Shirley Williams on the Industrial Democracy

Before she left with other members of the Labour right to form the SDP, it seems that Shirley Williams did have some genuinely interesting views on socialist issues some would associated more with the Labour left. Like industrial democracy.

The ’70s were the decade of the Bullock Report, which recommended putting workers on the management boards of Britain’s major industries, and this was still an issue a couple of years later. In her 1981 book, Politics Is For People, Williams discusses some of the problems of industrial democracy. She acknowledges that the trade unions were divided on the issue and management positively feared it. She also recognized that there were problems about how it could be achieved, given the complexities of the representation of the different trade unions in British workplaces on management boards. But she supported its introduction in Britain’s businesses, and suggested that it would be made easier through the information and computer technology that was then also appearing. She wrote

Through the need for participation in the introduction of new technologies, management and unions are having to establish consultative machinery where none exists. Those firms who want to move ahead quickly will achieve trade union cooperation if they offer participation in exchange; otherwise they will face resistance and obstruction. The new technologies offer an opportunity to widen industrial democracy at the plant and office level, where it matters most. Whether joint consultation at that level leads on to participation in the boardroom is a matter that can be left to each company and its unions to decide.

More difficult is the question of how the workforce in each firm should be represented. In the Cabinet committee which drew up the 1979 White Paper on industrial democracy, there were differing views on whether workers should elect their representatives to plant and company committees or whether they should be nominated by the trade unions (the ‘single channel’). The issue is far from simple. In Sweden and the Federal Republic of Germany most firms have only one trade union,, so there is no need to secure agreement among them before candidates for election can be put forward. In Britain, as many as twenty unions may represent the employees of large firms, and four or five unions in a firm are commonplace. In these circumstances, a straightforward election would be likely to lead all the representatives coming from the biggest unions, the rest being unrepresented.

But the nomination of a single list by agreement between the unions in a plant or firm offends the principle of democratic choice. The workers may object to one or more of the people selected to represent them, yet they would have no power to reject him or her other than by the rejecting the whole slate and jeopardizing participation itself. One way out of this dilemma would be for the unions in a multi-union plant to agree on constituencies representing each union on a weighted basis, with an election based on a secret ballot between candidates who were members of the appropriate union, some of whom might carry official endorsement.

Industrial democracy has not attracted consistent support from most trade unions, and the trade unions themselves are profoundly divided on the form it should take, many preferring a consultative structure to one statutory participation on the lines proposed in the Bullock Report. If the unions are divided, however, much of management feels threatened by the idea of industrial democracy. So for years there has been a stalemate on the subject, and government intervenes at their peril. Yet, if only beca8use there has to be effective consultation on technological change, the position cannot be left where it is. Indeed, in my view industrial democracy could usher in much better relations in industry, greater cooperation in improving the productivity of all factors of production and a better understanding of the need for voluntary incomes and prices policies to combat inflation. Many of Britain’s economic problems are rooted in institutional rigidities or, as in this case, institution conservatism. This one reform could bring in its wake a long-delayed rejuvenation. We should not be daunted by the difficulties, but rather invigorated by the possibilities.

Shirley Williams, Politics Is For People (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1981) 139-40.

Some of the issues Williams talks about here are very dated. Inflation is no longer the critical issue it was in the ’70s. It’s now very low, and this has caused problems in its turn. Profits and management pay have risen immensely, but this is not reflected in the salaries of ordinary workers. Quite the opposite. Their pay is still below inflation, and the result is that many of the quarter of a million people using food banks are actually in work. Mike has also today posted up a piece about how parents are starving themselves in the week because there isn’t enough to feed both them and their children on their wages. And this is not a recent development. Mike has published a number of articles about this over the past few years since the Tories took power under Cameron.

And the new technology to which Williams looked forward also hasn’t been an entirely liberating force. Some businesses instead are using to restrict and spy on their workers. Private Eye in their ‘Street of Shame’ column printed a story about how the weirdo Barclay Twins, who own the Torygraph, tried to fit the motion detectors used in call centres to monitor the movements of staff there to check to see if there hacks were leaving the desks. Other firms are fitting devices to their workers ankles to monitor their movements. And the spectre of Big Brother-style surveillance loomed even larger a month or so ago, when the I reported that a Swedish firm had developed an implantable chip that could be inserted into a firm’s staff.

British workers also don’t have the strong unions they enjoyed in the 1970s, which have left British workers vulnerable to low pay, the removal of employment rights and job insecurity.

However, Williams is right in that industrial democracy offers a genuine opportunity to empower working people, and benefit industry through proper cooperation between workers and management. It’s proper implementation won’t come from Williams and her fellows, who are now part of the Lib Dems, and who seem to have thoroughly forgotten it. It will only from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party.

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