Trident and Jobs: lessons from the Lucas Plan

Those in the labour movement that argue we need to replace Trident to retain jobs and skills need to think again, argues Kate Hudson

For too long the Labour leadership used the jobs argument as cover for its pro-nuclear position, attempting to drive a wedge between the peace and labour movements on this fundamental issue. ‘You can’t cancel Trident’, they would say, ‘because jobs will be lost’. But extensive research – and common sense – shows that with the money spent on Trident reinvested, far more skilled jobs could be created in sectors that would help us all – from housing to sustainable energy to medical equipment. Now Labour has a leader in Jeremy Corbyn whose plans for a Defence Diversification Agency (DDA) will finally deal with Labour’s failure – to provide a just transition away from the production of weapons of mass destruction to socially productive industries with high skilled jobs.

There can be no doubt that Jeremy has the vision and commitment to make that transition happen and it is vital that the labour and trade union movement backs him up. This is of huge importance, because although it is the question of Trident replacement that has put this on the agenda right now, it has far wider significance for industry as a whole – there has to be an industrial strategy, not just for the defence sector, but for Britain’s economy as a whole. Without appropriate planning we will fail to meet the needs of our communities, whatever economic sector they rely on. And we will fail to meet the needs of those without work. It is not just a question of defending the jobs of those in work – it is about structuring a more equitable division of wealth into our society, and this cannot be done without growing our economy and creating sustainable jobs.

But there is more to this than having a top level decision that new jobs will be created and useful things produced – welcome though that will be. For this to really work there has to be genuine workforce involvement. And this is at the heart of Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to a DDA which will be established ‘jointly between workers, industry and government’.

This will enable a real transition – a change in the narrative which previous Labour leaderships have imposed, away from ‘weapons are good for jobs’ to ‘jobs with peace and prosperity’.

And for the workforce it will mean empowerment – having greater responsibility over what they produce, as well as over conditions of production.

There is a powerful history to this which needs to be reclaimed and drawn upon as the DDA initiative moves forward. Some will remember the plans produced by the workforce at Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s, as they faced massive job cuts, to provide alternative ways to retain jobs and move to socially useful production.

Lucas was no small affair. It was one of Europe’s biggest designers and manufacturers of aircraft systems and equipment, employing 18,000 staff across 15 factories with around half its work in the military sector. Management planned to lay off 20% of the workforce in an efficiency-driven rationalisation programme. The response in 1976 from the Lucas shop stewards’ combine committee was to propose an alternative Corporate Plan.

The Plan was the result of two years’ planning and debate amongst the Lucas workforce. Everyone participated in drawing it up including engineers, technicians, production workers and office staff. It was based on detailed information on the machinery and equipment across all Lucas sites, together with an audit of skills across the company. Its central aim was to prevent job cuts, while arguing that military goods and markets were neither the best use of resources nor in themselves desirable.

What is particularly interesting today is the forward looking and innovative nature of what the workforce proposed:

Medical Equipment:

  • Increase production of kidney dialysis machines by 40% and look into the development of a portable model.
  • Build up a ‘design for the disabled’ unit, with the Ministry of Health, to look into things like artificial limb control systems (which could use Lucas’s control engineering expertise), sight aids for the blind.
  • Manufacture an improved life-support system for ambulances. An ex-Lucas engineer turned doctor had offered to help design and build a prototype for this, using a simple heat exchanger and pumping system.

Alternative Energy Techniques:

  • Due to the finite availability of fuels like coal and petrol, they proposed that Lucas concentrate on renewable sources of energy generation and developing more efficient methods of energy conservation from fuel sources.
  • Development and production of heat pumps which were efficient in saving waste heat. Such heat pumps would be used in new housing schemes to provide a very cheap service.
  • Development and production of solar cells and fuel cells.
  • Development of windmills. Lucas’s experience in aerodynamics would be invaluable.
  • Development of a flexible power pack, which could easily adjust to people’s situations allowing for small scale electricity generation using basic raw materials.

Transportation:

  • The development of a road-rail public transportation vehicle which would be light-weight using pneumatic tyres on rails.
  • A combined internal combustion engine/battery powered car which could give up to 50% fuel savings while reducing toxic emission from cars.

The creativity and expertise of the workforce far outstripped anything on offer from the management yet the Plan was rejected. How different Britain’s industrial economy would be today if this type of plan had been implemented. It is this history that the movement needs to access now, to learn its lessons, to take Britain forward into a new political and economic era.

I’ll finish with a powerful word from Mike Cooley, one of the Plan’s driving forces:

‘We have a level of technological sophistication such that we can design and produce Concorde, yet in the same society we cannot provide enough simple heating systems to protect old age pensioners from hypothermia. In the winter of 1975-76, 980 died of the cold in the London area alone…’

This message rings true down the decades and is the real lesson for us today – let’s use our skills for a just society, to meet genuinely people’s needs.

1986 is the 40th anniversary of the Lucas Plan and this year will see a number of commemoration initiatives including a documentary and a conference in the autumn.



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