‘Red’ Ken Livingstone’s Arguments for Industrial Democracy

Livingstone Book pic

In his 1989 book, Livingstone’s Labour: Programme for the Nineties (London: Allen Hyman Ltd) the much reviled leader of the GLC and bête noir of Thatcher and Blair, presented a case for the introduction of industrial democracy into British firms. This, he believed, would make state intervention popular, and increase the efficiency of the firms themselves. He writes

Once the idea of intervention is accepted, the question is how should it be done? No one in their right mind would wish to repeat the mistakes of previous forms of public ownership in Britain in which vast, remote, undemocratic, Morrisonian bureaucracies alienated the groups they were supposed to serve. Nor do we want some state-owned investment bank based in London and managed by a few well-meaning City bankers who have at sometime in the past been known to vote Labour in a good year. It would be a great mistake to recreate in our new system the inherent failings of the present centralised metropolitan financial system.

We must ensure that what Labour creates is based on the different regions of Britain and is inherently partipatory and democratic. If we can create an investment system which involves the workforce on an industry by industry, company by company, and plant for plant basis, it would not only be very difficult to abolish following a change of government but it would usher in economic rights for the individual citizen in addition to our traditional electoral rights.

I have no doubt that people in the future will look back at the present time and express amazement that private investors and accountants could intervene to contract and close firms based solely on a short-term financial decision, while the people and sometimes whole communities who had given their lives to that firm had no rights except to draw the dole.

It will no doubt come as a shock to those who wield power and influence at the top of great bureaucracies and corporations to suggest that their workforce should have control over the investment programme of their company, but in the long term they are the people who have the greatest stake in the success or future of the firm. Instead of the investment decisions being taken solely by a firm’s directors and accountants, who are so often only interested in the quickest short-term return and therefore decide to invest the company profits in stock market or property speculation rather than expanding production or developing new products, we should give the workforce in each firm a power of veto over all investment plans and the power to initiate an alternative strategy. The workforce would require access to all the relevant information about the firm or industry concerned, plus adequate research resources for it take part in any debate about future prospects. The most obvious way to provide such resources is on a regional basis and this would be the most important function of elected regional authorities, discussed in the next chapter.

All the evidence from other parts of the world and the more limited experience of Britain in this field, shows that workers in a firm take a much more long term, strategic view, if for no other reason than their jobs depend on the survival and success of the company concerned. I have no doubt that had such economic rights and responsibilities been introduced by the post-war Labour government under Attlee, then the British economy would by now be a lot closer to that of West Germany in strength and size.

These sentiments will seem alarming here in Britain where the class system is still so much more of a barrier to judging individuals on their merits than in the other more modern Western democracies. Indeed, there is no doubt that these reactionary and arrogant attitudes have been strengthened during the Thatcher premiership with the constant emphasis on the theme that ‘managers must be free to manage’. Given the gross mismanagement of our economy by our ‘managers’ over the past decades, there is little empirical evidence to suggest that British managers’ ability to run the economy is such that the rest of us should simply do as we are told whilst fervently hoping that their success rate improves. (pp. 33-4).

I’ve blogged about the West German co-determination system, in which workers are elected to the boardroom, and have wide rights regarding the supervision and management of personnel issues, though they don’t control investment or the business plan. The Fabian pamphlet ‘The Future of Industrial Democracy’ and the evidence presented to the Bullock Report in the 1970s noted the unanimous evidence that while workers generally say they don’t want to be managers, they do work harder and better when they feel that they have a say in the firm’s management. There are various systems of industrial democracy across northern Europe, including the Netherlands, Austria and Denmark. It’s only the British class system that prevents it from being adopted over here.

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One Response to “‘Red’ Ken Livingstone’s Arguments for Industrial Democracy”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political.

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