Whenever the Labour movement is able to abandon the defensive postures which have regrettably come to seem ‘normal’ during long stretches of its history, and whenever, then, it begins to step over the borders of its allotted prerogatives, one begins to hear again the noise of argument about workers’ control. Left Clubs, of course, have for several years endlessly discussed about guilds, syndicalism, self-management, etc. But until very recently they talked largely to themselves. The main part of the trade unions remained snugly torpid: the motto of the tuc could well have been lifted from article one of the Agreement between the Engineering employers and the Confederation:
At the Brighton tuc, almost unnoticed, all this began to change. Not only did the General Council’s Report contain four pretty lukewarm pages of observations about the working (or failing) of joint consultation, which culminated, far more brightly, with the suggestion that researches in Yugoslavia might do no harm; but on top of this a most useful resolution was carried, albeit without a debate. The motion, from asset, was moved by Clive Jenkins in a short and skilfully tentative speech which had the distinction of raising a ghost which had been laid since 1944. It demanded an investigation into the best ways of ‘effecting an element of workers’ participation in the day-to-day and long-term decision-taking in publicly owned enterprises.’ After its easy passage, a more ambiguous sentence found its way into the economic resolution of the Labour Party Conference and thence into the agreed platform of the next Government party. Thin though the edge of this new wedge may be, it is obviously of very great importance.
On November 10th George Woodcock led a party of ten General Councillors, including Frank Cousins and Jack Cooper of the Municipal Workers, to Yugoslavia. They were to examine the working of the workers’ councils and their role in management, and to study the position of the unions in the system. The party visited Belgrade, Celje, Velenje and Ljubliana and saw factories, farms and mines. They spent a day with Vukmanovic-Tempo, the Prsident of the Yugoslav Unions, who had extended the invitation to the tuc quite independently of its decision to seek information in Yugoslavia. A balance-sheet of the visit was published in The Times at the end of the week. Amongst other things, it reported:
‘The visit was too short and the delegation too miscellaneous. For the few with live minds and some previous knowledge of the Yugoslav system, it may have been instructive, but the delegation was not handpicked. Some of the members seemed hardly interested, so that the main effect of their presence was to hinder the inquiries of the few who were. They did not seem to work as a team.’
‘None of the British delegation’, The Times concluded, ‘thought anything like the Yugoslav system of workers’ councils could be adopted here, at least unless some future government greatly extended the area of public ownership.’ In a similar vein, the New Society commented:
‘It would be naive to expect Mr Woodcock and his colleagues to return singing the praises of the Yugoslav system, but they will find some of its features interesting.’
It is not unnatural that some of the leading members of the General Council should prove reluctant to do anything to remove the idea of Industrial Democracy from the file reserved for peroration platitudes. However, the matter will not be settled by this reluctance. The fact that responsible union leaders are interesting themselves at all in such matters reflects a very real rebirth of interest nearer to the grass roots. And the most intelligent and responsive of the younger leaders may very well move to take up positions which can surprise far more positively committed people than the contributors to The Times and New Society.