Workers Control, Workers Management and Workers Co-ops
Let me say first, I voted for Jeremy Corbyn. I have worked with Jeremy in the distant past and I am a supporter of his leadership. But that doesn’t mean that I endorse every word he says.
To be blunt, I was concerned at Jeremy’s election manifesto for the Co-operative Party. He wrote: “Tony [Benn] was one of the few ministers of state to truly try to bring cooperative principles into the heart of government. As a young trade union official I had the pleasure of working with him when he was encouraging workers to come up with co-operative plans to save their jobs, like at Triumph.”
In an obituary to Tony, Jeremy wrote: “As minister for industry in the second Wilson government, Tony developed the lessons of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work in 1971 as a way of defending industry from the predators who only saw assets to be stripped. As secretary of state he steered through the public ownership of shipbuilding and aircraft manufacture, supported the Triumph Co-operative at Meriden… He encouraged us to produce a blueprint for workers’ control of British Leyland. Sadly he was moved on from his ministerial position before this bold move could take place.”
I share Jeremy’s enormous respect and admiration for Tony Benn. But we should be willing to say that those experiments in industrial democracy in the 1970s were disasters. Triumph/Meriden Co-operative, Scottish Daily News and Kirby Manufacturing & Engineering were not just failures, they also blighted co-operative development in the 1980s.
There were positives. They were examples of an innovative approach to industrial democracy, which recognised that workers’ rights had been trampled upon by the strength of capital. They inspired other workers. But they were naive.
I never worked with these three co-ops, but I have read their histories and I have worked with another co-operative that attempted to operate a similar structure. I was also involved with News on Sunday, which suffered some very similar challenges. I will try to explain what I see as their problems and what we need to learn from those case studies to prevent a repetition.
In each of these organisations, the business models either no longer worked, or else could never have worked. It was not simply that they had insufficient capital. In the case of Scottish Daily News, the business could probably never have been profitable, whoever ran it and however much cash they had. In the case of News on Sunday, it could only have worked with the type of enormous injection of cash that only someone completely opposed to the socialist principles of the newspaper could have afforded to put in.
With both Triumph Motorcycles and KME, the businesses had failed to catch up with contemporary developments. They pretended that all they had to do was to keep doing what they had always done. But as they were losing money, to keep doing what had been done meant to keep losing money.
But the main problem – specifically at KME, which has been well documented – was that the structure of co-operative management and decision-making was modelled on an existing structure of trade union organisation. The skills and reasons for a worker to become a trade union leader are unlikely to translate into the skills needed to run a major business. The role of a trade union leader can include resisting management and negotiating improved terms and conditions, or defending those already in place.
The leader of a business needs to understand business planning, cost flow management, staff leadership. In a co-operative business, they need to work within a framework that is either collective, or else democratic. I do not believe that a trade union leader can be assumed to automatically have those attributes.
There is, moreover, a massive challenge involved in converting an existing, hierarchical, business structure into a democratic workplace. That is true in a small business. It is much more true in a very large business. To achieve this requires a dedicated period of transition. To do it while saving a business is probably just too much to hope for.
In each of what were called the ‘Benn co-ops’, the businesses were essentially bust. They needed to be turned around. A successful business turnaround usually begins by shedding staff. A co-operative structure is not the best one in which to make decisions on sacking people. Neither is a business that is being run by the very trade unionists who have resisted job losses.
Melding together a big business with a democratic structure is not easy. I cannot recall any that has achieved it. Those retail co-operative societies with which I have had close contact did not. Large building societies do no more than play lip service to democratic principles when they ‘advise’ their members which director nominees to vote for.
In truth, I am not confident that a truly democratic large worker-controlled organisation is possible. At the very least, they have enormous challenges. They do also have potential strengths. The John Lewis Partnership – which is a mutual, but not democratic – I believe utilises some of those strengths of stronger employee commitment and participation and an effective programme of employee-nominated improvements.
Co-operative development has typically been much more effective when it has involved smaller organisations, which can either work collectively, or in more easily managed units of worker democracy. There are usually problems when they expand from, say, six or seven people to, say, 20 or so. There is a limit to the size of an effective collective.
There are ways to take advantage of these dynamics. A few years ago there was a big trend in some local authorities to break-up the councils into small business units. This created a nightmare of everyone contracting with everyone else and it was, I believe, largely abandoned. But as the public sector continues to break-up and disperse, perhaps it also offers opportunities.
Alternatively, we have to find new ways of achieving real democracy within large co-operatives and mutuals. I don’t know of any good examples in the UK. We certainly cannot look to the Co-operative Group, the Nationwide Building Society or the John Lewis Partnership. These are all centralised, top down, organisations.
Nor should we believe that democratic centralism is a solution. It didn’t work in the Soviet Union and it doesn’t work in Britain or Ireland. Democracy – whether in the workplace or wider politics – is only real if it is participatory. But not everyone wants to participate. Nor does every manager or trade union leader want participation. Often people want control. And the price of participation can be very long meetings that are unproductive both in the sense of achieving outcomes and in terms of organisational efficiency. These are our challenges and I cannot offer an answer.
I do believe in the future of co-operatives. They can be networks of freelances, who work together and share costs and burdens. They will form different types of relationships than we have seen in the past on shop floors and in offices. But they can work. And they will not have to overcome legacies of ingrained cultures and hierarchies.
So I am all for co-operative development and promotion. And I am all for learning from co-operative history. That is providing that we learn from failure as well as success, while adopting a principle of critical challenge.