps needed to protect the environment, so we have to be like the Lucas workers and think from the bottom up.