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May 07, 2010



I suspect that the punters were well aware that the chances of the Tories devolving power were/are nil. After all, as a matter of policy they rendered local government meaningless in the first place.


As I recall there is a scene in Tolstoy's Anna Kerenina where the workers reject the option of ownership. What we want is a regular wage, they say, not the uncertainty or the added effort - even if that gives greater reward - that comes with ownership.

This attitude seems to be a feature of European culture. As opposed to US or perhaps Asian cultures. I wonder why?


Fictional 19th century peasants are rarely one's go-to sources when considering European attitudes to workers' ownership of the means of production.

chris c

Thatcher's Britain gave us this kind of empowerment in the form of what she wanted to be the new collectivisation - employee buyouts. They were pretty common when management wanted to sell up, or had failed, where workers had a decent enough credit union and a large enough base to raise at least some liquidity. You might want to have a look at MTL as an example of a company that was bought out by its employees:


See, MTL was a working prospect, with the company doing quite well up until the sale point to Arriva, and it had done this through employee ownership after a chequered past, emerging from the nationalised MPTE.

But what happened was that Arriva, in arrangement with Barclays, seriously undervalued the company and waved cheques in the faces of the employees - bus drivers, ordinary people with families and debts. Turned out what had happened was that the directors of MTL and Barclays had undervalued the company on sale to Arriva, and screwed the employees - not great financial minds - out of a whole bunch of money.

The point of failure came at the free market - what seemed like a fair deal at the time, and what seemed like great payouts previously, made very little business sense from the point of view of value. Arriva, Barclays and the directors made use of the exploitative nature of capitalism in order to take advantage of the employees and majority shareholders.

Luis Enrique

you could be right ... and of course attempts to impose empowerment risks just putting power into the hands of those cranks and lunatics that can be bothered to participate in the power scramble (getting elected to worker councils etc. or whatever)

I agree that the left should place some more emphasis on ownership. What sort of policies do you envisage? I don't think you can force privately held firms to turnover their shares to workers, so are you thinking along the lines of tax incentives for certain ownership structures?

I'm really not sold on your point 2. How many workers think "you know what, society would be better off if I lost my job"? Don't all public sector workers oppose cuts in their organizations, and think they should get more money, not less, because what they do is very important? Maybe you mean that the command to cut is handed down from above, and the workers use their "on the ground" knowledge to decide exactly where the cuts come from?


Thank you for the answer!

Mike Woodhouse

Are there any sources describing practical ways to implement worker ownership? One hurdle might be finding an equitable process to follow when a worker leaves a job; beyond that what happens when they move to a new one?

On point 2, it would be nice to see this happen (and the premise seems entirely sound) but with an electoral system that seems to select for centralising control-freaks, it would be a pleasant surprise were it to happen. It might take something out of the ordinary, like a hung parliament...


@Mike Woodhouse: Try

Worker ownership and empowerment short of ownership are genuinely big ideas, not Cameron's Big Society. It is unsurprising that voters initially reject them whilst they are ignorant of what can be achieved. Big ideas need big campaigns to promote them.


Education must have a lot to do with it. We've just had an election where the Tory, Liberal, BNP(!) and UKIP leaders were all privately educated. It's true people don't want to take control - they've rarely been asked to control of anybody or of anything that wasn't their personal property all the way through school and in most cases well into their twenties (through low-grade jobs). Frequently through their entire lives. Putting themselves forward to control a school, housing, a hospital as adults feels alien - and would very likely be irresponsible. Moreover private education in itself encourages children to believe they're different. Talking differently, having good manners, confidence in speaking in public (e.g.TV debates)all make people react differently to them and so reinforce their positive self-image. Born leaders!


On the other hand, it's telling that Dave from PR got to the edge of winning without having any ideas.

Philip Walker

Chris C: A free market is not free if it does not include the freedom to make huge blunders. Unless you are proposing to abolish bad decisions, that is no argument against liberalising our economy.

chris c

I didn't say it was, Philip. I was rather looking at it as an argument against:

"1. Some form of worker ownership would abolish the toxic class conflict that has bedevilled some (yes, public sector) industries such as Royal Mail or the tube."

It's also a failure of ownership of a different kind. In this case the failure of the owners was to trust their investments to a bunch of directors who ended up selling the company down the river because they showed a disinterest in continuing a going concern, instead deciding to sell out the shares they held the majority in and forcing the hand of the rest by waving a carrot in front of the faces of the shareholders.

A free market is not free if it does not include the capacity to exploit the workers.


chris c,

"A free market is not free if it does not include the capacity to exploit the workers."

You have a car for sale. I know that it's worth £5k but I offer you £1k. You accept the offer. Have I exploited you?


Workers sharing the profits of industries is a brilliant idea. Workers owning their own businesses and co-operatively running them is a great vision of the future.

Then you consider what happens when the industry makes a loss and the idea comes tumbling down. The workers getting the profits is a lovely idea, but who do you want suffering from the losses: workers with minimal assets and savings, or shareholders?

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