In all the memorials to Tony Benn one period of his career seems to have been missed. The 12 years he was associated with the Institute for Workers Control. He first encountered them in 1971 when he visited the Upper Clyde Shipyards.
That contact was initially a bit circumspect, as Ken Coates said, “He was not rated very highly, although he would be given credit for having done some good things on the Clyde. He was felt to be too dodgy a customer by far. They thought he was a careerist, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, that he got his position in the Labour party because of his father. I bought them round to see that he represented a better left then the more conventional left, more adventurous, more dynamic, more liable to do things that we believed in.”
The IWC had been formed in 1968 by Ken Coates and Tony Topham it had the support of Hugh Scanlon of the Engineering Union and Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers.
Their conferences where lively, well attended events they debated a broad range of proposals to introduce industrial democracy challenging management’s right to manage. In the first pamphlet by the IWC by Hugh Scanlon he reclaimed the radical history of British Trade Unionism from before World War One,
“The whole question of workers' control is once again becoming an important issue in the British Labour Movement. In some ways, today is analogous to that before the First World War. Expansion of industry, coupled with inflation, up to 1914, provided the basis for aggressive union action and the growth of ideas concerning workers control, culminating in an historic pamphlet, ‘The Miners Next Step’. It provided the impetus of the growth of the shop stewards movement which arose during the war years itself.”
Benn became deeply involved in these discussions and contributed to over a dozen pamphlets for the IWC or Spokesman’s press many of which are still available and well worth reading.
In 1975 he called for the “Labour movement to intensify its discussion about industrial democracy,” but he not only made the case he offered support to. Many now look on the experiences of the Fisher-Bendix on Merseyside; or of the Scottish Daily News; or of the Triumph Meriden motor-cycle co-op as heroic failures, which in a way they where, of itself workers control cannot make a bad business good.
The Rochdale Pioneers are famous because their co-op model worked and set the scene for retail co-ops for 150 years. But before them there where hundreds that did not survive before the pioneers got it right. These experiments which will always be associated with Tony Benn are just as important in the realm of worker co-operation.
Like in many of his ideas Benn was way ahead of his time. His thoughts on Technology and Democracy where also important as he said in a pamphlet published in 1978,
“The general case for political democracy applies with equal force to industrial life. Industrial democracy, workers self-management, must develop to permit the sharing of power and responsibility at the national level and at all places of work in industry – including technological work places, and those in academic institutions.”
Further “In my submission, science can best flourish in a democratic society which shares power and responsibility more widely and in which the knowledge science has at its disposal is used to strengthen the people as a whole and allow them to harness this power to the advancement of mankind.”
Tony had more faith in us than sometimes we had in ourselves. “I had always thought it was a great pity that working people in Britain set their sights so low.” He said in a speech on Industrial Democracy in 1971.
Raising their sights the workers of Lucas Aerospace developed an astonishing plan for their business. As Bob Cryer MP said in the House of Commons in February 1979,
“I am grateful for the opportunity to raise what is one of the most important moral crusades that this country has seen in the twentieth century. I refer to the Lucas Aerospace combine shop stewards' committee, its corporate plan and the work it has done over the past three years. The shop stewards' imaginative method of tackling the question of providing jobs for peace and not for destruction is an important moral crusade of which the House and the nation must take note.”
The moral crusade for workers control is unfinished Tony Benn’s epitaph is that “he encouraged us!” Speaking in 1975 he said, “If I may finish with a tribute to the Institute for Workers Control, of which I am a member and have come to through my experience: the strange experience of being a Labour Minister makes me see in this organisation something that has real contribution to make to the debate within the movement as a whole and I would wish you luck in your future work.”