"Workplace autonomy plays an important causal role in determining well-being" conclude Alex Coad and Martin Binder in a new paper. This is consistent with research by Alois Stutzer which shows that procedural utility matters; people care not just about outcomes but about having in having control, which is why the self-employed tend to be happier than employees.
This implies that a government that is concerned to increase happiness - as David Cameron claims to be - should have as one of its aims a rise in worker control of the workplace.
This is especially the case because research shows that the cliche is true - a happy worker really is a productive worker. For this reason, it shouldn't be a surprise that there's a large (pdf) body of research which shows that worker coops can be at least as productive and successful as hierarchical firms. "Cooperative firms do seem to produce moderately more output with a given set of inputs" concludes a study (pdf) of the US plywood industry. "Cooperatives are at least as productive as conventional firms" finds research (pdf) on French firms.
Greater worker control, therefore, might increase well-being directly and also raise productivity.
Which poses the question: why, then, is it so firmly off of the political agenda?
It's not because it's a loony lefty policy. For one thing, opposition to hierarchic control owes at least as much to Hayek's strictures against centralized planning as it does to Marxism. And for another, I'm not just thinking of full-blown worker soviets here, but of a range of degrees of worker autonomy. Shareholders have delegated control to management, so why shouldn't they do so - to some degree - to workers? There is, after all, also evidence that shared capitalism can raise efficiency.
Nor do I think it good enough to claim that there's no voter demand - at least the level of party politics - for greater worker control. Such lack of demand might owe more to learned helplessness or to ideology than to rational preferences. And if politicians were serious about the leadership of which they so often prate, they would surely put onto the agenda policies which could do a lot to enhance well-being and efficiency.
Instead, I suspect there are other answers to my question.
One is that worker control is off the agenda now simply because it has been for decades.As Selina Todd writes of the 1945-51 government:
Labour's front bench was not committed to establishing economic or political equality. They promoted equality of opportunity. Workers were not granted any control over industry but were instead expected to submit to the authority of managers.
What we have here, though, is another example of an idea that's outlived its usefulness. In the 40s, most people did not know that centrally planned organizations were doomed to failure (the fear of being overtaken by the Soviet Union persisted well into the 60s). Nor did they have the evidence we now have that worker control is efficient whilst management control - for example in banks and some universities - can be a form of organized vandalism.
But the vandals have seized political as well as economic power. As Pablo Torija Jimenez has shown, "democratic" politics now serves the interests of the very rich. And these benefit from managerialist control of workplaces even if most of the rest of us do not.