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The Lucas Plan Was a Workers’ Alternative to Neoliberalism

In the midst of the 1970s economic crisis, workers in Lucas Aerospace came up with a radical alternative to mass redundancies – taking production into their own hands and organising it for the common good.

Members of the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee, photographed in 1977.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the favoured slogan of global capital—‘cuts, job losses, money for the bosses’—met a new threat. It came in the form of an alliance between the workers at the UK-based military contractor Lucas Aerospace and then firebrand Labour Minister for Industry Tony Benn.

The Lucas workforce, more than 11,000 strong, faced mass redundancy after Harold Wilson’s dream of reorienting British industry around ‘the white heat of high technology’ ushered in a period of Labour government cuts to military spending.

On approaching Benn to discuss the potential nationalisation of Lucas Aerospace, workers were urged to challenge their supposed redundancy by coming up with an alternative corporate strategy—one independent from the need for military spending, and based on the workers’ ‘knowledge of their company, its equipment, the market and the skills they had at their disposal.’

The result was the Lucas Plan. Published in 1976, the plan argued for the redeployment of the government funds previously spent on Lucas Aerospace’s military contracts to combat the ‘illogical growth of the dole queue’ by redirecting Lucas workers’ capacity toward production ‘useful to the community at large.’ In Benn’s words, the plan amounted to ‘one of the most remarkable exercises that has ever occurred in British industrial history.

Lucas workers socialised their extensive industry knowledge. The Combine they formed pulled organisers from all levels of the company, both ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’, to oppose the segregation of its workforce into classes—a tactic that remains relevant in the era of worker atomisation ushered in by the likes of Amazon and Uber—and carried its egalitarian principles forward, posing questions usually reserved for management to workers on the shop floor.

The first, ‘what socially-useful products should we make?’, was answered by a list of 150 items, each with its own social or environmental utility, based on the workforce, equipment, and skills available in each of the country’s seventeen Lucas Aerospace factories.

Ideas ranged from alternative energy sources based on solar and wind power to medical devices like kidney dialysis machines, and even a ‘road to rail vehicle’ able to move between road and railway networks. Many ideas were ahead of their time: wind turbines, hybrid car engines, and telechiric machines were suggested, as was a combined heat and power system for use on social housing estates’. Whether their products were intended for use in social housing, public transport, or the NHS, the aim of the Lucas Combine was to serve the public using public funds, or as the Plan put it, to close the ‘gap between what technology could provide, and actually does provide, to address a wide range of human problems.’

Not only did the plan anticipate the need for wide-reaching state-funded intervention to tackle the nascent climate crisis—described in the Plan as the ‘pollution of the environment’ by ‘anti-social corporations’—but it engaged in the kind of bottom-up organisation necessary to counter attempts by managers to weaken labour power and shut down the attack on capitalism’s sacred cow, the profit motive.

Lucas Combine member Mike Cooley summed up the plan’s spirit as a refusal to be ‘reduced to a sort of beelike behaviour,’ in which workers reacted without thought to the demands of the free market; instead, Lucas workers chose a future in which ‘masses of people, conscious of their skills and abilities in both a political and technical sense, chose to become the architects of a new form of technological development.’

The plan’s impact was enormous. In 1977, the New Statesman noted that the ‘philosophical and technical implications of the plan are now being discussed on average twenty-five times a week in international media’; two years later, it was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Even the Financial Times wrote in the year of its formulation that the Lucas Plan was ‘one of the most radical alternative plans ever drawn up by workers for their company’.

Ahead of its time it might have been, but the Lucas Plan was also brought to a halt by the political forces of its present. Neoliberalism was in its ascendency, and free-marketeers were rattling their sabres. By the time the plan was finalised, Tony Benn had been moved from the Department of Trade and Industry to a more obscure role in government; tensions between the Labour government and the trade union movement were flaring, and it wouldn’t be long before Thatcher came to Number 10 with intent to break the power of the labour movement for good.

Mike Cooley and his comrades were duly punished, fired from Lucas Aerospace for their activism. Some Combine members found a new home at the Greater London Council (GLC), which voted the Left into power in 1981. Cooley was appointed director of technology at the GLC’s newly created Greater London Enterprise Board, which went on to create hundreds of union jobs throughout the city in the 1980s.

A Lucas Plan Today

In the last couple of years, many economists claim to have heard the death knell of neoliberalism as a result of the pandemic and the newfound interventionism of right-wing governments, and have tried to plot what might come next. Whether or not those claims were premature, it does now seem that the Lucas Plan’s moment may have finally arrived.

Questions about the viability of ‘socially useful’ manufacturing were reignited when, weeks after the pandemic began, firms including Brewdog, Lamborghini, and arms manufacturers pivoted to churn out hand sanitiser, face masks, and medical equipment. This was a temporary response to a crisis carried out by private companies, rather than a long-term attempt to transition to socially-useful manufacturing backed by public funds—but future pivots don’t have to be.

With calls for socially-useful production sounded ever more loudly on the Left, this recent bout of private philanthropy serves an important role: to remind us that manufacturing could and should be first and foremost a social instrument used for the public good, not a means to accumulate an ever-growing pile of private profit.

For Amelia Horgan, author of Lost In Work: Escaping Capitalism, the Lucas Plan offers the modern Left a revolutionary opportunity to ‘reorient(e) production away from arms and environmental degradation and towards socially-valuable life-sustaining activity.’ By extension, revisiting the plan can play a role in uniting environmentalist and labour movement groups by offering a solution to climate catastrophe based on workers’ material interests, rather than self-sacrifice.

And in some industries, the idea of converting manufacturing away from environmental degradation has started to take root. When aerospace manufacturer Airbus suffered a fifty-five percent drop in profit and the predicted loss of 15,000 jobs during the first three months of the pandemic, a collective of more than 100 local scientists and researchers from the French city of Toulouse, where Airbus is based, presented company bosses with an alternative corporate plan. The plan demanded the company recognise the ‘lack of certainty about the aviation industry’s recovery,’ coupled with ‘the damage it inflicts on the environment,’ arguing for a ‘clear-headed debate on the reconversion of the sector and (its) companies.’

A similar debate is taking place in the automotive industry, the only American industry that underwent complete conversion to supply the World War II effort, which some automotive workers claim makes it uniquely positioned as a ‘flexible machine’ that society can use to do almost anything—even fight climate change.

The most significant legacy of the Lucas Plan, however, might be its relevance to contemporary discussions around a Green New Deal—in particular, the idea of a ‘green jobs guarantee’, which would guarantee workers from polluting industries are offered green jobs, thereby ensuring their work is redirected toward socially useful ends without the need for redundancies.

Reimagined today, the inspiration of the Lucas Plan could transform workplaces across the country into battlegrounds against climate change—and in fact, with corporate bodies unwilling to address the climate question and spending big to avoid it, nothing less will do. But it also proves that this kind of transformative change can only be achieved from the ground up, and with the backing of a strong trade union movement whose members are empowered and unafraid to challenge precarious, unproductive, and socially and environmentally destructive work.