What next for Labour?

Radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (Image: Carta Capital)

Originally published in Post-16 Educator Issue 98, this piece argues that the work of radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, especially his 1968/70 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, offers a concrete way forward for the Labour Party after Corbynism, beyond the recriminations.

December’s UK general election result was deeply disappointing. Having joined the Labour Party three years ago after Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise leadership race win, I had invested massively in the Corbyn project as a way to move beyond neoliberalism. While it is certainly true that ‘Corbynism’ in policy terms promised merely a return to social democracy, nationalising key elements of the UK’s infrastructure, strengthening the welfare state and making education free for all ages, I saw like many others something else as well. Lost in the chaos of recriminations and autocritique after the election is the essence of Corbynism as a form of critical pedagogy. Hilary Wainwright saw this more clearly than most, when she wrote:

‘What is striking about Jeremy Corbyn, and what makes him different from other European leaders of the radical left – often called ‘left populist’ – is that his appeal is not centred on himself as a charismatic leader. It is based on an invitation to join an urgent crusade for a new politics based on popular participation. His promise is to invite people to participate in developing the policies that the government he seeks to lead would be implement. He is not a left populist in the sense of being a leader in whom the people are encouraged to invest their faith, against the elite. His appeal has been his encouragement to people to have confidence in themselves.’[i]

What Corbynism promised was a ‘new politics of the left’, Wainwright insisted, one that continued a tradition bridging early syndicalists like Tom Mann and the movement for workers’ control in the 1970s, but with an emphasis on green transformation and economic modernisation. This was the Corbynism I believed in and fought hard for in Coventry and beyond. But this movement has been dealt a crushing blow with Labour’s loss of 42 parliamentary seats, with the ‘red wall’ in the North finally broken by a swing to the Tories in those areas and the party being all but wiped out in Scotland.

The recriminations now coming from both left and right wings of the party all contain a grain of truth, but also the material contradictions that are obscured by focusing on any one aspect of what was an extremely complex social reality that Corbyn was forced to operate in:

  • Hatred of Corbyn: There is overwhelming anecdotal evidence that Corbyn was hugely unpopular on the doorstep and was never popular with older Labour supporters. However, Corbyn was not a charismatic leader, for better or worse, and as many have already pointed out, this figure of hatred was an ideological construction and a caricature of the real man. It is simply not true that Corbyn was a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ or anti-Semite. What this hatred of Corbyn revealed was less about Corbyn but about the deep influence of traditional and social media in structuring our perception of reality.
  • Brexit: For some, Corbyn betrayed the Brexit-voting Northern working class by conceding a second referendum thanks to pressure from within the party, for others, his position was not ‘Remain’ enough. However, we know that Brexit was in many cases a proxy for the deep alienation felt by working people in globalised capitalism. This alienation also affects the middle and even ruling classes, producing a fetishized politics that hides real questions about who owns and controls the economy, questions that Labour were beginning to address with its ideas and plans for co-operative, municipal and national forms of public ownership.
  • Elitism: Corbyn’s Labour was a youthful party, with many naïve and inexperienced people joining and influencing its long-term direction, particularly the 2019 manifesto. Aditya Chakrabortty is harsh but fair when he describes the most recent manifesto as a ‘melange of ideas’ lacking prioritisation and contextualisation. However, youthful Corbynism reflects a generational shift in politics in which young people understand that their future is being cancelled by a political elite uninterested in climate change and an increasingly fearful older generation desperately trying to hold on to the crumbs won via Thatcherite deregulation.

Fear is key. Many are asking why the working class voted against its interests by switching from Labour to Conservative. For Paulo Freire, the answer lies in recognising the ‘fear of freedom’ which afflicts the oppressed, a fear which ‘may equally well lead them to desire the role of oppressor or bind them to the role of oppressed’[ii]. Influenced by psychoanalysis, Freire considered that the oppressed in society ‘housed’ their oppressors and their way of life within their consciousness, causing them to want ‘at any cost to resemble the oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them’[iii]. Reinforced by ‘banking’ approaches to compulsory and adult education – which treat people like empty vessels to be filled with reified information – and manipulative media technology, the alienation of the oppressed from their own creative powers makes them ‘full of fear and mistrust’[iv].

How can we, as educators, help people overcome their fear and mistrust and begin to address the root causes of alienation? By engaging, Freire would suggest, with the oppressed as equals within a ‘problem-posing’, or ‘dialogic’ relationship of mutual education and struggle. Such dialogic communication – which Freire in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed developed into an entire liberation methodology, also known as ‘critical pedagogy’ – must be ‘loving, humble, and full of faith’[v]. Breaking this down into its constituent parts, this means: (1) ‘true solidarity with the oppressed … fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these ‘beings for another’[vi]; (2) not assuming superior knowledge, but rather that ‘there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know’; and perhaps most importantly, (3) an ‘intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human’[vii]. In other words, if we want to rebuild our movement against neoliberalism, we must stand together in unity, with no assumption of intellectual superiority and with an ‘a priori’ trust in the ability of the working class to liberate themselves.

The need for Labour activists to now go out into communities and speak to ‘real people’ is a common theme of many post-election autocritiques[viii]. But what Freire points to is the need to go beyond the stated concerns of the oppressed – many will not even consider themselves oppressed – to the objective, material conditions and contradiction driving these concerns. Critical pedagogy ‘makes oppression and its causes objects of reflection by the oppressed,’ Friere explains, ‘and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation.’[ix] The contradictions of social life under capitalism not only produce false conceptions of reality but also provide the ‘curriculum’ of critical pedagogy. We must begin with the ‘present, existential, concrete situation’, Freire insists[x]. This way emancipatory political programs are connected to real life struggles. We should make no bones about using the language of Marxism here, nor of using the language of class. People are not ‘disenfranchised’, Donald Macedo maintains, they are dominated by a ruling class that is happy to use divide and rule and manipulation tactics to maintain their domination over the oppressed.[xi] Liberation is class struggle, and often ‘painful’; we should never forget this.

One criticism of Corbynism that I think is valid, particularly in its most recent stages, is its tendency to rely on a closed circle of activists and experts to create policy and its reliance on problematic modes of communication. While Labour did engage in policy consultations and encourage local activists to input their ideas via Conference, many of these grassroots ideas – such as the excellent and self-explanatory ‘Abolish Eton’ campaign – were ignored in the manifesto. Freire warned that expedience and overwhelming political difficulty could turn liberatory movements into unwittingly manipulative ones. This problem was reflected in Labour’s use of social media; devastatingly effective in the 2017 election and offering the party a way to bypass the mainstream media, two years later Corbyn’s message was lost in the noise of disinformation and propaganda. ‘Unfortunately, those who espouse the cause of liberation are themselves surrounded and influenced by the climate which generates the banking concept, and often do not perceive its true significance or its dehumanizing power,’ Freire warned. ‘Paradoxically, then, they utilize this same instrument of alienation in what they consider an effort to liberate.’ Liberation must always proceed dialogically, and with a practical focus. Liberators use the weapons of the ruling class with peril – they are designed for subjugation.

Having said this, Labour has, in my experience at least, made huge progress in rebuilding its grassroots base. In Coventry, for example, I have seen wards and CLPs democratised and populated with good activists. I think that much of the criticism of Labour’s alienation from the working class reflects the London-centricity that is a large part of this problem. For all of its faults, Momentum provided new structures to connect local left-Labour activists with the hundreds of thousands of people that joined the party in the wake of Corbyn’s election, and also with existing labour movement structures like trade union councils and single-issue campaign groups. While Momentum was plagued with accusations of ‘entryism’, members of left parties that were either ejected by Labour in the past or chose to go their separate ways – the Socialist Party, for example – finally had a space to interact and bring their substantial experience to the democratic struggle. Rebuilding the labour movement from the bottom up, given the destruction wreaked on its body and soul by Thatcher in the 1980s, was always going to be a long and difficult process. I think, however, that this is the most resilient part of the Corbyn project and holds the best chance of nurturing the party’s return to democratic socialism and recovering its earlier participatory ethos.

What next? A period of reflection, as Corbyn suggests. It is doubtful that Corbyn will survive the current internal bloodbath to be able to lead this reflection. By the time this article is published, I expect Corbyn to have been pushed out and a new leadership election started, with reflection skipped over in favour of action. I hope that we manage to elect a left leader and deputy leader who can at least guide the party through the immediate chaos and establish continuity so that effective renewal can take place. In the meantime, reflection can be pursued where it is most needed: at the ward and CLP levels. First, comradely and constructive dialogue must be encouraged within these structures so that unity can be restored. Second, local activists must go out into their communities and find out why people voted the way they did. But as suggested, these interactions must be dialogical and aimed at identifying the contextually specific and inflected root causes of this alienation. Freire suggested a process of ‘thematic investigation’ in which activists identify particularly pertinent contradictions through face-to-face interactions, which can then be turned into ‘codifications’ – texts, images, films, performances, etc – for discussion within ‘investigation circles’ of no more than 20 people. Freire’s work could provide a methodological framework for local LPs seeking to move forward.

While reconnecting with communities and continuing to rebuild its base are crucial first steps, it is crucial also that Labour takes forward its ambitious policy programme and reconnects these policies with people’s real material needs. Lost within a shopping list of radical proposals, Labour’s National Education Service and Green Transformation programme stand out as ideas that provide holistic frameworks for individual policies that are both popular and essential for the future wellbeing of society. Neoliberalism has destroyed both compulsory and adult education. Privatisation and marketisation have turned a paternalistic yet adequate system into one that actively turns children into consumers of information and infantilised consumers. Adult education has been decimated, with the responsibility for training passed onto individuals and skilled professions ‘proletarianised’. Once shielded from the market, universities are now education factories, funnelling desperate graduates into low-skilled and precarious work and churning out economically useful research for investment-shy corporations[xii]. If we are to have any hope of producing critical, democratic citizens and socially useful economies, we must reverse this commodification and make all levels of education free to access at any point in the life cycle.[xiii]

Education has an absolutely crucial role to play in addressing climate change[xiv]. Despite the stultification of compulsory education today, young people have led the way in the struggle to put climate change at the centre of politics. Greta Thunberg has become a symbol of this new generation, calling out the ‘betrayal’ of democratic governments in failing to take on business in the interests of the future[xv]. But this cry of anger needs a political programme to give it direction and longevity. Labour promised to take on the ‘powerful vested interests’ that had created today’s ‘vastly unequal and polluting economy’ and pointed to ‘Tory privatisation of our utilities has been a disaster for both our planet and our wallets’. ‘We will put people and planet before profit by bringing our energy and water systems into democratic public ownership,’ the manifesto pledged. ‘In public hands, energy and water will be treated as rights rather than commodities, with any surplus reinvested or used to reduce bills. Communities themselves will decide, because utilities won’t be run from Whitehall but by service-users and workers. Public ownership will secure democratic control over nationally strategic infrastructure and provide collective stewardship for key natural resources.’[xvi]

But as Chakrabortty noted, divorced from local conditions and real material needs, these ideas can sound ‘utterly absurd on a doorstep on a rainy morning’. While climate change does in all seriousness mean socialism or barbarism in the all too immediate future, we cannot skip the hard, hard work of building ‘unity, organisation and struggle’ in favour of a technocratic, paternalistic ‘Green New Deal’. We must go out into communities and find out what is needed, find out through dialogic inquiry how these needs can be provided in a carbon-neutral or carbon-positive way, and then implement these changes together, democratising any social and political institutions as required along the way. There is an important precedent for this kind of environmentalist critical pedagogy, which I have written about before: the Lucas Plan[xvii]. In the 1970s, a group of shop stewards at Lucas Aerospace produced an alternative corporate plan with 150 ‘socially useful’ product ideas put forward by the workforce, in dialogue with their wider communities. The Lucas Plan shows how a ‘just transition’ to a green, democratic economy can provide the perfect framework for a truly modernist, socialist movement. But let’s be clear, this work in no way depends on the Labour Party. The labour movement is bigger than Labour. If Labour cannot rise to this challenge and turns its back on the essence of Corbynism – democratic socialism – then we may have to find a new vehicle for this class and climate struggle.

[i] Wainwright, H. (2018) A New Politics from the Left. Cambridge: Polity Press, pp. 34-5

[ii] Freire, P. (2005) The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London, Continuum, p. 46

[iii] ibid p. 63

[iv] ibid p. 116

[v] ibid p. 91

[vi] ibid p. 49

[vii] ibid p. 90

[viii] See, for example, Gary Younge’s ‘Labour won’t win again until it works out why it lost’ in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/13/labour-why-lost-jeremy-corbyn-brexit-media

[ix] Freire, p. 47

[x] ibid p. 85

[xi] Macedo, D. (2005) ‘Introduction’, in Freire (2005), p. 21

[xii] See my pamphlet, ‘Markets, Monopolies and Municipal Ownership’ for an account of this process: https://hemarketisation.wordpress.com/pamphlet/

[xiii] See my contribution to Labour’s last Policy Forum consultation: https://educationfortomorrow.org.uk/how-to-create-truly-public-tertiary-education-system-under-labour/

[xiv] See my article ‘Educating for a Green New Deal’ for a critical review of Ann Pettifor’s recent book, ‘The Case for a Green New Deal’ and how tertiary education and critical pedagogy can contribute to green transformation: https://hemarketisation.wordpress.com/2019/11/09/educating-for-a-green-new-deal/

[xv] See Thunberg’s speech at the UN Climate Action Summit: https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit

[xvi] https://labour.org.uk/manifesto/a-green-industrial-revolution/

[xvii] https://www.redpepper.org.uk/what-can-academics-learn-from-the-lucas-plan/

Educating for a Green New Deal

(Source: Campaign Against Climate Change)

In this long article, I review Ann Pettifor’s new book, The Case for the Green New Deal, arguing that plans for decarbonisation need to go beyond the ‘indirect’ state intervention advocated by John Maynard Keynes, to explore how workers and communities can be given more power to control the way the economy in the interests of people and planet is run through a significant strengthening of industrial democracy. I conclude the review by arguing for the creation of an Institute for Critical Pedagogy – along the lines of the Institute for Workers Control of the 1970s – to cohere and guide a movement for political education that could rebuild the confidence of the working class to take control of industry as part of a democratic eco-socialist transition to a decarbonised economy.

Since the first factories were built in the North of England roughly three-hundred years ago, igniting a chain reaction of industrialisation and economic growth that has since spread across the earth, the planet has warmed by approximately 1°C. This doesn’t sound like much, but already we are seeing the impacts of this global warming with unpredictable weather in the UK, rising sea levels, prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa, devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and heatwaves and wildfires in as varied locations as the Arctic Circle, Greece, Japan, Pakistan and the US. The Western middle classes have been slow to recognise climate change as a serious threat because its immediate impacts have been felt – like many of the social costs of the globalised capitalist system – by the world’s poorest and least resilient.

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if no further action is undertaken to slow down or reverse global warming, temperatures will increase to 2°C by 2050, rising to somewhere in the region of 3-4°C by the end of the century. Just half a degree would trigger huge migrations of people and mass extinctions of animals, IPPC predicts. Most coral reefs will be wiped out, ice sheet collapse in Antarctica becomes more likely, and sea levels would rise by at least 10cm by 2100. Financially, the difference in cost between 1°C and 2°C is estimated to be about $54 trillion and $69 trillion respectively. When it comes to a 4°C warmer world, even scientists are reluctant to model the consequences, given the devastation predicted for lower temperature rises. But suffice to say, we would be looking at a conflict-torn world with constant freak nature events, resembling something more like a JG Ballard novel than anything we would recognise today.

To keep global warming below 1.5°C, IPCC suggests there must be a 45% reduction in global carbon emissions by 2030, and that the goal of net zero emissions (i.e. emissions on the one hand and carbon reductions through absorption by trees, peat bogs and the like on the other hand cancelling each other out) must reached by 2050. While still placing human and animal ecosystems in significant danger, IPCC is clear that keeping to 1.5°C would require ‘rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems’. This is this challenge that activists, political scientists and economists like Ann Pettifor – in the US as well as in the UK and Europe[i] – are attempting to address with their various and now very fashionable theories of a ‘Green New Deal’.

Director of the PRIME (Policy Research in Macroeconomics) network, Pettifor is an enthusiastic Keynesian. Reflected in the name, the Green New Deal combines key elements of Keynesian macroeconomic policy – exemplified in Roosevelt’s original 1930s New Deal, as well as in post-war European reconstruction in the 1950s – and environmentalism to create a ‘blueprint’ for not just meeting the IPCC’s decarbonisation targets, but setting an even more ambitious one of net zero emissions by 2030. For Pettifor, who was involved in the creation of the first substantive Green New Deal document in 2008, the idea:

Recognises that in the future we must derive energy not only from renewable sources. We also need to expand and support ecosystems that suck huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air and store that carbon in trees, soils and oceans. But societies also need to end their dependence on a globalised economic system that drives climate breakdown and encourages toxic emissions; an economic system that leads to ecological imbalances alongside economic, political and social equality and injustice. Its name is globalised financialised capitalism. (10)

In other words, the GND seeks to combine within a single idea climate justice with economic and social justice, socialist and environmental movements – the latter she adminishes for having been ‘slow at understanding the and promoting the need for radical systemic change across all sectors and at a global and national level; that is change that involves state action’. (8).[ii]

While certainly the most comprehensive attempt to provide an economic (specifically financial) justification for a Green New Deal, Pettifor’s book also expresses a number of key contradictions that remain unresolved within the idea as it currently stands in its still relatively undeveloped and vague form – which is perhaps a strategic choice given the huge task of uniting the left around a single idea. These contradictions will be outlined in brief before arguing for a more concretely socialist Green New Deal, followed by an analysis of how education, specifically tertiary education, can contribute to such a truly and concretely transformational project. The reviews ends with a plea for a revitalised discipline and practice of critical pedagogy, to establish a renewed and re-united political education movement culture in the UK and beyond.

Revolution or reform?

Perhaps predictably, the first of many questions that arise when reading Pettifor’s book, questions which tend to escalate into points of contradiction in key sections of the text, is whether she is advocating the reform of capitalism to avoid the climate crisis and make things better for the poorest sections of society, or for the overthrown of capitalism as a system that cannot help destroying the environment and exploiting people for profit. Given the extreme free-market approach of the last 30 years or so – what has become known as ‘neoliberalism’ – Pettifor’s repeated references to ‘system change’ could be interpreted as replacing this kind of capitalism with a kinder, more socialised, Keynesian version, with ‘education and healthcare for all and an economy based on renewable energy and sustainable public transport’ (131). This ambiguity is reflected in sentences like the one in the long quote above, which could be read as pointing to the globalised financialised aspect of the market system as the problem, rather than to capitalism itself.

This ambiguity is reflected in the use of ‘steady state’ economics as a theoretical basis for Pettifor’s version of the Green New Deal. Drawing on the work of Herman Daly, who derived the concept from classical political economy, particularly John Stuart Mill, steady state economics recognises that the economy is a ‘sub-system of a larger system, the ecosphere, which is finite, non-expanding, materially closed’. With any subsystem that grows without consideration for the ecosystem that sustains it, there comes a point when its expansion encroaches on the operation of the system as a whole. ‘We convert too much of nature into ourselves and our stuff,’ Daly argues, ‘and there’s not enough left to provide the biophysical life-support services that we need.’[iii] Daly’s ‘ecological economics’ – now an economic subdiscipline in itself – is useful for theories of the Green New Deal as it allows for the quantification of not only the natural and social costs of fossil-fuel driven growth, but also the remaining carbon available to economies attempting to meet the targets set by scientists and the IPCC. [iv]

However, for Daly also, the question of whether decarbonisation and/or a steady state economy – which is the kind of economy that would have to replace today’s growth-obsessed model if these ecological limits remain – is possible within capitalism is an open one. That decarbonisation would entail serious limits on capitalism, even a prolonged period of ‘de-growth’, thereby fundamentally transforming the way it operates, Daly is in no doubt. Daly would prefer a ‘a Jeffersonian-type, small-scale capitalism’ with strong anti-monopoly laws and limits on finance over full-blown socialism, as he is loathed to give up the market as distributor of resources and private-ownership as the basis of political freedom. This is a view shared by Pettifor, who imagines that, even though ‘much of the present economy may have to be dismantled, shut down, scaled up’ (106), the Green New Deal will be achieved by governments ‘working with’ the private sector within a ‘mixed economy’.[v]

‘We can afford what we can do’

This quote from Keynes assumes a kind of motto throughout Pettifor’s book, signalling not only the author’s close affiliation with Keynesian economics but also a deep contradiction between the Green New Deal as a political intervention on the one hand and a rationalisation for the reform of capitalism on the other. For Pettifor, what is crucial is showing that ‘we can afford to urgently end the globalised economy’s addiction to fossil fuels’ (xv – my emphasis):

A credible economic plan is necessary to finance the vast transformation necessary to save the planet and do so urgently. For the plan to be adopted widely, it has to ring true with the wider public, whose intelligence must never be underestimated. The plan must be honest and sound enough to cut through the fierce resistance and, at times, defeatism that will come from all quarters. (117)

Despite beginning the chapter ‘A Steady State Economy’ with a quote from infamous ‘School Strike for the Climate’ activist Greta Thunberg, in which she warns that ‘we must stop playing with words and numbers because we no longer have time for that’[vi], Pettifor spends a lot of time in the book arguing for an extremely orthodox Keynesian approach to financing the Green New Deal.

Essentially, Pettifor argues that the loose monetary policy that has characterised the post-crisis years, should be rebalanced by in increased emphasis on fiscal policy. The following passage summarises precisely Pettifor’s application of the Keynesian economics to the Green New Deal:

The public authorities (in the form of the finance ministry) in charge of fiscal policy will use loan-finance to spend and support investment on productive activity that will transform the economy away from fossil fuels, create jobs and generate tax revenues. Public investment will provide the goods and services needed by society and the ecosystem, and by stimulating both private and public sector employment will also generate the income needed to fund this transformation. (104-5)

Essentially, the government borrows to spend in the productive economy – green technologies, infrastructure and jobs – which drives further investment and spending independently of government spending (the so-called ‘multiplier’), the latter is then recouped through taxes on individuals and corporations. Anticipating the kind of neoliberal criticisms of such brazen government intervention, Pettifor then plays with various numbers to show that governments could borrow in a sustainable way, for example by using Labour’s proposed National Investment Bank to issue ‘green’ government bonds to be bought by public pension funds and (perhaps nationalised) insurance companies.

While there is much to agree with in Pettifor’s Keynesianism (and much to disagree with, see below), to adapt Keynes’ phrase, we must afford what we have no choice but to do. This is the central point of not just Pettifor’s book, but all Green New Deal proposals. While Keynes no doubt helped US and UK governments rationalise the unprecedented intervention and public spending of the New Deal and welfare state respectively, it was the material conditions that ultimately justified what was in reality a series of political decisions and acts. After the Wall Street Crash and Great Depression in the 1930s, the ability of free market capitalism to provide material security for not just the workings class but also large swathes of the Western middle classes was shown to be a myth. The sharp increase in trade union and socialist party membership at the time forced governments to concede to working class demands to avert what looked then like the inevitable spread of communism across the world.

In safe hands

The kind of ‘people power’ that forced political action in the first part of the 20th century is replaced in Pettifor’s vision of a 21st century New Deal by the public as guarantor of financialisation. Here Pettfior is heavily influenced – as is current Labour Party thinking – by the work of Mariana Mazzucato, particularly her 2013 book, The Entrepreneurial State. In the book, Mazzucato debunks the neoliberal claim that the state and its public sector are parasitic on an inherently innovative private sector, showing through a series of case studies that the opposite is true: ‘the private sector only finds the courage to invest after an entrepreneurial state has made the high-risk investments’[vii]. Pettifor argues that the same is true of the financial sector, where the public as a country’s taxpayer base  ‘effectively back’ the operations of speculators via the credit-issuing power of the central bank (87).

That these publicly backed resources are in ‘great demand’ from financial institutions provides a key ‘leverage point’ in forcing a transition to a green economy, Pettifor argues. ‘These valuable resources should only be made available to the private sector on terms and conditions that benefit the taxpayers on whose regular payments the system depends,’ she recommends (88). There is nothing to disagree with here. This is one of the few places in the book where Pettifor provides a concrete strategy for countering the inevitable intransigence of the capitalist ruling class when faced with genuine system change. However, this is the limit of Pettifor’s conception of people power – essentially restricting people’s role in the Green New Deal to consumers rather than as producers of social change – and points to a worryingly low estimation of the public’s capacity to exert direct control over the economy.

In a revealing quote, Pettifor explains that a ‘social revolution’ is made by ‘those with the greatest expertise and experience’ whose responsibility it is to ‘improve and implement’ the Green New Deal strategy outlined in the book (66). Of course, Pettifor could be thinking of the ‘organic intellectuals’ that emerge within the working class as it develops its own intelligence and strategy through struggle. But for me there is more than an echo of Fabianism here, with its paternalistic and technocratic approach to reformism. ‘We have little faith in the ‘average sensual man,’ admitted Beatrice Webb, for example. ‘We do not believe that he can do much more than describe his grievances, we do not think he can prescribe his remedies.’ This sentiment was shared by Pettifor’s economic idol Keynes, who admonished the Labour Party for allowing those who ‘do not know at all what they are talking about’ – i.e. working-class leaders like Kier Hardie – to exercise too much control.[viii]

Beyond Keynesianism

To adapt another Great Thunberg quote, we need to do more homework, otherwise we are going to repeat the mistakes of the past. The limits of Keynesianism are shown clearly by the experience of the 1960s, as the New Deal in the US and welfare state in the UK began to unravel along with their economic foundations. In his 1975 book, The Socialist Challenge, Stuart Holland reflected that the failure of Labour’s 1964 ‘National Plan’ – which similarly to Pettifor’s Green New Deal promised economic transformation based on Keynesian principles – was due to a lack of attention to the power of multi-national corporations take these government stimulants with one hand and stick two fingers up at national and local economic and social needs with the other. If governments have any chance of influencing the economy in favour of these needs, Holland insisted, then they will need to act directly and ‘decisively’ to tackle this ‘mesoeconomic’ power through public ownership. [ix]

Such ownership in the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ – with Holland suggesting the immediate takeover of the top one or two most profitable and efficient firms in each productive industry, and compulsory planning agreements for the rest – would give socialist governments genuine power to direct production to social need, while also gaining access to key information about these markets that can inform realistic price restraint and taxation policies. As part of sectoral planning agreements, Holland suggests that measures to increase worker participation in decision making and corporate planning should also be explored. In contrast to the failed ‘social contract’ of the 1960s, which only served to exacerbate the contradictions between the Labour government and powerful trade unions, a genuinely socialist social contract would seek to increase worker participation in decision making and corporate planning at a national level via sectoral collective bargaining, backed up by the power for workers to ‘hire and fire’ managers within their firms. Influenced by Holland’s ideas as well as the example of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in, Tony Benn in the 1970s also encouraged workers – for example at Lucas Aerospace – to come up with their own corporate plans based on ideas of ‘socially-useful production’. [x]

While Pettifor notes the ability of multi-national corporations to shift money around their international subsidiaries to avoid paying taxes, she does not suggest any way of dealing with their power to frustrate fiscal and monetary policy other than via the reintroduction of capital controls. But as Grace Blakeley notes in her excellent new book Stolen, it was to a large extent the setting up of these subsidiary companies that undid the Bretton Woods system, which was designed to prevent another Wall Street Crash by limiting capital flows around the world. Having forged his politics within the Bennite left of the 1970s – a period marked decisively by Holland’s influence – Jeremy Corbyn seems to understand well enough the need to tackle meso-economic power. At Conference last month, Labour announced a new policy programme, ‘Medicines for the Many’, which promised to take on the big pharmaceutical companies that ‘deny life-saving and life-changing medicines to ill patients by charging extortionate prices’ by making public funding for pharmaceutical research conditional on the resulting drugs ‘being priced affordably for all’ and, most importantly, by creating a ‘new, publicly-owned generic drugs manufacturer to supply cheaper medicines to our NHS,’ thereby forcing incumbents to fall into line.

Alongside Labour’s exciting but under-developed ideas concerning ‘alternative forms of ownership’ [xi], both Holland’s work and Corbyn’s Medicines for the Many strategy provide a model for how to decarbonise the economy quickly and decisively. Labour would do well to tackle the UK’s worst climate change offender, BP, first – a fossil fuel extractor recently placed in the top 20 global polluters by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute. [xii] Bringing in a total revenue of $304bn last year and producing 2.35 million barrels of oil a day, BP plans to increase its oil production by 20% over the next twelve years, contributing 7.6 billion tonnes of CO2 in the process. Firms like BP could become leading lights for a Green New Deal in the UK, if nationalised and converted within a national plan to the production of green energy. However, as the TUC points out in its report ‘A Just Transition to a Greener, Fairer Economy’, these opportunities will not be realised unless the workers most affected have a seat at the table where key decisions are taken. ‘They should be able to contribute to solutions, not be told after decisions have been made,’ the TUC writes.

What about education?

The TUC also points out that a ‘just transition’ will also require new skills to be developed across the workforce for new types of role, which will mean a ‘dramatic increase’ in government investment in education. New institutions will need to be created at local and regional levels, the TUC suggests, which ‘bring together unions and employers to identify what training and support they need to upgrade and utilise their existing skills’. Lifelong learning accounts should be granted to all adults ‘so that everyone has a personalised budget for training’, the TUC continues, and well-funded and free-to-workers ‘skills for transition’ programmes should be delivered in and out of workplaces. All in all, the TUC rightly argues that ‘proper funding’ of the adult education sector is ‘essential’ if anything like a Green New Deal is to be successfully implemented in the UK. Like the TUC, Pettifor insists a Green New Deal would draw ‘millions of unemployed and underemployed people into the vast areas of work needed for the transformation of the economy’ and reward these and existing workers with ‘meaningful tasks, resourced with skills, training and higher education’ (100).

That education only appears at this point in the review reflects both its status as an afterthought in most theories of the Green New Deal, including Pettifor’s. In my own work I have been developing a vision of tertiary education based around democratised, ‘socially useful’ colleges and universities. [xiii] These institutions, by sourcing their services from local, green co-operatives while extending their extensive resources to wider communities as part of regionally co-ordinated transition plans, could become ‘anchor institutions’ for a Green New Deal. While ‘community wealth building’ models in Cleveland in the US and Preston in the UK show how social wealth can be kept within local and regional communities, the Lucas Plan provides a model of how socialised colleges and universities can become hubs of democratic planning and planet-centred technology – to coin a phrase from the work of Mike Cooley – while also allowing workers from carbon-intensive industries and those thrown out of work by the irrationality of capitalist production to acquire new, socially useful skills within these projects to find meaningful work within the new green economy.

However, there is a deeper project for radical educators that needs to start now. As Hilary Wainwright has rightly pointed out, if plans for transformation like the Green New Deal are to be truly inclusive and democratic, then there will need to be a ‘profound cultural shift’ in the way that the economy is managed, along with a significant boost to the ‘self-confidence of working and would-be working people’. [xiv] Wainwright notes the radical enlightenment tradition of asserting not just political and economic equality – which are of course, fundamental – but also cultural equality. ‘This idea was expressed first as an ethical principle, an insistence on the fundamental equality deeper than the economic inequalities that dominate today’s world,’ she writes. ‘A principle which was expressed originally as the basis of political right to representation.’ By the 18th century, according to Wainwright, this belief in cultural equality argued for ‘in terms of the need to find a means by which it is expressed by all, for the benefit of all’. Wainwright quotes Thomas Paine:

It appears to general observation, that revolutions create genius and talents; but those events do no more than bring them forward. For there is existing in man [sic], a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave. As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by a quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions.

This tradition of British democratic socialism is also present in the Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee’s ‘Corporate Plan’ for Socially Useful Production in the 1970s and the ‘people planning’ of the Greater London Council – both projects that Wainwright was intimately involved in.

For Stephen Cowden and myself, this tradition – which Colin Waugh, in the pages of this publication, has traced to the formation of Independent Working Class Education, arguably culminating in the Plebs League in the early 20th century – is also present in the work of French philosopher Jacques Rancière. [xv] As Cowden argued in an excellent response to Patrick Ainley’s review of our book, The Practice of Equality, ‘Rancière is important to the Left because he returns us back to the question of equality which offers us a way out of the post-structuralist quagmire’. [xvi] ‘Whilst the liberal tradition of equality is expressed through abstract statements of political citizenship, Rancière’s conception sees this as something which emerges when people reject or come out against something – the anti-poll tax movement in the UK or the Gilets Jaunes movement in France at the moment are examples of this,’ Cowden writes. ‘What Rancière is taking us back to is the Radical Enlightenment conception of equality. This is of course where Joseph Jacotot, the central figure of [Rancière’s 1991 book] The Ignorant Schoolmaster, comes in.’

I would like to see a revitalised critical pedagogy tradition that linked these traditions within a renewed movement for working class, independent political education in the UK and beyond. There is already a vibrant political education movement emerging at the grassroots of the Labour Party, for example with the World Transformed – which now boasts many local branches – and the Ella Baker School of Organising, which recently held an important conference in London on new organising methods. Critical pedagogy itself has a long tradition of activism drawing on the work of Paulo Friere and ‘open’ and alternative traditions of Marxism, particularly in the global south. However, if we are to create a confident working-class culture that is able to seize and democratically control the means of production in the interests of people and planet, all of these traditions must be united within a new movement for workers control, like there was in the 1970s. Wainwright urges for something like the Institute of Workers Control to be created, suggesting an organisation to provide ‘Education for Economic Democracy’ perhaps. But what about an Institute for Critical Pedagogy?

I would like to end this article (thank you for reading this far), with the words of Tom Mann, a self-educated miner who later became a leading figure in the 1889 London Dock Strike, a founding member of the Independent Labour Party along with Keir Hardie and was the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s (now amalgamated within Unite the Union) first President. Mann holds a special significance for me as he was born in my home town, Coventry.

There is no possibility of achieving economic freedom, nor even of taking any steps towards that end, unless the workers themselves are conscious that what they suffer from, as a class, is economic subjugation and consequent exploitation by the capitalists. Moreover, unless the workers themselves protest against this subjugation and exploitation and themselves for organisations for the specific purpose of persistently fighting the enemy until freedom shall be won – then all else is nothing. The strong right arm of the Labour Movement is direct economic organisation. This alone makes possible concerted action, whereby the workers may be enabled to decide the conditions under which production shall be carried on. [xvi]



[i] See also https://www.sunrisemovement.org/green-new-deal (US) and https://www.gndforeurope.com/ (EU)

[ii] All page numbers refer to Pettifor (2019)

[iii] Both quotes taken from an interview with Daly in New Left Review (109)

[iv] ‘Assuming the world pumped out about 42 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2018, we would have to cut 6 billion tonnes per year – roughly equivalent to the entirety of US emissions in 2019 – to hit [net] zero by 2025.’ (125)

[v] This point is directly contradicted at other points in the text where Pettifor recognises the unlikeliness of the capitalist ruling class in supporting a truly transformational Green New Deal, for example: ‘Mobile agents in globalised, deregulated financial markets have very little interest in supporting states that need to wean economies away from dependence on fossil fuels and from the all-powerful corporations that dig up, distribute and make money from those funds.’ (29) This quote also betrays a confusion as to how closely intertwined finance and monopoly capitalism are in reality.

[vi] Taken from a speech Thunberg made to the Vienna Climate Conference on 1 June 2019

[vii] https://marianamazzucato.com/entrepreneurial-state/

[viii] Both Webb’s and Keynes’ quotes are taken from Hilary Wainwright (2018) A New Politics from the Left. London: Verso, pp. 13-16

[ix] Much of this analysis is taken from a post on my new blog, Forging the Weapon: https://medium.com/forging-the-weapon/public-ownership-in-the-commanding-heights-of-the-economy-c66dd906f86b

[x] Labour (2017) ‘Alternative Forms of Ownership’: https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Alternative-Models-of-Ownership.pdf

[xi] http://lucasplan.org.uk/

[xii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/09/revealed-20-firms-third-carbon-emissions

[xiii] Ridley, D. (2019) ‘How to create truly public tertiary education system under Labour’ in Education for Tomorrow: https://educationfortomorrow.org.uk/how-to-create-truly-public-tertiary-education-system-under-labour/

[xiv] Wainwright, H. (2019) ‘Taking popular participation in economic decision-making seriously – it ain’t easy!’: https://www.policyforum.labour.org.uk/commissions/taking-popular-participation-in-economic-decision-making-seriously-a-it-aina-t-easy

[xv] Waugh, C. (2009) ‘Plebs’: The Lost Legacy of Independent Working Class Education. Post-16 Educator (Occasional Publication): http://www.ifyoucan.org.uk/PSE/Home_files/PSE%20Plebs%20pamphlet.pdf

[xvi] Both Ainley’s review and Cowden’s response are in Post-16 Educator, Issue 97, October to December 2019, which is available here: http://post16educator.org.uk/. The book reviewed is Cowden, S and Ridley, D. (Eds.) (2019) The Practice of Equality: Jacques Rancière and Critical Pedagogy. Bern: Peter Lang

[xvi] Mann, Tom (1910) ‘Forging the Weapon’, in Coates, K and Topham, T. (Eds.) (2005) Readings and Witnesses for Workers’ Control. Nottingham: Spokesman, pp. 27-8


The Tactic that Sparked a Movement: The 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders ‘Work-In’

Tony Benn marching with UCS legend Jimmy Reid (Source: Daily Record)

In response to the threat of closure and redundancy at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders at the beginning of the 1970s, shop stewards decided to try a different tactic from the usual strikes or sit-ins that were the bread and butter of militant union activists. The now famous UCS ‘work-in’ was designed to show not only that workers were willing to work, but that work existed, and that unemployment was a political choice by governments – Conservative and Labour – more interested in maintaining the profits of corporate capitalism than protecting the interests of their citizens.

This is the second ‘long read’ on the topic of workers’ control, its history and relevance to the present. To be read alongside the previous post on Labour 1973 alternative economic strategy, this article provides the context to Tony Benn’s sharp shift to the left at the beginning of the 1970s. Benn himself admits in his Preface to John Foster and Charles Woolfston’s excellent book on the UCS that these brave Scottish shipbuilders made him realise that workers’ control was not only possible, but essential for democratic socialism. 

‘This is the first campaign of its kind in trade unionism,’ declared Jimmy Reid, who became the face of the UCS work-in, to UCS workers and the media as the shop stewards locked the gates to the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders shipyard on Friday, 30 July 1971. “We are not going on strike. We are not even having a sit in. We do not recognise that there should be any redundancies and we are going to ‘work-in’.” The work-in would be a disciplined affair, he continued, insisting that there would be “no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism and there will be no bevvying.”

As Reid’s work-in colleague Bob Dickie later reflected, this last point was a shock to the workers listening to the speech, who understood the implication that shipbuilders were prone to such behaviours. But like all Reid’s speeches, and the strategic approach of the UCS work-in Co-ordinating Committee, a political point was being made, and the media were allowed in to the yard on that day for this point to be made to the British public. Despite the insistence by Reid that this was not an example of workers’ control, the work-in was designed to show that workers were intelligent, highly skilled and more than capable of running the yards.

And run it they did, for sixteen months. From the mass meeting on Friday 30 July 1971 when the work-in was first declared to the mass meeting on Monday 9 October 1972 where Cyldebank workers ratified the agreement with Marathon for the purchase of the remaining yard, the Co-ordinating Committee held their nerve and saved all four UCS yards and the majority of jobs. But perhaps more importantly, the UCS work-in sparked a wildfire of occupations and workers’ control initiatives across the UK in the following years and inspired a significant shift to the left within Labour’s industrial policy under Tony Benn.

Within months of the work-in beginning, just a few miles up the Clyde, the Alexandria-based electronics, defence and telecommunications company, Plessey, was occupied by workers to stop the factory owners moving machinery to more viable English plants. In October 1971, work-ins directly modelled on UCS began at the River Don Steelworks in Sheffield and at the BSA motorcycle factory in Birmingham. “In all, the period between July 1971 and December 1975 saw about 150,000 workers involved in over 190 factory occupations and work-ins,” note John Foster and Charles Woolfston, in their authoritative book on the UCS work-in. (1)

Benn, who came out strongly in support of the UCS shop stewards much to the ire of the then Labour leader Harold Wilson, in the Foreword to Foster and Woolfston’s book described the effect that the work-in had on the Labour Party at the time. “So great was the impact that they made, that those of us who gave full support from the outset found the response from local Labour parties and the Labour Party activists in the trade unions was so strong that it actually radicalised the policy of the party itself at successive party conferences, and this process continued playing its part in the democratic reforms that took place after 1979.”

While British shipbuilding was eventually largely dismantled and sold out to international capital like the rest of heavy industry under Margaret Thatcher, the UCS work-in shows how a single dispute can change history. Indeed, the UCS dispute, along with the 1974 miner’s strike, arguably did change history, undermining Edward Heath’s Tory government and thrusting Labour to power on its most radical platform to date. The work-in has much to teach us today, when the Tories are again in disarray and we are perhaps similarly on the cusp of a radical Labour government.

In the next section, I look at the significance of building anti-monopoly alliances, as claimed by Foster and Woolfston, and how this analysis might be applied to the current occupation at Harland & Wolff shipbuilders in Belfast and to the ‘Lexit’ question. In the final section I look at how the ‘work-in’ tactic could be used by activists working and/or studying in the UK tertiary education sector as a response to college and university closures.

Anti-monopoly alliance

Foster and Woolfston in their exhaustive analysis see the struggle’s greatest significance in the anti-monopoly alliance forged between the shop stewards and the representatives of traditional Scottish capital. “It is argued here that the UCS struggle reveals a potential of great practical importance today,” they write. “It demonstrates, in embryo, that the organised working class does indeed have the unique ability to unite an alliance against monopoly rule, and, in doing so, open the way to wider social transformation.”

Scottish capital, they argue, had been increasingly undermined by UK government economic policy in the decades leading up to the work-in, with Tory ideology moving towards the monetarism that would in Thatcher’s reign assume a central role. In this view, in contrast to Keynesian economics, national industry and the home-grown monopolies that had developed in these industries were not to be supported against foreign capital. The UK economy, by contrast, should take advantage of the cheaper prices created by outsourcing and international consolidation. The structural unemployment resulting from such policy was also not seen as a bad thing, but rather as a mechanism to break the power of unions, making labour cheaper and holding down inflation.

Of course, such policies increased political tensions, not just between workers and government, but also between the latter and national capital, which was increasingly threatened by international capital and felt betrayed by its traditional political representatives, the Tories. It was this tension, Foster and Woolfston point out, that the UCS shop stewards were able to exploit to their advantage through the work-in tactic.

A brief pre-history of the work-in will evidence this point. UCS was created by Labour as a last attempt to halt the decline of power in the shipbuilding industry not only of Upper Clyde, but of Britain. This industry had seen a boom after the Second World War, as competition in Germany and Japan had been thoroughly bombed by the Allies during this conflict. According to Alasdair Buchan, 48% of ships launched in the world in 1950 were built in the UK. However, ten years later, this figure dropped to 16%, and by 1964 it was down to a “sad” 6%, he laments. (2)

“By the beginning of the sixties,” Buchan explains, “the Germans and the Japanese had started up their shipbuilding industries again and the yards which had been flattened were rebuilt and modernised to an extent never undertaken in Britain.” New machinery, Taylorist management methods and massive economies of scale “produced flow line production enabling these countries to consistently under-price British yards.”

Meanwhile, British industry “obstinately refused” to re-invest some the massive profits made during the boom years, which Buchan notes “led to some very hard times.” Only £4-5m was re-invested by British firms in capital goods during the 1950s, compared to a yearly depreciation value of existing machinery of £9m through normal usage. Investment in research and development was also consistently low, at £250,000 a year, according to Buchan.

In 1965, Labour tasked Sir Eric Geddes to consider how greater competitiveness could be achieved by consolidating British shipbuilding into larger firms, with new methods of organisation and production introduced into these new firms. Out of this report came the Shipbuilding Industry Act, which Benn as Minister of Technology guided through Parliament unopposed. As part of this re-organisation, the five yards straddling the Clyde – Govan, Linthouse, Scotstoun, Clydebank, and Yarrow – were merged into a new company, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Ltd.

However, the new firm soon ran into difficulty. Out of the consolidation, local unions had won a massive victory: a three-year guarantee of work for the newly consolidated labour force. While this meant that workers would not be laid off when there were no active shipbuilding contracts, providing much-needed security for local communities, it also meant that the order book had to be kept full to keep the labour force occupied. UCS to keep these orders flowing took on contracts with very tight profit margins. When inflation rose sharply at the end of the 1960s, the increased cost of materials plunged UCS into financial crisis, and in 1969 the firm ran out of cash.

When UCS turned to Benn and the newly created Shipbuilding Industry Board – which had the power to provide financial assistance to British shipbuilders – for help, Benn was less than enthusiastic about bailing out the struggling firm. Benn offered £9m – £6m less than UCS asked for – with a caveat that major changes would need to be made to modernise the company. As a result, Kenneth Douglas was brought in, and things started to look a lot better. Douglas introduced standardisation and computer technology into the shipbuilding process and converted the Linthouse yard from building ships to manufacturing pre-assembly steel units for the ships being built at the other yards.

Significantly for a later episode of the struggle, Douglas also began working more closely and constructively with the shop stewards. “In one year UCS was recording progress in productivity that was unequalled in British shipbuilding,” acknowledged Reid. “For the first time we had meaningful negotiations on production. Before that period, they would just come to you and say ‘Come on lads, co-operate to complete this order and meet a deliver date’, and then when the boat was delivered you were sacked.”

Then in 1970 the Conservatives returned to power under Heath, who was determined for the UK to join the European Common Market. As part of Health’s European vision, state intervention in industry was to be rolled back and the market left to decide the fate of what it called “lame ducks” like UCS. Another report was commissioned, this time by Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley (no relation!), who secretly advised Heath to appoint a government “butcher” to “cut up UCS and to sell (cheaply) to Lower Clyde and others the assets of UCS to minimise upheaval and dislocation.” After this was achieved, he continued, the government holding in the firm was to be sold “even for a pittance”.

Unfortunately for Ridley and Heath, this secret report was leaked to the UCS shop stewards, probably by Douglas, in the first of a general move away from support for the Conservatives on the part of Scottish industry. The revelation of the government’s secret plan to butcher the yards, despite indications – as pointed out repeatedly by Benn in parliament – that UCS was returning to profitability was hugely damaging for Heath, as was Douglas’ public declaration of support for the work-in as these facts came to light. As financial support from the British labour movement poured in to keep the work-in going, the thousands of local suppliers set to lose somewhere in the region of £15m if UCS closed also started to come out in support of the workers.

Eventually the government relented, but the political damage to the Conservative Party’s base in Scottish industry had been done. In the 1974 general election – which brought Labour back to power – the Conservative Party lost over a quarter of their 1970 Scottish seats, being reduced to the third largest party in the country behind the Scottish National Party. Foster and Woolfston attribute this loss of power and the rise of Scottish nationalism with the work-in, which had “brought the Health’s first major defeat at the hands of the working class” and had “done much to detach elements within small business and the professions form their traditional political loyalties.”

The national question today

There can be no doubt that the UCS used the work-in as a tactic to great effect, exposing the contradiction between the national interest in Scotland and the domination of these interests by international capital and its Tory representatives in Westminster. Both UCS strategy – key shop stewards like Jimmy Reid were key Communist Party activists – and Foster and Woolsfton’s analysis draw on Marxist theories of state monopoly capitalism, specifically Lenin’s insight that the right to self-determination against the dual power of international capital and its representatives in imperialist states provides a strong political and emotional base for anti-monopoly alliances.

Clearly this analysis is relevant today, with the right to self-determination arguably playing a huge part in the popular desire for the UK to leave the European Union. Not necessarily politically or intellectually articulated, there is widespread understanding that the EU, particularly the European Commission, represents a technocratic framework committed to the free functioning of capitalist markets across national borders. One can point to many instances where the EC intervenes against the public interest and state-protected industries to protect the right of corporations to exploit the common market for their competitive advantage, as well as to the imperialist behaviour of the European Central Bank in response to the Greek economic crisis and its left-populist response.

However, the EU also represents in an important way its social democratic foundations in German, French and British economic systems, where the worst excesses of monopoly capitalism are regulated at a pan-European level to also protect the public interest. In the cosmetics industry, for example, the EU has banned or restricted more than 1,300 potentially harmful chemical ingredients while the US has outlawed or curbed just 11.

In both instances, the EU acts in the interests of monopoly capitalism, either in greasing the wheels of profitability or in stabilising it through attenuation of its self-destructive excesses. Whether or not you agree with ‘Lexit’ arguments that say the left should side with anti-EU sentiment within the British working class and try to turn this into a progressive anti-monopoly alliance, it is important to recognise the qualitative and not necessarily unintelligent origins of this sentiment and its potential for radical expression.

Echoing in many ways the UCS struggle almost half a century ago, the occupation of the Harland & Wolff shipyard under the leadership of Unite and GMB shop stewards offers a way to think through this question in a more concrete way. While the H&W shipbuilders are not ‘working in’, their demand for nationalisation and a just transition from military to green energy production refusal has the potential to destabilise Boris Johnson’s Tory government and open the door for Jeremy Corbyn’s democratic socialist Labour Party.

In his first speech as Prime Minster, Johnson tried to emulate Donald Trump’s rhetoric by promising to make Britain great again, specifically by “unleashing the productive power not just of London and the South East but of every corner of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.” GMB pounced on this hollow promise and demanded that Boris Johnson put “his money where his mouth is” and nationalise H&W and bring Royal Navy contracts back to UK shipbuilding, to make the yard viable until a just transition can be completed.

By calling Johnson’s bluff on the UK’s economic self-determination with a concrete and progressive demand, H&W workers  threatens to unmask Johnson’s “no deal” Brexit for what it really is: a plan to turn the UK into an “offshore tax haven for the super-rich”, as Corbyn argues, selling out what British industry remains in the process. While Johnson and the DUP continue to ignore the H&W workers’ demands – claiming that it is a commercial, not a political issue – Corbyn and McDonnell have come out strongly in support of nationalisation, calling on Johnson to listen to Labour’s call to take H&W back into public ownership, so £1 billion of shipbuilding contracts can be delivered.

Given the current wave of insolvency in the UK – with British Steel placed into compulsory liquidation in May and the Scottish government promising to buy the Ferguson shipyard in Port Glasgow if no private buyer emerges within four weeks – and Johnson’s desperate attempts to represent British working class interests outside London, an escalation of the H&W situation could force a U-turn by a Johnson similar to that of Heath and, like in 1974, bring in a radical Labour government on a platform of public ownership and industrial democracy.

Meanwhile, the ‘green wave’ that has crashed its way through Europe in recent months, reflected in the ‘school strike for climate movement’ and the 15-seat expansion of the European Greens in the last EU elections, indicates that the anti-monopoly sentiment in the region may be finding a new avenue for expression. Young people especially are increasingly aware that the challenge posed by irreversible climate change cannot be met by neoliberal approaches to the economy. Inspired by ideas for a Green New Deal in the US, which proposes a multi-billion-dollar state investment in a just transition to a zero-carbon economy by 2050, labour movements across Europe have now begun to link climate politics with the new democratic socialism.

Under the banner of ‘Another Europe is Possible’, it might be that anti-monopoly alliances are better sought within a ‘remain and reform’ agenda. Rather than idealistically expecting Germany to give up its neoliberal hegemony over and for the EC simply to step aside in favour of democracy, the nationalisation of indigenous industries like H&W could set the stage for a confrontation between the public interest – aligned with the national interest but not exclusivity so – and the interests of technocratic neoliberalism. Such an aggressive position would not only bring the latter out into the open and spark economically literate conversations about European hegemony, but also provide leadership to other EU member states which may rally behind a democratic socialist member state willing to take Germany on.

From work-ins to teach-ins

Although Jimmy Reid distanced the UCS work-in from the “sit-in” tactic of earlier struggles, sit-ins played a big part in the development during the 1960s of another kind of work-in: the higher education “teach-in”. “One month after John F Kennedy declared his candidacy for president on 1 February 1960, four black engineering students sat in at a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth store counter reserved for white people,” recalls Bill Dravies. “While there had been sit-ins and demonstrations previously, this one marked the entrance of college students into the civil rights movement, an entrance which would have a profound impact not only on civil rights but also on students themselves.” (3)

As the civil rights movement merged with anti-Vietnam war protests in the following years, students began occupying university campus buildings and creating alternative “free universities”, and sit-ins became teach-ins. As the inventor of the teach-in, Marshall Sahlins, recalls: “In February 1965, Lyndon Johnson dramatically escalated the Vietnam War by ordering a sustained bombing of the North and dispatching the first American combat troops to the South. The effect of the bait and switch in dissident university circles was redoubled opposition to American imperial policies, ultimately culminating in a campus-specific mode of political resistance.”

“We were going to take our classes off-campus to profess against the Vietnam War. When Governor George Romney, the university administration, and other powers-that-be came down on our heads with threats and recriminations—some of our colleagues accused us of riot-envy, suggesting we were jealous of the contemporary Free Speech Movement at Berkeley – the strike metamorphosed into the original teach-in.”

“In the months and years following the first teach-ins, mounting student anxieties about military conscription gave an impetus to draft-card burnings and other student political action, but not so much as in the early days of the Johnson escalation, when the university resistance, at the instigation of the left-liberal faculty, broke out en masse. It was the teach-ins that largely politicized the countercultural generation and effectively nationalized antiwar protests.”

“Within weeks of the first teach-in at Michigan, over a hundred others took place on campuses across the country – including a mega teach-in of 30,000 people at Berkeley. In May, the original Michigan group organized an all-day National Teach-In in Washington, DC, that was covered in part by several American and foreign TV networks – a telegraph in support arrived from Jean-Paul Sartre – and in whole by PBS. It was also broadcast by radio to over 200 campus stations. The teach-ins did not end the war, which went on for many years, but they began the peace. Leveraged by the mass and energy of the students, they awakened the conscience of the nation.”

Occupations, teach-ins and free universities were, of course, a huge feature also of the 2010 student movement, documented by Matt Myers in his excellent recent book. (4) I myself was involved in a few occupations and was a founding “professor” at the University for Strategic Optimism. If we see another wave of student protest and UCU activism in the coming months – perhaps sparked by the inevitable strikes over the failure to resolve the pensions crisis in pre-1992 universities, or maybe by the spread of the inspirational “school strike for climate” movement to higher education – we will no doubt also see the return of these tactics, perhaps, inspired by UCS, under the banner of the ‘right to learn’.

But how can student and teacher activists learn from the UCS work-in? As I’ve argued elsewhere, if the Tories decide to implement the Augar Review’s recommendations to cut student fees by 20%, from £9,250 to £7,500, without plugging this income with reinstated public funding, the financial viability of many debt-ridden universities may be undermined, leading possibly even to closure. In response to rising levels of borrowing in the sector to fuel capital spending, Office for Students’ head Sir Michael Barber has also said that the new regulator would “not bail out providers in financial difficulty.” This would put some universities in a very similar situation to UCS in 1971.

In the case of a university failing, students may decide to occupy parts of the campus and academics would likely show solidarity by teaching in. It is more likely that an occupation would come from students, as academics would need to be careful not to break any laws that would prevent UCU from protecting them against individual victimisation. However, if such an occupation were to escalate, the teach-in could become more like a work-in, with teachers refusing to stop delivering the classes and marking the papers that contribute to the attainment of undergraduate degrees. After all, universities are autonomous institutions with degree awarding powers, in principle, a degree awarded by teachers working-in would be as valid as any other.

Of course, such an alliance of students and teachers would quickly need to get the support of non-academic staff to make such a situation sustainable, especially the administrative and security staff who could easily frustrate such an initiative. But if an occupation like this could show the discipline and strategic nous of the UCS work-in, it could cause a lot of trouble for a Tory government refusing to support a public institution like a university. It goes without saying that I am not advocating for students or academics to try this out, but you never know, it just might just work.


(1) Foster, J. and Woolfston, C. (1986) The Politics of the UCS Work-In: Class Alliances and the Right to Work. London: Lawrence and Wishart

(2) Buchan, A. (1972) The Right to Work: The Story of the Upper Clyde Confrontation. Whitstable: Calder and Boyars

(3) Dravies, B. (1980) The Free University: A Model for Lifelong Learning. Chicago: Association Press

(4) Myers, M. (2017) Student Revolt: Voices of the Austerity Generation. London: Pluto Press

Worker Co-ops A Thriving Part of the UK Economy

The front cover of Co-operatives UK’s latest report

Worker co-operatives contributed a record £11bn to the UK economy in the financial year ended 31 Jan 2019, according to the latest report by Co-operatives UK.

“As the success of the business and the interests of the workers are intertwined, the benefits are far-reaching and go above and beyond financial reward,” Co-operatives UK commented.

“Worker co-ops also offer high levels of democratic governance, which has demonstrable social, political and economic benefits,” it continued. “Some worker co-ops, like Suma in Elland, West Yorkshire, and Manchester’s Unicorn Grocery, operate on a equal pay structure. Subsequently, there is no gender pay gap.”

Communities are also increasingly taking ownership and control of local assets. The number of co-operative owned pubs, for example, has increased almost five-fold in the last seven years, the report explained.

“Community-owned pubs, alongside local shops and community energy, proved early trailblazers and continue to be a mainstay of the sector,” Co-operatives UK noted. “It is a growing movement as those who most value their local pubs, shops, or even football clubs and pools, take positive action together.”

Overall, although the number of independent co-ops in the UK – which includes as well as worker and community co-ops also cutomer owned retailers like the John Lewis Partnership – dropped by 51 to a total of 7,125 in the twelve months, Co-operatives UK revealed that “fewer co-ops did more business, with turnover at a record high of £37.7bn.”

Furthermore, the co-operative form still offered a more resilient model for new businesses than the traditional capitalist start-up model. “Almost three out of four co-op start-ups (72%) are still flourishing after the difficult first five years of existence,” Co-operatives UK explained. “In stark contrast, more than half of all new companies (57%) have gone to the wall before reaching that same milestone.”

“Greater community-based ownership means more people are invested in the long-term success of co-ops,” the organisation added. “Co-ops are also underpinned by a common set of values and principles which set them apart from other businesses.”

Co-operatives UK’s report can be found here. Above are just a few of the many fascinating and easy to understand stats and visuals contained in the report.



Public Ownership ‘Ain’t Gonna Be Easy!’ – Learning from Labour’s 1973 Programme

The late, great, Tony Benn (Source: The Independent/Bryn Colton/Getty Images)

This article is the first in a new series on workers’ control, exploring both historical and contemporary examples and theories and their implications for Labour’s National Education Service policy. For background on this policy and my proposals for public ownership in higher education, see this previous post.

At Conference last year, John McDonnell declared in no uncertain terms the return of democratic socialism to Labour Party economic policy. “We believe that workers, who create the wealth of a company, should share in its ownership and, yes, in the returns that it makes,” he said, announcing among other things, the creation of ‘inclusive ownership funds’ in which workers will be given shares, and therefore a say, in the direction of the companies that employ them.

Not since the 1970s has workers’ control been on the cards for Labour, and this commitment to change ‘from below’ is, as Hilary Wainwright has repeatedly pointed out, what truly distinguishes Corbynism from all its predecessors since that time. While some Corbyn supporters might be keen to distance the current Labour leadership from the 1970s – despite the obvious links with influential figures from the period like Tony Benn through the Independent Left Corresponding Society, for example – I would argue that it is more important than ever to learn from the past so that the same mistakes aren’t made again if and when Labour come to power. As McDonnell pointed out in his speech, ‘the best protection is memory’.

One of the most fascinating accounts of the development and ultimate failure of what became known as Labour’s Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) during the 1970s, now sadly forgotten and out of print, is a slim volume written by the Coventry, Liverpool, Newcastle and North Tyneside Trades Councils in 1980, published by the Russell Press, called State Intervention in Industry. Following Harold Wilson’s betrayal of Labour’s 1974 economic strategy, which as will be explained below, threatened a fundamental transfer of power from corporations to workers, the four trades councils undertook what they called a ‘worker’s inquiry’ into what went wrong.

‘Many of our weaknesses in the rank and file of the trade union movement come from a failure to look thoroughly into why Labour governments have not lived up the expectations working people have of them,’ the Preface to the book explains. ‘For this has happened not just once, but again and again; every time in fact.’ However, with humanity facing ‘nothing less than the irreversible destruction of the environment within our lifetimes’, we cannot afford for such an opportunity for deep and lasting change to be wasted again. Finding out why exactly Labour failed to implement its radical policies in the 1970s, therefore, is crucial to preparing for power in the future.

Alternative Economic Strategy

The ‘1973 Programme for Britain’ was arguably the most radical version of Labour’s AES. As the inquiry explains, the policy emerged out of an understanding that the economy had changed, and that the Keynesian approaches that had dominated economic policy since the war were no longer working. Discussions in Labour Party subcommittees and within the left of the party had identified a ‘new enemy’, the multi-national corporation, which could ‘give two fingers to government plans with one hand, while taking the incentives on the other.’ In this context, the Labour left concluded that only policy aimed at taking on this new ‘mesoeconomic’ power would be able to exert any control over the economy in the interests of the working class.

The 1973 Programme, which became the basis for Labour’s economic policy going into the 1974 General Election, proposed the creation of a National Investment Board with the power to acquire a majority stake in the top 25 largest UK manufacturing firms and impose planning agreements on a further 100 companies within the private sector. In both cases, shop floor-based structures of industrial democracy would be established, organised through trade union channels, and workers would have access to commercially sensitive information in order to be effectively involved in democratic corporate planning.

However, after being re-elected on this radical platform, Harold Wilson gradually moved away from these policies, eventually removing Tony Benn from his position as Secretary of State for Industry. In office, Benn had as his first action prepared a Green Paper based on the 1973 Programme, which was ‘never to see the light of day’ thanks to an intransigent civil service, which took exception to being sidestepped by a Minister hell bent on implementing his radical policies. As Benn told the inquiry after the fact, once Wilson took over as chairman of the cabinet sub-committee for industrial matters, the original policies were ‘as good as dead’.

So, what happened? Essentially, the Labour left failed to anticipate the power of entrenched interests that would, of course, oppose such a fundamental redistribution of ownership and control. ‘Preparation for the 1974 Labour government consisted almost entirely of discussion of policies at the exclusion of the strategy and the means of carrying these policies through,’ the inquiry concluded. ‘Paradoxically, the Labour left identified the power of the corporations, but did not prepare to meet that power.’ While the private sector was quick to organise extra-parliamentary pressure through the Confederation of British Industry, Labour’s left-wing failed to mobilise the grassroots to exert pressure on industry and the Party leadership ‘from below’.

One of the key issues identified by the inquiry was the distance between trade union leaders working directly with the Labour Party and rank and file members. Not only were shop stewards’ committees not involved in the formulation of the AES, but trade union leaders were not accountable to these rank and file organisations. This meant that activists on the ground assumed that the policies were being implemented until it was arguably too late to make a difference. Despite being relatively strong and confident – following the successful ‘work-in’ at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971 and the Miners’ Strike in 1974, which forced the general election lost by the Conservatives under Edward Heath – the labour movement could not apply pressure from below on the Party to ensure the implementation of AES policies.

Lessons for today

Unfortunately, the labour movement today is far weaker than it was in the 1970s, so Corbyn and McDonnell will likely not have a strong, confident and highly organised working class to back up its public ownership policies. While the Labour left are now in charge, unlike Tony Benn in 1974 who was marginalised within the party, Corbyn and McDonnell have been constantly undermined by undisciplined centrists and right-wing reactionaries and will not doubt face the same intransigence from the civil service. The inquiry recommends in future the ‘mandatory reselection’ of Labour MPs to bring discipline to the party, as well as the political appointment of top civil servants and a strengthening of the powers of parliamentary committees to bring the civil service in line. Corbyn and McDonell would be wise to heed the wisdom of these suggestions, as they are borne out of bitter experience.

But how will Labour build the grassroots power needed to force the now even more powerful multi-national corporations to cede control to workers and the state? The inquiry suggests the widespread formation of multi-union, shop stewards ‘combines’, based on the model of the Lucas Aerospace Combine Committee, which would address the complex division of labour of modern corporations and provide the organisational structure for the creation of alternative corporate plans, like the Lucas Plan. The inquiry also insists that Trades Councils provide a good base for linking combines with local communities, to expand firm-level practices of worker control into local and regional practices of popular planning.

However, it is not clear that the energy and time required to regenerate trades councils would be well spent, at least in the short term, and combines – while certainly powerful organising structures capable of matching monopoly power – are not today a feature of popular working-class consciousness as they were in the 1960s and 70s. As Hilary Wainwright insists in her submission to Labour’s latest round of National Policy Forum commissions, what we need first and foremost before we can even think about implementing policies for workers’ control is a ‘profound cultural shift in the attitudes and strategies of public [and private] sector management and in the consciousness and also in the self-confidence of working and would-be working people’.

‘Within wider society we are faced by the need to overcome decades of subordination and a culture of acceptance of subordination as simply, “the way the world is”,’ Wainwright explains. ‘Moreover, decades of neo-liberalism’s competitive individualist culture have instilled the belief that it is only through competing with others that it is possible, individually, to advance.’ To rebuild industrial strength and confidence, Wainwright suggests that workers should be given facilities time by employers to participate in corporate strategy planning as part of what she calls ‘New Democratic Management’, and the working week shortened so that everyone can also participate in popular planning within their local and regional communities. Managers should also receive training on how to co-operative with workers and run companies democratically.

Perhaps most importantly, and a proposal that chimes with my own submission to the last Labour’s National Policy Forum, Wainwright emphasises the importance of ‘popular economic education’ in rebuilding the political and economic literacy of workers so they are not only able to take power but understand the need to take on this responsibility as part of a sustainable future society. ‘This would require a rebuilding of the infrastructure of adult education,’ Wainwright points out, ‘with economic democracy at its heart.’ This is exactly the thinking behind my proposals for ‘socially useful’ colleges and universities acting as democratic anchor institutions for a just, green economy. While the economy must take precedence in securing an equitable future society, it is education that will ensure this future is a radically democratic one, run on and sustained by people power.


Why we need a theory of marketisation

I couldn’t think of an appropriate picture, so I thought why not have a cat theorising?

The below article originally appeared in Post-16 Educator Issue 96, available to read for free here. As well as my article on my recent pamphlet, Martin Allen and Patrick Ainley discuss the recent Review of Post-18 Education, the speech by incoming General Secretary Jo Grady to UCU Annual Congress 26 May 2019 is reproduced, and Jane Lethbridge considers how colleges could organise themselves to support the National Care Service under discussion in the Labour Party.

My new pamphlet, Markets, Monopolies and Municipal Ownership – available to read and download on the HE Marketisation blog[1] – sketches out a theory of marketisation, focused on higher education but applicable to the whole post-16 education sector in the UK (and beyond). At the most abstract level, this theory explains ‘marketisation’ as a neoliberal ideology that on the surface insists on the benefits of markets, competition and the welfare of students as consumers, while at a deeper level, accepts that market reform will lead to institutional failure and consolidation by emerging, expansionist, multi-national education corporations.

From the perspective of the state, this theory explains how the Tories, following the 2007-8 Financial Crisis, has increasingly seen tertiary education as a means to mitigate, if not overcome entirely, the problems of returning economic stagnation and the collapse of neoliberal hegemony. In the short-term, through privatisation (the deregulation of the private sector within tertiary education), the Tories aim to offer new avenues for profit-making for speculators and multi-national corporations. In the long-term, they want to turn what ‘quasi-public’ institutions remain into taxpayer-subsidised teaching and research factories for corporate capitalism.

University vice-chancellors and college principals have enthusiastically welcomed this attempt to outsource the human capital and R&D needs of corporations. This is because they have been drinking the Kool-Aid of marketisation for decades. The pamphlet notes how market behaviours were first introduced by the Tories through the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, with former polytechnic VCs and college principals reimagined as CEOs at the top of hierarchically organised education corporations. From this point on, market behaviours spread through the sector like a virus, creating an ever-expanding executive class hell-bent on surplus generation and expansion.

In the decades that followed, this executive class set about transforming tertiary education from within – a process of what I call ‘bottom-up marketisation’ – so that when the Tories came back into power in 2010 and announced they would be accelerating ‘project sell-out’, this class rubbed their hands with glee. Hoovering up any source of income they could find, as well as any institutions that looked like they were on the brink of failure, tertiary education institutions have been expanding and consolidating. Recently, this has also meant that the line between FE and HE has begun to blur, with institutions like Coventry University leading the way in setting up for-profit subsidiary colleges[2].

The analysis and theory of marketisation presented in the pamphlet have important implications for the ideological and political strategy of those fighting against marketisation and for free, public tertiary education. Firstly, it suggests that ‘free education’ is a necessary but not sufficient demand and explains why in certain cases, this demand can be self-defeating. Secondly, it shows that defending the ‘public good’ of free education without a reconstruction of how universities and colleges would relate to the public in a free-to-access system, can make university and college workers vulnerable to neoliberal ideology that would paint them as anti-democratic. I’ll expand on these two points in turn.

Point 1: ‘Free education’ is a necessary but insufficient demand

Although in principle, absolutely correct, the demand for free education will not in itself remove market norms from the sector. As explained above, market reform really began in the 90s, with changes to how educational institutions were governed. This bottom-up marketisation has meant that tertiary education institutions are now structured according to these market norms and are in an important sense in advance of ‘top-down’ marketisation. One piece of evidence to support this theory is the way that all universities immediately decided to increase their fees to the maximum £9,000, undermining the Tories’ vision of a HE market driven by differential fees and student choice.

More importantly, Thatcher complemented the introduction of market norms and the continuing expansion of HE with a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ approach to funding. According to Thomas Docherty, ‘in 1981, two years into her premiership, Thatcher cut government funds for universities by nearly 20 percent’[3]. Fifteen years later, the Dearing Report showed that, while total expenditure on UK HE had risen in real terms between 1979 and 1995 from about £5.4 billion to just over £7.1 billion – driven mostly by student maintenance grants – capital spending on universities had stagnated[4]. In other words, by encouraging VCs to think of their institutions as businesses, while restricting their ability to grow, Thatcher turned them into rabid dogs for marketisation.

The problem with ‘free education’ is that, within the ideological and historical frame of deeply embedded marketisation, this will immediately be interpreted as a regressive move. Because all VCs have based their strategies on £9,250 fees – or in the case of Coventry University, £9,250 fees in the ‘centre’ and ‘no frills’ £6,000 fees in its for-profit subsidiaries in the ‘periphery’ – any reduction in fees will create a moral panic about failing institutions. The problem for any government wishing to introduce fees will not only be bringing aggressive VCs in line, but also trying to justify redirecting public funding towards HE to cover the shortfall away from other public services like the NHS.

This prediction is foreshadowed by reactions to the Augar Review, which proposes that student fees should be reduced to £7,500. Greg Walker, CEO of the MillionPlus group of new universities, warned that if funding coming from students is cut, or there are limits on numbers, there are risks of ‘significant damage’[5]. ‘Difficult choices could well have to be made,’ he threatened. While it is true that the proposed reduction is a pathetic attempt to rescue the youth vote for the Tories, the theory of marketisation also explains why the Tories aren’t worried about universities going bust. Failures mean mergers or hostile take-overs by private corporations, both of which further the consolidation of the sector, and will help the UK compete within the global market for education.

Point 2: Dangers of invoking the ‘public good’ in defence of free education

Without a progressive vision for an alternative HE system, defenders of the ‘public university’[6] can also be easily painted as reactionary. While demands for publicly-funded HE, like their related demands for HE to be free at the point of entry, are correct, they can be dismissed as nostalgia for a ‘golden age’ of elitist higher education when it functioned as a guild-like system with academics controlling who could study and work at universities like a closed shop. This may not be fair, but that is exactly how market reformers like David Willetts, for example in his book A University Education, frame marketisation as a liberation from control by academics exercising their ‘producer power’.

Furthermore, defenders of the public university often claim that the Government has no idea of the social value of HE. For example, the opening paragraph of the Convention for Higher Education’s ‘Alternative White Paper’ states: ‘The present Conservative Government, like the Coalition Government that preceded it, has an ideological predisposition towards the market and its supposed benefits to consumers, but appears to have no vision of Higher Education and its benefits to students and to the whole of society.’ This is simply incorrect. The theory of marketisation reveals that Tory marketisation is premised on a sophisticated view of the relationship between HE as a private investment in future earnings and the positive ‘externalities’ of this investment for society.

Willetts, for example, designed the ‘income contingent’ student loan system to reflect how the Tories – at least the more progressive ones – saw the balance between public and private investment represented by student fees and public subsidy respectively. Far from a problem, he saw the roughly 40% of loan value being written off after 30 years as a fair measure of the public return gained in terms of productivity and quality of life. However, building on the pathbreaking work of Andrew McGettigan[7], the pamphlet also explains how this public investment is recouped for the neoliberal system through national level performance management systems, the TEF, REF and KEF[8].

To summarise a complex argument, the Tories have introduced a series of national-level performance management systems to direct the overall production of universities to the needs of monopoly finance capitalism. Universities are through these systems increasingly ‘nudged’ towards providing for the human capital and R&D needs of investment-shy corporations. While earlier reforms started universities on the journey of becoming publicly-subsidised teaching and knowledge factories[9], these systems effectively ‘micro-manage’ this process. In return, the Tories hope that corporations will keep their headquarters in the UK, employ the increasingly over-qualified graduate population on half-decent wages, and actually pay our marginal rates of corporation tax.

Of course, FE colleges have known this kind of top-down management for longer than their HE colleagues. Inspection, which has played a central role in FE since the incorporation of colleges through the 1992 Act, has become increasingly focused on accountability through data crunching rather than improvement through support. Widely criticised, Ofsted’s stormtroopers of marketisation have over the last twenty-five years overseen the mass ‘proletarianisation’ of FE teachers, as well as a 56% drop in the number of colleges as a result of mergers. As Stephen Lambert and Mark McNally have noted, stress, anxiety and workplace bullying are now ‘key features’ of the sector and good teachers are ‘leaving the profession in their droves’[10].

What are we fighting for?

So, it is crucial that those fighting for free education not only have a coherent theory of marketisation that can see beyond the ideology and chaos of its implementation, but also a convincing and above-all modernising alternative. Although the word ‘modernising’ echoes the ideology of neoliberal privatisation, it is points to the need for alternatives to point forward rather than backwards and to excite people about the possibilities offered by a truly progressive education system. Labour’s National Education Service, which for the first time in the UK proposes a holistic framework for ‘cradle to the grave’ education, offers exactly such an exciting and modernising alternative.

For Eddie Playfair, the NES could be a ‘game changer’. Modelled on the NHS  – free to access for all, no matter what their background or bank balance – Playfair suggests that if Labour gets this right, it could be their (second) ‘NHS moment’. However, he also notes that currently the NES strategy is high-level and abstract, focused more on headline (and vote) grabbing polices like abolishing tuition fees. The next stage is working out the NES’ overall purpose – he suggests ‘human flourishing’ – and organisation, particularly what institutions are needed. Playfair, however, also correctly points out that these institutions need to be not only democratic in practice, but also built with the co-operation of education workers and members of communities.

In the pamphlet, I argue that the Lucas Plan offers a model of how this could be done in practice, from the ‘bottom up’, so to speak. In the 1970s, a group of workers in Lucas Aerospace formed a combine – an organisation that included both white-collar and shop-floor workers, and thus cut across the division of labour imposed by the bosses. To get ahead of the technology-driven rationalisations and consequent redundancies that they knew were coming, they started looking into how their knowledge and the firm’s resources could be put to use in creating non-military, ‘socially useful’ products. This would not only show that redundancy was unnecessary, the Lucas Combine argued, but also benefit working-class communities attached to the company’s factories.

Rather than assume a ‘top-down’ approach, like that of Lucas Aerospace management, the Combine created a questionnaire, asking rank-and-file trade union members and their friends, family and neighbours for their ideas for socially-useful products. From the responses, the Combine proposed a list of 150 such products, including detailed plans for wind turbines, energy-efficient heat pumps, hybrid power packs for cars and a bus that travelled on both railway tracks and roads. While their ‘Alternative Corporate Plan’ was ignored by management, the campaign became legendary, inspiring movements across the world. For the way it organised the tacit, social intelligence of the workforce and its surrounding community, the Lucas Plan provides a blueprint for the NES.

Marketisation in tertiary education has exacerbated the inequality caused by neoliberal austerity, particularly in post-industrial areas and cities. Demand for student accommodation has driven house prices up to the point where many local people cannot afford to live in the areas they grew up in. Because students do not pay council tax and therefore neither do their private landlords and universities pay only marginal business rates due to their (somewhat undeserved) charitable status, ‘studentification’ places an additional burden on council budgets. Students, after all, use public services such as healthcare, police, and transport infrastructure. This is not to blame students, rather it is to point out that irresponsible growth is making life hell for local communities.

By identifying the material and social needs of these communities and politicising them – a process I call in the pamphlet ‘co-inquiry’ or ‘democratic collegiality’, based on the work of early 20th century educational philosopher John Dewey – UCU branches can create organic and powerful broad-based campaigns linking the theory of marketisation with anti-austerity politics, while also energising and reviving existing political structures like trades councils and neighbourhood associations. By revitalising these structures, tertiary education activists will create the power base required for Labour’s – or any other democratic socialist party’s – radical policies to be implemented.

While specific NES policies and structures should be formulated out of local, regional and national processes of co-inquiry, it is also useful to have some immediate ‘ends-in-view’ (another Deweyism) to guide political action aimed at democratisation, especially for UCU branches looking to inspire rank-and-file activists and lay members to go beyond bread-and-butter issues. In the pamphlet, I explore three ideas that could be pursued as part of broad-based campaigns, which if achieved, would consolidate power and help sustain local and regional processes of democratic renewal:

Co-operative Universities – Colleagues based in the Co-operative College and the Lincoln Social Science Centre have been working away at creating a really existing co-operative university in the UK. While this form does not, in itself, challenge the logic of marketisation, offering merely another choice for conspicuous student-consumers, co-operative universities would, if supported through strong participation in democratic governance, enable market norms to be expunged at an institutional level.

New Models of Public Ownership – One way of overcoming some of the problems with isolated co-operative universities within a marketised system would be to make sure they are embedded within local and regional networks of co-operation. By redirecting procurement policies to local co-operatives and supporting local people to set up such business, universities could become genuine ‘anchor institutions’ for sustainable and equitable economic regeneration.

Workers’ Control – As suggested above, removing marketisation from our HE system would also require the abolition of national level performance management, the TEF, REF and KEF. But what in its place? Practices of co-inquiry described above, developed through campaigning, could be formalised within greatly expanded structures of university governance, reflecting the wider stake in university ownership and control that municipalisation would entail.

How do we get there?

While the above proposals are only briefly outlined, more detail can be found in my pamphlet, in my other recent publications and in the work of a growing community of scholars[11]. More work is needed to expand the critique of marketisation to education as a whole and to fill in the gaps of Labour’s vision of a cradle to grave education system. Only a holistic system like the NES can, in my opinion, nurture and create the substantially democratic citizens of the future and help build and reproduce a democratic-socialist future economy and society.

However, education workers and activist need to be realistic about the struggle ahead. We need to soberly analyse the power structures and interests that will stand in the way of such a system being implemented, and honestly assess the power that we currently have to take these structures and interests on. Once this has been done, we need to formulate a coherent and concrete strategy – not just tactics – of building and increasing our power. Part of this struggle will involve picking the right battles, mobilising for 100% participation and using convincing victories to bring more education workers and wider communities into the struggle.

Another important job is to build a rank-and-file movement in UCU, the primary union for tertiary education in the UK. After a fracturous Congress last year and some soul searching over the last few months, the membership elected a new general secretary, Jo Grady. There is a palpable sense of excitement and expectation in the union now. However, as others have pointed out, this vote for something new remains without a base, and in itself does not move the union beyond its long-standing crisis of leadership and the disconnect between this leadership and lay members. Only by organising from the bottom up, beyond existing factions and through alliances within all levels of education and the wider public, can we build this base and move forward.


[1] If you would like a physical copy, copies for trade union branches or sympathetic organisations, or discuss speaking events related to the pamphlet, please email thanksforyourears [at] googlemail.com
[2] See my article ‘Coventry in the vanguard’ in Post-16 Educator 95
[3] Docherty, T. (2013) ‘Margaret Thatcher’s Legacy Divides British Higher Education’. Available at: https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/worldwise/margaret-thatchers-legacy-divides-british-higher-education/32157
[4] Watson, D. (2014) ‘What Happened Later? The British Road to Mass Higher Education’, in Barr, N. (Ed.) Shaping Higher Education: 50 Years After Robbins. London: The London School of Economics and Political Science, pp. 33-48
[5] The Guardian, 18 Feb 2019, ‘Will universities go bust if fees are cut?’ Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-47204922
[6] For example, Campaign for the Public University, the Council for the Defence of British Universities, the Convention for Higher Education.
[7] McGettigan, A. (2015) ‘The Treasury View of Higher Education: Variable Human Capital Investment’ PERC Paper 6. Available at: http://www.perc.org.uk/project_posts/perc-paper-the-treasury-view-of-higher-education-by-andrew-mcgettigan/
[8] Full titles: the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, the Research Excellence Framework and the Knowledge Exchange Framework.
[9] The REF is actually a later version of the Research Selectivity Exercise, introduced also by Thatcher in 1986.
[10] Post-16 Educator, 93, p. 8
[11] See, for example, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) report, A New Vision for Further and Higher Education, which features contributions from myself, Richard Hall, Sol Gamscu, Jana Bacevic and others.

Self-regulation and public ownership in tertiary education

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner (Source: Independent/Reuters)


Below is the text from my submission to the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum Consultation 2019, Early Years, Education and Skills Policy Commission. You can find the original submitted pdf here. I have removed the numbering for ease of reading. 

Creating a truly public tertiary education system

If Labour’s visionary National Education Service policy is to be successfully implemented, there must be a simultaneous process of de-commodification from the top, in terms of national policy, and from the bottom, in terms of democratisation.

In terms of national policy, Labour’s pledge in its 2017 manifesto to introduce free, lifelong education in Further Education and to abolish tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants for university students in Higher Education, will do much to remove the market incentives from tertiary education.

However, alongside these funding reforms which will move tertiary education policy away from ‘nudging’ students into believing they are ‘consumers’ of education and institutions away from behaving as if they were for-profit corporations, Labour must also, once in government, establish a democratic and transparent framework for deciding how this funding is allocated and how the provision that this supports financially is organised.

Labour must abolish all market-based systems of accountability such as Ofsted in FE and the Teaching and Research Excellence Frameworks in HE. In their place, Labour should create a national regulatory body for tertiary education – intrinsically linked and co-operating with a similar body in compulsory education – that can allocate funding according to a national education strategy informed by robust and democratic feedback mechanisms. This body should have an elected board, with representation reflecting fairly the mutual interests in tertiary education: academics, teachers, administrators, parents and communities, students, trade unions, civil servants, and Members of Parliament from all political parties.

Once established, this body should begin a wide-ranging, patient and inclusive consultation with all of the above stakeholder groups, to create a framework for self-evaluation and collaboration within tertiary education. This consultation should also include teachers, students, parents and communities involved in compulsory education to identify the connections between the two sectors, how regulatory systems can complement each other and to look at how teacher education in the UK can be strengthened within the NES system.[i]

Expunging marketisation from within the system

As the commission notes, ‘since 2010 the education of our citizens has been treated as a commodity, something which can be bought and sold’ and ‘from the tripling of tuition fees in HE to the acceleration of the academies programme, the Tories have adopted a market-based approach to education and consequently the system has become increasingly fragmented, opaque, and individualistic.’

However, while it is true that marketisation in tertiary education was accelerated in 2010 by the Coalition government, the introduction of market behaviours into the sector in fact began much earlier, with Thatcher’s reforms to the governance of colleges and polytechnics through ‘incorporation’ as part of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. By encouraging these institutions to behave like private-sector corporations, the Tories introduced powerful market norms and behaviours into the UK’s tertiary education system[ii]. This is important because the introduction of an alternative system like the National Education Service will not, even with in itself, remove market behaviours from tertiary education.

Abolishing fees and loans in HE, for example, will be argued by vice-chancellors to be a move that will either mean re-introducing student numbers caps or will create a financial crisis for over-leveraged universities. This is evidenced by reactions to the long-awaited Augar Review of post-18 education and funding.[iii]

Meanwhile, the Office for Students’ chief executive Sir Michael Barber has warned that the regulator will not ‘bail out’ universities in financial difficulty.[iv] I have argued that, in response to institutional failure, a Tory government will seek – as it has done in FE – mergers or hostile takeovers by other local institutions, or if they were to be unwilling or unable, by private-sector, for-profit corporations, educational or otherwise.[v]

Firstly, to prevent such a scenario from happening, Labour must commit to adequately and fairly funding all levels of education through taxation. The University and College Union’s proposal to fund tertiary education through an increase in corporation tax is a sound one, as corporations benefit directly from investment in ‘human capital’ and applied research.[vi] As UCU also suggests, this funding should come with conditions, such as the establishment of democratic governance and public accountability structures, including trade union representation at board level, and an end to casualised employment contracts.

Secondly, Labour should protect the public interest in universities by placing each university’s assets in a nonrevocable trust – after the model of the John Lewis Partnership – which would hold the formal legal title to the organisation’s assets.[vii]

Furthermore, FE has also been devastated by funding cuts and forced mergers as a result of the Area Reviews.[viii] As well as funding FE adequately to prevent the need for closures and mergers, the trust model should also be applied by Labour immediately to FE colleges.

Democratising college and university governance

As Boden and colleagues also argue, the trust model of universities and colleges would need to establish a ‘social compact’ between members of these institutions – teachers, administrators and students – and surrounding society, ‘underscoring the common ownership of the university’. They suggest ‘search conferences’ based on social science methods of ‘action research’ to begin the process of democratising institutional governance.[ix]

In my own work[x], I have outlined a practice of ‘democratic collegiality’ very much in line with Boden and colleagues’ suggestions, based on the work of 20th century educational philosopher John Dewey, as well as on contemporary examples of grassroots economic planning such as the Manchester and London People’s Plans, and also earlier examples such as the Lucas Plan and the GLC’s People’s Plan for the London Docks.[xi]

As part of the wide-ranging consultation for self-regulation proposed in Point 6, Labour should support the University and College Union, in conjunction with the Trades Union Congress, local trades councils and community organisations, set up these search conferences, with the long-term aim of establishing new democratic forums like citizen assemblies. These search conferences would seek to find out what local communities would like to see from their local colleges and universities, in terms of local re-skilling and employment needs, but also in terms of ‘socially-useful’ research that could be undertaken by universities.

Working with teachers, academics, administrators and students, these search conferences could then bring together the needs of the community with the professional and user knowledge of those inside individual institutions to create democratic five-year plans for those institutions, much in the spirit of the people’s plans mentioned above.

Practices of democratic planning and consultation established through these search conferences could also provide the basis for self-regulation. Labour as part of its wide-ranging consultation on self-regulation in tertiary education could propose an expanded legal definition of ‘scholarship’ to reflect the practices of ‘co-inquiry’ and democratic structures of ownership and control described above[xii]. This definition would recognise that ‘education’ and ‘research’ are inextricably linked at all levels of education and in society, with colleges and universities ideally becoming centres of lifelong learning, socially-useful research and community inquiry.

As in Finland, college and university libraries could become hubs for citizen curiosity and research, providing training and support for non-academic amateur and professional inquirers alike, as well as free lectures and workshops on topics of general interest.

On the basis of this definition, the consultation could propose the creation of a tertiary level national Council Scholars – which may in future also incorporate compulsory education – with local Councils of Scholars sending delegates to national conferences to discuss and decide on national policy proposed by local assemblies, which would then be taken forward by an elected executive tertiary education body.

Co-operation, municipalisation and inclusive growth

In the long-term, once robust structures of local self-governance have been established as part of an integrated and holistic National Education Service, Labour should explore alternative models of ownership in tertiary education, in line with its alternative economic strategy.[xiii]

The asset lock proposed above provides an ideal transitional form towards co-operative ownership models, for example. The creation of a Co-operative University is currently being explored by the Co-operative College, and examples of co-operative FE and HE already exist in the UK and abroad, as well as in compulsory education.[xiv]

However, it must be noted that co-operative colleges and universities do not, in themselves, challenge the logic of marketisation[xv]. While Co-operative Principles require democratic member control and economic participation, these principles are inward facing, designed to shield from the market while allowing them to operate effectively within it.

Furthermore, while co-operative principles mirror perfectly the principles of academic freedom, providing a strong foundation for the autonomy of tertiary education institutions in self-regulation by the academic profession, there is a real danger that this model would signal a return to an earlier, elitist and selective HE system severed from further and adult education.

To bring out the best in the Co-operative University model as part of a National Education Service, Labour should explore this model as part of devolved and democratised structures of municipal ownership and inclusive regional economic growth. The ‘Cleveland Model’ in the US and the Preston model in the UK both suggest how such a model of local and regional regeneration based on co-operative universities as socially useful ‘anchor institutions’ could work in practice.[xvi]

Democratised universities, by sourcing their services from local co-operatives while extending their extensive resources to wider communities as part of co-ordinated approaches, could become anchor institutions for genuine, democratic regeneration and positive, long-lasting social change. Where co-operative service providers do not yet exist, co-operative universities as part of a national and international network of co-operation, could provide education and financial support for local businesses seeking to explore co-operative business models[xvii].

The vision of HE presented above, of democratised universities acting as co-operative anchor institutions and hubs of ‘collective intelligence’, also provides an institutional framework for the implementation of Labour’s ‘Green Transformation’ programme.[xviii] While Cleveland and Preston models show how wealth can be kept within local and regional communities, democratised universities acting as socially useful anchor institutions can research green technologies, help green co-operative start-ups thrive and teach young people and adults alike how to live in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.

Devolution in its current form, however, presents a block to this vision of green, inclusive regional growth and re-generation. As Richard Hatcher argues, under the Tories, devolution has disguised a new form of highly centralised power and further cuts to public services.[xix] Through the role that Combined Authorities play in distributing devolved adult skills budgets and the close involvement universities have in these authorities, the Tories also seek to use devolution to further marketisation, specifically to bring tertiary education in line with the needs of neoliberal capitalism.

Alongside their alignment with business needs, the internal structures of the Combined Authorities[xx] also reflect the dominance of business over wider social interests, with the number of representatives from Local Enterprise Partnerships in most cases far outnumbering those from the community groups or trade unions and exerting a direct and pernicious influence over regional strategy and policy making.

Within the West Midlands Combined Authority, for example, LEP representatives participate directly in strategic decision-making, sitting not only on key strategic decision-making committees but also on the committee that scrutinises the decisions and policies of these committees. Furthermore, while LEP leaders have voice but no formal vote, they can veto increases to the region’s business rates, a key source of extra income for CAs.

Labour must therefore democratise the Combined Authorities and use devolved structures to transform regions into genuine ‘powerhouses’ for sustainable and inclusive growth. Alongside democratising the governance structures of individual CAs, democratic assemblies should be created to not only hold these authorities to account, but also to feed in local and regional social needs beyond purely business priorities. Socially useful colleges and universities, as suggested above, can act as democratic hubs to facilitate, organise and consolidate local knowledge and feed this knowledge into these assemblies for discussion and decision.


[i] Examples of self-regulation in UK education include the National Union of Teachers’ ‘Schools Must Speak For Themselves’ framework in the 1990s and Lawrence Stenhouse’s Humanities Curriculum Project in the 1970s
[ii] Ridley, D. (2019) Markets, Monopolies and Municipal Ownership. Available at: https://hemarketisation.wordpress.com/pamphlet/
[iii] Representatives from the Russell Group coalition of redbrick universities, for example, warned that if the 20% reduction in to £7,250 was not made up with public funding, English HE would face a ‘funding crisis.’ ‘Some institutions would likely close,’ they insisted. ‘Others would have to reduce the range of courses they offer. Higher cost subjects, such as science, technology and engineering, would be threatened even though they are producing the graduates our economy needs.’ https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2018/11/23/tuition-fee-cut-will-send-universities-crisis-leading-vice-chancellors/
[iv]  ‘Should a university or other higher education provider find themselves at risk of closure, our role will be to protect students’ interests, and we will not hesitate to intervene to do so,’ he insisted. ‘We will not step in to prop up a failing provider.’ https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/news-blog-and-events/press-and-media/we-will-not-bail-out-universities-in-financial-difficulty-regulator-chair-says/
[v] Ridley, D. (2019) ‘What if a university fails?’ Available at: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/what-happens-if-a-university-fails/
[vi] ‘University and College Union response to Labour Party policy consultation on a National Education Service’ (2018): https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/9439/UCU-response-to-LPF-consultation-on-the-National-Education-Service-June-2018/pdf/UCU_NES_consultation_response_June_2018.pdf
[vii] As Boden and colleagues argue, ‘this would also create clear governance responsibilities under trust law and prevent the privatisation of publicly funded assets.’ Boden, R., Ciancanelli, P. and Wright, S. (2012) ‘Trust Universities? Governance for Post-Capitalist Futures’. Available here: https://josswinn.org/tag/bibliography/
[viii] According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, funding for adult education has been cut by 45% since 2009: https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/13307; The Association of Colleges reports that the number of colleges in the UK has halved since their incorporation in 1993, dropping from almost 450 to 251 in 2018: https://www.aoc.co.uk/about-colleges/college-mergers
[ix] ‘These dialogues would constitute a strong form of accountability, they would be informed by formal reporting, but importantly, the parties would hold each other to account through social processes and relationships which cultivate increased understanding of each others’ work life, hopes and worries.’
[x] Markets, Monopolies and Municipal Ownership, and also: Ridley, D. (2018) ‘What can academics learn from the Lucas Plan?’ Available at: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/what-can-academics-learn-from-the-lucas-plan/; Ridley, D. (2019) ‘Towards Collectively Rethinking Ourselves’ https://www.oneducation.net/no-03_december-2018/towards-collectively-rethinking-ourselves-a-response-to-eric-lybeck/
[xi] See Just Space’s London Plan, https://justspace.org.uk/about-the-london-plan/; People’s Plan Greater Manchester, http://www.peoplesplangm.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/PEOPLES-PLAN-April-2017.pdf; Lucas Plan, http://lucasplan.org.uk/
[xii] Ridley, D. (2019) ‘Towards Collectively Rethinking Ourselves’
[xiii] Labour (2017) ‘Alternative Models of Ownership’. Available here: https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Alternative-Models-of-Ownership.pdf
[xiv] See Joss Winn’s ‘Co-operative universities: A bibliography’: https://josswinn.org/tag/bibliography/
[xv] As noted by the Co-operative College, market reforms actually open up for the first time the possibility of creating a Co-operative University in the UK
[xvi] Labour, Alternative Models of Ownership
[xvii] See Centre for Labour and Social Studies (2019) ‘A New Vision for Further and Higher Education’ http://classonline.org.uk/pubs/item/a-new-vision-for-further-and-higher-education
[xviii] https://www.labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/The-Green-Transformation-.pdf
[xix] ‘Power lies with government, not just because they have imposed the model (largely through secret deals with local government elites) but also because they set the economic agenda and targets and evaluate the Combined Authorities on their performance. Devolution is licensed, conditional and revocable.’ Hatcher, R. (2017) ‘The West Midlands Combined Authority has turned its back on inclusive economic growth to tackle inequality’.
[xx] There are currently seven CAs with Mayors and two without, for list, see: https://www.local.gov.uk/topics/devolution/combined-authorities

What happens if a university fails?

Image Source: Red Pepper

This is article was originally published on Red Pepper’s website, in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Post-18 review of education and funding’, also known as the Augar Review. Now that the dust has settled, it seems appropriate to re-post this slightly edited version. The key argument of the article is that, in anticipation of institutional failure in HE, whether the result of a cut in funding through a reduction in fees or through financial mismanagement, unions should look at ‘converting’ their universities into social co-operatives. The article looks at what the work the Queen Margaret University UCU branch in Scotland are doing to further this end. 

On 30 May, the UK Government published the results of its Post-18 review of education and funding– also known as the Augar Review – following a series of delays due to the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Among other things, the review called for annual tuition fees to be cut by 20%, from £9,250 to £7,500.

Both university vice-chancellors and the University and College Union have warned that such a move is likely to seriously undermine the financial viability of many debt-ridden institutions, leading possibly even to closure, unless the Government plugs the gap with public funding.

Representatives from the Russell Group coalition of redbrick universities, for example, warned that if the latter didn’t happen, English HE would face a “funding crisis.” “Some institutions would likely close,” they insisted. “Others would have to reduce the range of courses they offer. Higher cost subjects, such as science, technology and engineering, would be threatened even though they are producing the graduates our economy needs.”

In response to rising levels of borrowing in the sector to fuel capital spending, Office for Students’ head Sir Michael Barber last year said that the new regulator would “not bail out providers in financial difficulty.” “This kind of thinking – not unlike the ‘too big to fail’ idea among the banks – will lead to poor decision-making and a lack of financial discipline,” he said.

But what would happen if a university were actually to “fail”? And what should the Left response be, if this were to happen?

As I have argued in my recently published pamphlet, Markets, Monopolies and Municipal Ownership, institutional failure is not a problem, as such, for the Tories. Far from wanting to create a market in HE, I claim that market reform will in the long-term result in monopolisation, with universities, colleges and even schools fighting it out until the education sector is dominated by multi-national education corporations.

While the Left need to be clear about this underlying process of monopolisation, trade unionists and activists need get ahead of this process by looking at alternative models of ownership and control.

Columbus in a mortarboard

Before moving on to look at contemporary examples of such models, we need to place the Augar Review in the context of the monopolisation of English HE mentioned above.

After almost ten years of successive reforms, the stated aim of creating a market in HE to drive up quality through choice and competition has failed.

Announcing the Augar Review, Theresa May expressed disappointment at the failure to create competitive HE market, specifically lamenting a lack of progress towards a variable tuition fee system reflecting future earnings differences between institutions and even courses.

Due to its potential for political controversy, marketisation has been pursued largely through backdoor reforms and legislative tweaks. In 2010, the Tories trebled tuition fees to £9000 in England, at the same time almost entirely cutting the teaching grant for universities and deregulating the private sector.

Despite attempting to emulate the advantages of a graduate tax – mainly avoiding non-graduates subsidising the future employment premium of graduates – the ‘income-contingent’ loan system created a series of contradictions within the marketisation project.

Instead of encouraging students to think of themselves as consumers, fees and loans have led directly to the high levels of stress and prevalence of mental health issues in students who quite rightly worry about starting their qcareers with debts of up to £50,000 (including maintenance loans).

Universities also failed to respond to market “nudging”, not charging roughly what courses cost to run but rather hiking fees across the board to the maximum £9,000 fee for fear that anything less would signal low quality.

Augar, then, is yet another policy intervention aimed at disentangling the internal contradictions of marketisation. That it will not manage to do so is obvious to everyone.

In my pamphlet, however, I have argued that we need to drill down beneath the surface of these reforms and their accompanying ideological justifications to understand marketisation in terms of monopolisation, rather than competition.

While slashing fees without replacing this university income with public funding will without a doubt lead to a funding crisis in English HE, the resulting mergers and hostile take-overs will further Tory objectives rather than frustrate them.

In its recently published International Education Strategy, the Government revealed its aim to increase the value of the UK’s education exports from £20bn in 2016 to £35bn by 2030, growing the number of international students from about 450,000 to 600,000 during this period.

Not only would this put education in the UK’s top-five exports alongside cars and pharmaceuticals, but according to the Government, would also help us to expand our “soft power” across the globe.

What has this got to do with monopolisation? A few lines from the memoirs of former Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, are revealing.

“One reason why I was so keen on promoting alternative providers was that I hoped at least one big British based global higher education chain would emerge. But there is no sign of this.”

“The world now has fifty mega-universities, several with around a million students. But there is only one British institution on the list – the Open University with around 200,000 students. There are global university chains such as Amity, Phoenix, Laureate, Manipal, and Kaplan but none of these are British.”

In other words, to maintain our influence in the world in the absence of any real economic or military power, we need to create our own “mega universities”, to compete with those in the US and China.


While the Tories scheme to restore Britain’s imperial status through monopolisation and HE as an export, education activists in England and Scotland have begun to explore the idea of a co-operative university as an alternative way forward.

As Richard Hall notes, a range of “actually existing” co-operative colleges and universities have emerged in recent years. Hall is himself has been involved in the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, a small-scale co-operative university that offers free social science courses to people in the city.

Five years ago, after Leicester University closed the 150-year-old Vaughan College to save money, tutors re-opened the college as a co-operative. The tutors are currently running non-accredited programmes but intend to offer fully-accredited degrees in arts, humanities and the social sciences.

The Co-operative College in Manchester is also in process of creating the first fully-fledged Co-operative University, with government-granted degree awarding powers and access to the student loans system for its students.

As Joss Winn explains, these are all examples of “creation”, one of three routes to co-operation in HE. Alongside “dissolution” – which relates to “efforts to embed co-operativism within the university, while not formally and fully constituting the institution as a co-operative – there is also “conversion”.

Conversion describes a scenario where the governors, senior management team and academic representatives of a university decide to formally constitute the institution according to co-operative values and principles.

When it comes to conversion, university workers in Scotland – where student fees are still paid for by the state – are leading the way.

Last year, in response to proposed compulsory redundancies by Queen Margaret University to meet its “financial challenges”, the local UCU branch put forward a counter-proposal: sell part of its shiny new Musselburgh campus to a community co-operative, which could use the building and its services for social benefit.

Predictably, management rejected the idea, comparing it to a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and claiming that it would jeopardise the university’s income stream. However, QMU UCU have continued to explore possibilities for conversion.

In its radical manifesto, ‘Towards a Co-operative University’, QMU UCU puts forward a number of proposals that, if implemented, would take their institution closer to becoming a truly public university.

Proposals include opening the universities procurement contracts to bids from local co-operatives, shifting governing power and responsibility away from managers towards staff, students and the local community, and exploring co-operative models of ownership.

“QMU can be a cooperative university, rather than commercial, managerial or conflictual,” the UCU branch insists. “If management are willing to share that goal, UCU will play its part in working with them in moving towards it.”

“Another university is possible,” the manifesto concludes.


Coventry in the Vanguard

Cover image of Coventry UCU’s 2017 pamphlet, ‘Growth is ok, but what about quality?’ [Source: Coventry UCU]

Below is the text from an article published in the latest issue of Post-16 Educator, a publication this blog is affiliated with. You can find read the whole issue here, including an excellent piece on Labour’s National Education Service by Eddie Playfair. 

This is an edited version of a talk I gave at the Coventry University UCU ‘Alternative Open Day’ (9 March 2019). The event was part of a strike campaign against the university’s unfair ‘CORE/Clear Review’ system. Unfortunately, the branch had just received news that they achieved a turnout of 44%, just 6% short of the minimum required by the 2016 Trade Union Act.

Of those who voted, however, 70% were prepared to take strike action and 87.6% action short of a strike. ‘This clearly vindicates our campaign about the amount of concern there is about the unfairness and unaccountability of CORE/Clear Review system,’ the branch explained in a message to members in response to the result.

‘We have begun talks with management at which they have expressed the wish to conclude an agreement,’ the branch continued. ‘At a recent meeting we demanded and they agreed to provide several data sets of information, and we expect these to provide the basis for a genuine discussion about the problems that [members] have repeatedly put before us.’

I was asked by the branch to say a bit about marketisation, to give some context to their current dispute. I thought I’d do so by looking at how the branch got here and why their struggle is so important within this wider context.

Coventry University UCU has been for years now battling at the very frontline of marketisation. This is because the university within and against which it struggles is not only at the vanguard of marketisation but has in some sense been leading the neoliberal project of creating a market in British higher education.

As former secretary of the branch, I was part of a remarkable struggle for union recognition in Coventry University’s subsidiaries. For years we campaigned to get recognition for pre-sessional English teachers who had been outsourced from the University to a ‘wholly-owned subsidiary’, CU Services, suffering cuts to pay and conditions in the process.

We finally won recognition for these teachers in 2016, but on the way found that a similar fate had befallen many other staff groups, for example those working in the higher education subsidiaries, CU Coventry, CU Scarborough and CU London.

After winning recognition in one subsidiary, we immediately began campaigning for recognition across the entire ‘super subsidiary’, the CU Group. However, in response, the University set up a ‘sham’ union in this subsidiary group to undermine our efforts to establish an independent channel for colleagues to exercise their right to collective representation.

Why go to such lengths to avoid union recognition? Because Coventry University’s growth strategy depends on an exploitative business model, which relies on what we theorised – drawing on the work of Australian academic Megan Kimber – as a centre/periphery approach to academic outsourcing and deprofessionalisation.

Universities are public institutions and charities, and are therefore not strictly profit-making enterprises. However, under UK law, charities are allowed to set up subsidiary companies to engage in profit-making activities unrelated to their main charitable purposes, as long as these activities do not damage the reputation of the charity.

Coventry University has been testing the limits of this technicality for over a decade, running for-profit universities as subsidiaries and having no regard for the reputational damage caused by union-busting activities aimed at defending this model.

As well as setting up sham unions, many will remember when the university’s employment practices were compared to those of Sports Direct by The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty, after it sacked the pre-sessional English teachers mentioned above and tried to force them to re-apply for their jobs through the university’s student temping agency, thefutureworks.

Not only has the university’s perverse use of UK charity law gone unpunished by regulators, it has been given awards for this ‘entrepreneurialism’. In 2017, for example, the university picked up the Duke of York Award for University Entrepreneurship at the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards.

While you might think that this behaviour is driven by HE ‘marketisation’ – the Tory dream of turning universities into R&D and human capital factories serving students-as-consumers – this is only partially true. In my own work I have argued that marketisation truly began in 1992, when polytechnics like Coventry were granted university status.

The condition for this new status was that these ‘modern’ universities should become corporations with private sector style governing boards and vice-chancellors as CEOs. These reforms undermined collegiality, had the effect of gradually replacing academic self-governance with top-down managerialism, and introduced a set of behaviours or ‘norms’ that drove institutions like Coventry to behave as described above.

Essentially, modern universities – whose corporate structures and behaviour were soon imitated by older, civic universities – became vehicles for marketisation ‘from below’. When the Tories returned to government in 2010, they merely accelerated this marketisation, responding to a desire for an expansion of business opportunities for status-conscious VCs.

By challenging this logic of corporatisation, then, Coventry University UCU branch has taken the struggle right to the heart of the marketisation project. Winning union recognition in these subsidiaries is not only a significant local victory, boosting the confidence of members to move on to ‘core’ university issues like pay and performance management, but a line in the sand in relation to the future of British HE.

Coventry University is the future. Universities are becoming multi-campus, multi-national corporations, just like more familiar British mega-corporations like GlaxoSmithKline, Cadburys or perhaps more relevantly, Pearson. VC-CEOs no doubt look forward to the day their institution is included on the list of FTSE 100 companies.

Unfortunately, this future is closer than you think. Today there is talk of universities failing as a result of risky investments and uncertain economic conditions, with the government refusing to ‘bail out’ universities in the case of such failure, despite spending billions on bailing out the banking sector in 2007/8 in response to a global financial crisis created, in part, by those banks.

Rather than bail universities out, I predict that the government will instead look for other universities to take on these failing institutions, through mergers or perhaps as the wholly-owned subsidiaries of a new type of super-university conglomerate. Even more likely, the government will court private sector corporations to take on these institutions as a speculative business opportunity, no doubt for vastly reduced prices.

While the future is bleak, Coventry University UCU has provided a beacon of hope and set an example for trade union branches everywhere, in every part of the public sector, in challenging privatisation, marketisation and corporatisation.

We cannot bury our heads in the sand and just hope that marketisation will go away, or that we can ride out this unfortunate episode by working extra hard on our teaching and research. The fact is that if we are not fighting marketisation we are complicit in its reproduction. The struggle is hard, but what has been achieved at Coventry shows that victories can be won, even in the most difficult conditions.

The result of the recent ballot is no doubt being felt as a heavy loss. But the branch and its members should feel absolutely proud of the struggle that has got them to this point, and feel encouraged by just how close the result was. The war is yet to be won. There will be many more battles at Coventry and elsewhere in the struggle against neoliberal marketisation, privatisation and outsourcing.


Lecturers look set to strike again

UCU Pensions Strike 2018 (Chris Bertram)

Academic and academic related staff in just under 150 UK universities are to be balloted for strike action in the Autumn after negotiations between the University and College Union (UCU) and the university employers association, UCEA, have broken down.

It is very disappointing to report that the employers failed to improve their offer/ failed to sufficiently improve their offer,” wrote the UCU’s Head of Higher Education, Paul Bridge, in a note to local union branches. “In line with the decisions taken by the Higher Education Committee (HEC), UCU has today written to the heads of institutions we believe are part of the New JNCHES national bargaining arrangements lodging a trade dispute with each institution and setting out the steps they should take to resolve the dispute.”

“It is highly likely that UCU will now proceed to a statutory ballot of members over pay this autumn,” the note explained. “As agreed by HEC the ballot will open towards the end of August and run into October. Exact dates are to be finalised and branches and members will be advised in advance of the opening of the ballot.”

As part of the negotiations, UCU has demanded on behalf of their members:

  • An increase total spine points on the 50 point national pay scale of 7.5% or £1,500 whichever is greater
  • Nationally agreed framework for action to close the gender pay gap by 2020.
  • Nationally-agreed framework for action on precarious contracts
  • Nationally-agreed payment to recognise excessive workloads

Last month UCU consulted members on UCEA’s final offer of a 2% pay rise, with no agreement on national action on gender pay, precarious contracts and no payment in recognition of excessive hours and workloads.

UCU members that voted overwhelmingly rejected the offer, with over 80% of members voting against. Additionally 65% of members said they were prepared to take sustained industrial action if necessary.

However, while the turnout of 48% was the highest recorded by UCU for a UK wide pay consultation, it did not reach the 50% stipulated by the 2016 Trade Union Act. If the union is to take national strike action, it will need to exceed this number in a statutory ballot.

To deliver such a result, UCU branches are being encouraged to engage in ‘Get the Vote Out’ campaigns, which the union will hope will deliver the kind of sustained and widely supported action seen in the UCU pension strike earlier this year.