A Plan to turn back the clock – defence diversification


To mark the imminent release of the film The Plan, we publish this piece by Sam Mason, a campaigner for the New Lucas Plan, explaining the history and present of workers organising for a transition away from socially destructive jobs to those for the good of society.

Doomsday clock, positioned at 2 minutes to midnight. Image by Ryanicus Girraficus in public domain / Wikimedia Commons

On the 23 January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists issued an alarming statement to Leaders and Citizens of the world titled Closer than ever: It is 100 seconds to midnight.  This is the minute hand of the Doomsday clock, created in 1947 to indicate the “world’s vulnerability to catastrophe from nuclear weapons, climate change, and disruptive technologies in other domains.” In short, the risk to civilisation and the natural world is currently extremely high, leaving little margin for error in how we address it.

With the increasing threat of nuclear warfare and a world ever more ravaged by the impacts of climate change – fires raging in Australia, extreme drought and famine in southern Africa, flooding in Indonesia – it’s a world that seems out of control. Unfortunately it is however very much under control. Not by its citizens, but political elites who are turning crises of their creation into issues of national identity and sovereignty through deliberate misinformation seeding distrust in democratic structures.  Behind which they are ushering in cyberwarfare, greater surveillance and data capture, and AI technologies that threaten the ‘end of work’ in a path determinism that’s largely going unchallenged.

In an era of increasing distrust, perhaps the biggest error we can now make is not to trust our collective ability and power, outside the constructs of the corporate and political elites, to create another world. A world where our resources are used to end ever widening inequality, feed, house, educate and care for people, and create meaningful work in a socially and ecologically useful away.

For this we can draw on the inspiration of a group of workers at Lucas Aerospace in the 1970s. When faced with a mass wave of redundancies as a result of industrial restructuring, increasing international competition and technological change, workers at the company combined to develop an Alternative Corporate Plan. A company involved in defence system production and civilian aerospace paid for in large part by public funds, the plan was intended to keep jobs by using the company’s technology and their own skills to make things society needed.

Image from Worcester Radical Films

The Plan embodied ideas of ensuring democracy in all aspects of developing and taking the plan forward, and using workers’ skills and knowledge to develop socially useful products. Importantly the Lucas workers saw that they could take over the driving wheel and be the architects of their future.  The Financial Times famously described the Lucas Plan as, ‘one of the most radical alternative plans ever drawn up by workers for their company’ (Financial Times, 23 January 1976).

Yet, the plan never came to realisation.  A tragic error as many of the ideas which were developed are still being discussed today as solutions to the climate crisis such as heat pumps and wind turbines. But an industrial and labour movement legacy that remains to inspire how workers can use their skills and knowledge to enable them to diversify away from ecologically or socially destructive jobs such as in nuclear weapons.

In 2016, a conference was organised to celebrate forty years of the Lucas Plan. More than a day of nostalgia, this was an opportunity to learn how we could use the ideas of the Lucas workers to tackle today’s concerns of increased military threats, climate change and automation. Out of this the New Lucas Plan project was established which among its aims is the creation of a defence diversification agency.

The agency would be linked to a wider industrial strategy that looks at economic diversification in areas dependent on sole employers in the defence sector such as BAE systems at Faslane in Scotland. This would enable workers in the defence sector, and particularly those linked to the Trident programme, to transition into new work with the safeguard of social protections for their income, pensions and skills.

It is widely recognised that defence jobs have been declining for some time with increased capitalisation. Therefore, a managed transition into socially useful work would also help to ensure communities aren’t devastated in the same way as we’ve seen across deindustrialised sectors of the 1980s and 1990s.

In 2017, the Trades Union Congress passed a motion to lobby the Labour Party for the creation of a shadow defence diversification agency.  This was not included in their manifesto and following the general election, remains a longer-term aspiration. However there is precedent in some unlikely places as illustrated by the excellent report produced by the Nuclear Education Trust in 2018.

Using these ideas and creating our own plan – for workers and communities – we have a chance to turn back the clock to make a socially and ecologically useful world.

Further information