By Chris Newlove
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Common Weal: Nothing in common

This article is over 8 years, 2 months old
Calls for a new social democracy in Scotland where workers and bosses cooperate ignores the reality of a class society
Issue 389

The independence referendum has opened up a debate in Scotland about what type of society we want to live in. Hundreds have joined Yes campaign, Radical Independence and Yes/No debates to discuss how we can achieve a Scotland that breaks from Britain’s inequality and wars.

One of the most popular forms this has taken is Common Weal. Common Weal is a set of ideas developed from the centre-left think tank The Jimmy Reid Foundation, whose backers include the academics Gregor Gall, Robin McAlpine and one Alex Ferguson. Jimmy Reid was the trade union leader who led the UCS shipbuilding occupation on Clydeside in 1971 and the founder of Scottish Left Review.

Publishing numerous policy papers and hosting events has gained it fairly widespread support among Yes voters, including all 411 SNP councillors who voted at their annual conference to back it. Common Weal is an old phrase in Scotland which means “wealth shared in common” or “for the wellbeing of all”.

It puts forward arguments that socialists should back including nationalisation of the energy industry, a living wage, and the defence and expansion of the welfare state. Willie Sullivan from Common Weal told a recent meeting in Edinburgh that “we need a new social democracy”.

The key examples held up for what this would look like are Germany and Denmark. But in both countries the welfare state and workers’ living standards are being rolled back.

Furthermore, behind Common Weal’s slogan “All of us first” lies the false assumption that the working class and bosses share the same interests. Central “reforms” proposed by Common Weal would actually damage workers’ ability to resist austerity.

Co-management is put forward as a way to raise the living standards of workers in Scotland. Proposals include “co-operation committees” on which an equal number of workers and management sit to help in the day to day running of the workplace.

In companies with more than 500 employees, workers would elect a third of the board of management. In other European countries these arrangements have been the product of struggle.

In Germany similar rights were won in 1951 when workers struck to remove Nazi sympathising managers. However, in the UK and elsewhere participation in management has been a disaster for workers.

As Tony Cliff noted in the case of British Leyland in the late 1970s, “participation weakened shopfloor organisation, increased sectionalism and made scabbing an official tactic.” Trade unionists on management boards were expected to sell layoffs and other attacks as part of making the company profitable.

In both Denmark and Germany the social democratic model is under attack. In Denmark the Social Democratic led coalition has attacked disability benefits and student grants, given tax breaks to the rich and locked out teachers last year in a dispute over workloads.

Germany is held up as an example for the strength of its economy, but it is based on driving down the living standards of German workers.

Common Weal also promotes the idea of participatory budgeting which means devolving decision making on council budgeting to a local level because Common Weal suggest that the closer decisions are made the more they will reflect the views of ordinary people and be less susceptible to manipulation by lobbyists and civil servants.

But the real decisions about funding still reside with central government. It would still mean councillors and the public deciding which public services to cut instead of mobilising a fight against all cuts.

Common Weal is explicit about the idea that bosses and workers have the same interests. After Ineos routed the Unite union at Grangemouth, Common Weal’s response was to say, “The only way to ‘vow never again’ is to change industrial relations from a conflict model where employers and employees are pitted against another to a co-operative model.”

Yet Grangemouth actually shows that bosses and workers have separate interests. After Unite accepted worse conditions, Ineos continued on the attack, sacking another convenor, Mark Lyon, and proposing more jobs losses.

Capitalism is based on the exploitation of workers who produce profit for the bosses. Within this system bosses are forced to compete with each other to maximise profits — otherwise they go out of business. Increasing the exploitation of workers through pay cuts and increased workload is built into the system.

Workers’ interests lie in defending themselves through collective organisation and the main power we have is withdrawing our labour. The lesson from Grangemouth is the need to fight back as the Edinburgh College lecturers, Glasgow social workers and others are doing.

While workers have no interest in maintaining the imperialist British state every gain in an independent Scotland will have to be fought for.

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