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Unemployment: a utopia we nearly had | Anne Karpf

Workers in a failing 1970s arms factory created a revolutionary jobs plan. We need their vision now

What’s wrong with us all? Why aren’t we spending? In Athens, it was reported this week, shoppers are looking but not buying. The buzzword in Brussels these days, says the Economist, is growth. Everyone seems to be agreed: we need to spend our way out of deficit.

Mere months ago we were urged to pay off personal debt; now, apparently, our future wellbeing requires us to Shop for the Economy (as a slogan, not quite as morally compelling as Dig for Victory). But can the economy really depend on my daughters buying more Topshop leggings? Or my going to the pub more often?

Protecting our environment used to be seen as essential, with investing in a green future a means to sustainably rebuild our economy. Now it seems this was merely a luxury item, only affordable until economic difficulty came to town. Polluting, maiming and drugging are good again, because making more cars, arms and fags means more economic growth (and who cares that the UK lurks behind every Middle Eastern tyranny? Certainly not Prince Andrew). Whatever their differences, both right and left seem locked into an assumed consensus about the need for (indiscriminate) economic growth. Is there no alternative?

Four decades ago, a green way out of recession was proposed. Lucas Aerospace, a major designer and manufacturer of combat aircraft and missile systems, planned to close a number of factories and make 20% of its 18,000-strong workforce redundant. The shop stewards combine committee, representing the 13 different trades unions in the company, decided to draw up “an alternative corporate plan for socially useful and environmentally desirable production”. It sent out a questionnaire to the company’s 17 plants, as well as outside experts, asking for an inventory of skills and machinery that already existed, and ideas about what they should make.

The company’s workers – both blue and white collar – responded enthusiastically. Of the 150 ideas that poured in, the committee chose 12 to present in its 1976 plan, among them a portable life-support system, a safer braking system for buses and coaches, robotic devices for remote-control firefighting and mining, and hobcarts to help people with spina bifida get around. Some of the products look dated today; others, such as a hybrid car (essentially a Toyota Prius), were prescient; still others, such as a road-rail vehicle of particular use in developing countries, remain innovative.

The plan generated enormous excitement. The MP Bob Cryer described its strategy of jobs for peace instead of destruction as “one of the most important moral crusades that this country has seen in the 20th century”. Another MP wanted to propose the combine committee for the Nobel peace prize. Until he was sacked by Harold Wilson, the then industry minister Tony Benn supported the plan, but eventually both Lucas Aerospace and the Labour government rejected it. The company, playing off the different unions involved against each other, refused to recognise the combine committee, and resisted any attempt to challenge its right to decide what to manufacture.

Although, as Marxism Today suggested at the time, “socialism in one company” is hardly a viable proposition, nevertheless the Lucas plan has plenty to say to us today. It showed that manual workers and engineers could work together. It demonstrated that trades unions didn’t need only to protest and resist – their “no” role – but could also be the initiators of positive ideas. It also challenged some of the presumed technophobia of the left. It wasn’t a bunch of alternative types that drew up the alternative plan: it emerged from the heart of the traditional labour movement, and proposed reskilling the deskilled.

Most important, the Lucas plan linked production with human need, promoting use-value over exchange-value, converting jobs manufacturing armaments into ones creating socially useful products – swords into ploughshares indeed.

How far we’ve come since those heady times. While the Green party MP Caroline Lucas-supported “new green deal” – public and private investment to create “green collar” jobs to make UK buildings energy efficient – is probably the nearest modern equivalent to the Lucas plan, Ed Miliband singles out Rolls-Royce as a producer rather than predator company, even though they make combat jets and components for nuclear submarines. The talk is all of the markets, as if they were a natural, elemental and irresistible force – like a rock formation or a hurricane. And so this collection of amoral speculators must be courted and placated – everything else is dismissed as “utopian”.

The Lucas workers’ plan was subtitled “A positive alternative to recession and redundancy”. Never has such a socially useful and environmentally sustainable alternative been more urgently needed. Yes, there is an alternative. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds