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Full report of conference

Conference on Rebuilding British IndustryJuly 2023

Opening remarks by Paul Cannon set out the issues to be discussed in a broader framework of the decline of investment in British industry dating from the 1960s. He began by talking about the nature and quality of work, a theme that would be pursued throughout the day. The starting point is that work should be a central element in life, not just to earn a wage but also to provide opportunities for self-fulfilment and social interaction. Good work is a key component of a good life.  We don’t want a society where all work is in front of a screen.

Unfortunately Britain has, for many years being suffering from an economic decline that undermined the productive base of the economy. Between 1966 and 2016 the number of companies listed on the London stock market declined by 70%. Financial disinvestment has been paralleled by a decline in the quality of work and in living standards. Much work that could be done in Britain is exported overseas for cost reasons, this offshoring being made possible through a lax approach to commissioning and procurement by the British state. The point was also made in relation to a major British project, HS2, by Terry McCormick in a comment, who pointed out that much of the highly skilled design work has been offshored and British design and engineering workers made redundant. The time is more than overdue to rebuild the British economy and to enhance the lives of working people.

Andy Hudd listening to contributions

Andy Hudd of Aslef introduced the theme of automation and the role of trade unions in managing technological progress. He pointed out how important it is to take account of different kinds of human abilities and the diverse ways in which workers can contribute. He drew attention to one of the central problems of automation when decisions are made independently of the workers affected by them: capitalists will use automation to lower their wage bills by reducing headcount. He described the long struggles that working people have had to ensure that technical innovation does not destroy their livelihoods, ranging from the Luddites of the early nineteenth century to the Wapping dispute in the 1980s to the current automated warehouses of Amazon. 

He made the crucial point that trade unions are not opposed to technological and technical innovation if it is introduced with the interests of working people in mind. Job design can ensure that work is made more satisfying and increased productivity can boost wages and give workers more free time. In other words, extra productivity can be used for the benefit of society as a whole.

Turning to the role of trade unions, Andy drew attention to the legal disadvantages that unions now have in resisting ‘job destroying’ developments, the attractions for capitalists in promoting universal basic income as a way of offloading the unemployed so that they will not trouble society and pointed out that trade unions have lost much of their political and moral purpose by abandoning an explicit socialist standpoint. Campaigns to protect jobs and to ensure that increased productivity benefitted workers need to be situated in broader social vision.

There followed a lively discussion in which Andy’s themes were further developed. Among the issues raised were the following:

The role of the Labour Party: there is a long history of Labour abandoning popular struggles. Working people have largely abandoned the Labour Party and the trade union movement has become increasingly detached from it. ‘Luddism’ is a charge easily made against anyone who questions the introduction of new technology into the workplace. Some speakers (Nadia & John) made the point that a decline in the quality of employment leads to a decline in engagement with work and to a decline in the quality of output, reinforcing an earlier point that work is about human  satisfaction as well as outputs. Related to this is the decline of quality training that has an impact on the quality of work (Andy Hudd). This point was also taken up in the afternoon.

Concerning the role of the state and the position of the working class in society, it was pointed out that removing financial policy from the government also removed it from democratic political control. More than one speaker alluded to the need for some form of worker’s control as a means of addressing the problems discussed.

Peter Ford

Some policy directions were outlined. Paul Scrivens suggested that there should be a tax on job losses that should be used for enhanced vocational education. Peter Ford pointed to the way in which rising energy costs have undermined the British economy. He called for an abandonment of the idea that renewables could replace traditional sources of energy and called for a revival of the coal industry in order to bring energy costs under control and to restore competitiveness. There were some different currents of thought about the ‘green agenda’. Among the points made were that there are no sure deliverances from ‘climate science’, that renewables may have a role to play and that not all jobs lost (e.g. non-automated mining) were good for people. To some extent the green agenda also served the interests of energy companies. Coal is a versatile material and that its bad effects can be mitigated through carbon capture.

The moral dimension of work.

 Here the trade unions have a role in proposing what new occupations there should be in the face of change, bearing in mind satisfaction at work. Work is not just about profitability, but also about social interaction and an understanding of one’s identity and place in society. The idea that workplaces and industries should have continuity and provide a link between different generations of workers and hence a sense of history and settled identity was also important. “A good job is like a good pub: a set of social relationships”.  Another point made ( by Arthur) in this connection was to do with the ‘rootedness’ of work. Ultimately our work depends on a relationship with the environment and nature and modern forms of work distance us from this and thus from some of the most basic satisfactions to be gained from work. Another speaker pointed out that technology, however automated or based on artificial intelligence, ultimately depends on human labour and could not exist without drawing on its parasitic relationship with human labour and creativity.  In particular, the work of thousand of artists is used, without acknowledgment, to make AI art.

Chris Winch – trade unions have an important role in shaping the workplace

The second session introduced by Chris Winch concerned the role of vocational education and training (VET) in the revival of British industry.  He argued that there was no finite and fixed amount of labour in the economy. The number of jobs and the types of occupations are matters of choice and subject to social determination as well as the needs of the market. New technology can be introduced to enhance work through improved occupational profiles and job design, making work more satisfying as well as productive. Trade unions have an important role in managing this. VET is also crucial as an instrument for increasing productivity and he took the meeting through the failures of British VET policy from the 1960s until the present, emphasising how it has been a low status policy plaything, suffering from mistaken assumptions such as supplying qualifications that it is hoped will stimulate employer demand and poor policy implementation such as the failure of the apprenticeship levy to increase the number of young people taking up apprenticeships. He pointed to the Labour Party’s acquiescence with the idea of a ‘low skill equilibrium’ and with a supply side approach to skill formation. The Tories’ attempts to address the issue of a lack of employer demand through a levy and an upgrade of qualifications has been poorly executed and in danger of failure.

He concluded with the following points:

VET and national, regional and local development need to be co-ordinated.

Good VET is not enough on its own; there need to be good jobs.

Trade unions have an important role to play in developing good VET and making sure that the design of jobs is improved.

Immigration from countries with good VET has given British employers a ‘free lunch’ and relieved them from providing VET for British workers.

There needs to be better regulation of the labour market to ensure upskilling and to prevent abuses of working conditions.

The discussion that followed covered a number of topics. Nina raised the issue of why there is no technical stream in British schools and why the school to work transition was so difficult. Terry mentioned skills gaps and stated that education provided as a business, leads to low quality education. Dave (from Wetherby) made the point that not all worthwhile work is paid and that the invaluable work of e.g. carers needs to be recognised not just through money but also through VET. Chris agreed and thought that this should be more widely recognised by socialists. Ed raised the issue of what metrics for success should look like, what incentives there are for the users of education and what the role of the state and of Trade Unions should be in the provision of VET.

Peter Ford pointed out the impact of immigration on the labour market and asked how this should be handled as it was an explosive issue. Chris replied that one reason why the UK is an immigration magnet is an informal and unregulated labour market where it is easy to sink into a black or grey economy and fall below the regulatory radar. Following up a point he made to Ed, he pointed out that better enforcement of existing regulations, regulating away the informal economy and the gradual introduction of licences to practise in an increasing number of occupations is one effective way of dealing with this issue over the longer term. Following this, there was some debate about whether nuclear fission is a viable alternative to the use of renewables, without a consensus being reached. Some thought that renewables could have a role as part of a broader energy policy and could contribute to energy resilience. Others argued that we should look at practical examples including developments overseas such as the PRC’s goal of net zero emissions by 2060.

After a break a general discussion around both presentations took place. Peter Ford advocated a three point programme which included taking back control of the Bank of England, opposition to net zero energy policy and withdrawal from Nato’s command structure. Peter Higgins drew attention to the vulnerability of many middle class occupations to automation and AI and argued that we should make this group a focus of our attention. He argued that a programme could include as main planks workers’ control, enhanced VET and a more autarchic post Brexit economy, which would rely much more on the indigenous workforce and investment in British industry.

Andy drew attention to some of the challenges, such as the disengagement from the international division of labour developed by the EU and the need to be competitive in this new environment.

The conference indicated a broad consensus around the need to revive British industry and the important role that the trade unions have to play in doing this. Workers control, improved VET, a more potent role for the State in planning, investment and regulation were also noted. Automation and technological innovation are not bogeymen to be feared and resisted. When they are introduced with the interests of society and workers and not just profit in mind, they can both increase productivity and be a benefit to society. At the same time one could discern different shades of opinion on matters such as the right mix of energy resources that the country should be relying on. All contributions were made in a spirit of inquiry, were listened to courteously and there was a sense of common purpose throughout the discussion.

The Workers Party organises day conferences open to all members. These conferences allow for discussion of key ideas, development of party policy and they are a chance for members from around the country to socialise.

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