In the mid 1970s, threatened with redundancy, a group of workers and trade unionists at defence contractor Lucas Aerospace took measures into their own hands, together creating a comprehensive way out of their situation that would become known as The Alternative Plan.

Their proposals were remarkably ahead of their time. Instead of engineering weapons, they proposed creating things like all-purpose, fuel-agnostic generators that could be used in the developing world, submarines that could mine the ocean floor for raw materials, hybrid power packs for cars, and wind turbines.

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Management rejected the proposals and never talked with the group again. Their sustainability initiatives were deemed unsustainable for the business, a bitter irony given the short time that's left to put the brakes on ecocide.

Now the subject of an ambitious documentary which premiered at The London Film Festival on Sunday, The Plan That Came From The Bottom Up covers vast territory, using this somewhat buried part of British working history as an effective anchor to tackle wider themes of neoliberalism, climate change, planned obsolescence, democracy in the workplace, 'productivity', and capitalism itself.

"I felt it was a very important story and one that had never actually been made, nobody had ever really made a serious film about it," director Steve Sprung, who recently retired from university teaching to return to independent film-making, told Techworld. "There were a couple of smaller things at the time, but never really a proper film, whereas quite a lot of things in the history of trade unions, working class issues and stories, things like the miners' strike, there'd been loads of films made about it.

"I couldn't quite understand why there had never been a film made about this, when, in my sense, it was a much more important story - in that it was actually offering something. It wasn't just being defensive. It was people offering a way forward: here's an alternative.

"I felt probably, well, maybe because it's too difficult - we haven't got a lot of drama, there's no fighting on the street with the police and all that sort of stuff that you get in a miner's strike film - there's no dramatics in it immediately. Maybe that's why people have shied away... because I think a lot of people would agree it's a very important story."

Sprung had started work on the film before the wave of support for Jeremy Corbyn, whose victory in 2016 for the Labour leadership was seen as emblematic of a resurgent left, particularly among the youth demographic. He had decided to make a film about the end of the post-war consensus and the emergence of neoliberalism, centred around the Lucas workers and celebrating their fight, but also to more closely examine why it could not have succeeded at that place at that time.

What is work?

Lucas Aerospace worker and combine member Phil Asquith, who was contacted by film director Steve Sprung several years ago, tells Techworld how the group wanted to not only tackle the issues of redundancy, de-weaponising and creating socially useful goods, but also to challenge the concepts of scientific management itself, as the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor were quickly becoming mainstream.

'Taylorism', itself inspired in part by slavery, was a successful attempt to restructure the traditional design and production process, the impact of which can still be felt today. Boiled down, each worker would only have their small part to play on the assembly line. They would have their roles individualised and atomised, so that rather than having agency over the creative process, they would instead be responsible for just one small aspect of it.

"That which was most precious in people - their skill, and their creativity - was being engineered out of the design and production process," says Asquith. "That is still with us. You only have to look at iPhone production facilities, you only have to look at car production."

"So we were interested in not just saving jobs at Lucas, which were threatened by all sorts of things such as defence cuts, but were interested in alternative and socially useful alternatives to weapons, but also in the way those were produced.

"The issues we were contending with then in the 70s along with other trade unionists in the manufacturing industry are very similar to the issues today, and those issues are even larger."

He explained that in 1973, while jobs in manufacturing were being decimated, oil prices at the same time quadrupled, leading to an early panic about energy creation and conservation. "We looked at that, and quite a lot of the plan then was about energy-saving devices," he says. "And if you look in the plan very deep, you'll see references to the dangers of thermal pollution, which we now call the greenhouse effect."

"We were proposing hybrid power-pack technology to reduce pollution and fuel consumption. The wind turbines we were proposing - we made at Lucas Aerospace generator systems for aircraft, so it's not a massive leap of design to go from aircraft generators to generators for wind turbines."

Architect or bee?

Central to the plan was the work of trade unionist and engineer Michael Cooley, the author of a book, Architect or Bee? which argues that technology should assist rather than undermine the role of humans in their work. Cooley posits that politics and technology were intertwined, and that 'human-centred systems' could avoid stripping people of their agency in their work and lives.

These questions feel particularly pertinent today. Advances in automation and artificial intelligence are threatening to further disrupt the fabric of society, but they need not spell human misery if they are used rationally rather than developing at the whims of the market and for profit.

Despite all the promises for ethics and transparency from the Silicon Valley companies, the vast majority of us really are not aware of the work that these businesses are doing - except perhaps when it is too late. Take the recent example of tech companies' involvement with Donald Trump's ICE agency - and decisions made seem to happen to society, rather than charting a path with society together.

"This capacity of people to be able to be in control of their lives, or to make or do things, is a really important question," says Sprung. "It's a massive social and political question, and I think that's the big question that needs taking up - which generally is not much talked about. These questions of technology were at that time the really big focus for the Lucas people.

"Mike Cooley is very important. The way he thought and looked at it... it's those kinds of discussions which have been completely omitted I think, and haven't really been taking place. Very important debate and discussion needs to be had in terms of thinking about: where do we go from here? Where do we come from, where are we now, and where do we want to go to?"

Invisible forces

The Lucas workers believed that they had the support of the Labour Party, and indeed they did for a time, when Tony Benn was Minister for Industry and encouraged the democratic creation of this plan. But behind the scenes there were forces at work to ensure that their plan would not become a success, and in reality it, and others like it, were utterly de-fanged by Harold Wilson.

According to Sprung, when he initially approached the Lucas workers about the film he says from the get-go that he intended to tell the whole, big picture. And the critique of the Labour Party that the film makes, he says, is the critique that the Lucas workers themselves were "forced to make".

"They were publicly supported, rightly so, at the Labour Party conference," says Sprung. "No one could say a word against what they did, because what they were proposing was precisely to suggest we should make things which were socially good for people - who could oppose that? No one could oppose it.

"But behind closed doors, lots of things were done to try and make sure it wouldn't happen. And that was the issue."

There's two ways of looking at the efforts, says Sprung. One is to acknowledge that these workers created this incredible plan, but eventually they got tired and bored with it and gave up. The other is quite different.

"They tried to fight for it for many years, and there were forces at play which tried to dissipate it, and make sure it wouldn't happen," he says. "That is a very important part of it. They were very strong on pushing for it to happen, and there was a lot that took place which was stopping it from happening.

"And it came from the Labour Party. It didn't necessarily come from Tony Benn, who supported it for instance. But Tony Benn was moved to the sidelines and Wilson took over."

Trades councils including Liverpool and Newcastle held a workers inquiry to investigate what had happened to the Labour Party's manifesto pledge to give workers more control of industry. A body was formed, the Institute of Workers Control, led by Ken Coates of the International Marxist Group, who later became a Labour MEP.

This manifesto pledge, says Sprung, is "almost word for word" what John McDonnell announced at the most recent Labour Party conference - a policy to give working people more control within their workplace.

"Tony Benn as Minister of Industry encouraged people like Lucas and other workers from other places to develop alternative plans and be part of a process," says Sprung. "The idea was in order for them to continue to give funding, state grants, tax exemptions, and all those kinds of things to large companies, they would then be tied to having to give a say to workers in that process, whether it's workers on the board or whatever it happened to be.

"That was the way they were going to try to bring it in. What happened was after the first year and a half or something like that, Tony Benn was there - it's connected to the [initial] referendum on Europe, where Benn was on one side and didn't want to be in Europe, and Wilson was on the other side. That was used as an excuse to get rid of Benn.

"And Wilson took over the whole process. What Wilson did was rewrite the whole thing and took out the element that any company would be forced to do anything - he made it all voluntary. So all of a sudden, it went from the position where they were going to work with, not nationalise, companies, but work with companies and try to enforce a situation where they had to involve the trade unions and workers more in the whole process of what the companies were doing.

"It became nothing. It became: we are going to give you money and you don't have to do anything in return. Back to what it used to be like before.

"That whole process was a very important process. What comes out when you read that report from the trades council is the people felt at the time they were led up the garden path by the Labour Party, and by Tony Benn, and people like that. All of a sudden Benn is moved to another ministry, and the whole thing is shoved under the carpet. But it's not a public thing. It's all done behind closed doors."

The result was that working people had expectations of a government with a radical manifesto but that none of it had been enacted and it was all coming apart.

Soon afterwards James Callaghan was forced to borrow billions from the International Monetary Fund, and as part of the bailout came structural adjustment programmes, leading to a gradual shift into a "quasi-beginning of Thatcherite policies," in Sprung's words. "The whole thing shifts from one thing to its complete opposite."

"Very few people have talked about that," he adds. "The Lucas people were victims of that process, because they were initially told: go away and we'll support it. And eventually they discover some years later that there's no support there at all, and there's people in the government and union officials who are actively working against them.

"You get the conclusion at the end of the day where they're totally frozen out of the whole process. Essentially they're kept completely out of it, they don't know what's going on. There's a deal done behind closed doors, and eventually, Thatcher comes in."

Lessons learned?

It is with some irony that when pundits quoted in papers like The Telegraph or The Times warn that Labour is preparing a return to the 70s today, many on the left could be forgiven for thinking: good. There is a lot to be learned, including from the Lucas workers.

Just like those times, there is a demarcation line between the left and the right of the Labour party.

"The left was in a strong enough position to get something going, we are then completely swamped and it was taken over by the right, and the result was all of these workers were completely sold down the river in the process," says Sprung. "The destruction of industry, the effect it had on workers like the Lucas workers who were actively campaigning for things which were absolutely needed, and are still needed now, were completely devastated by the policies. Totally destroyed by it, they weren't helped at all, they were just hindered all the way along the line.

"I think that's a very important thing, because that is still there, there still are people within the Labour party, I think, who don't necessarily understand the effect of the kinds of things they were advocating... I think it's a very important part of a discussion that needs to take place, addressing that history. At the moment it's not addressed."

"I really like John McDonnell - I've met him and interviewed him before - but a year or so ago, not this last conference, the conference before, he was saying wonderful things about Harold Wilson.

"What the Lucas workers would say was that Harold Wilson did nothing for us whatsoever. That history, like people in the north of England feel... the Labour Party was a part of that process. Labour governments, like Tory governments, haven't done anything for their area.

"It's dishonest to try and claim all the way along the line Labour is defending working people and it was always the Tories. This film is trying to talk about that, and saying: here's a real story, this is what happened to these people, and it needs to be thought about because it affects all of these questions: questions of jobs, questions of technology, questions of war and peace... All these questions are affected by it, that's why it's there, that's why I'm trying to raise it up and that's why they talk about it and that's why it's in the film."

But what the Lucas plan showed was that when given the chance to exercise democratic control in the workplace, people can show incredible initiative, and create not only products that are indeed socially necessary but can draw attention to questions - and even solve problems - that are of enormous social importance.

The Plan paints a picture of what could be achieved if only the political blocks were removed that could allow them to happen. Lucas Aerospace was one business. What might the world look like if we could all club together to plan rationally to answer grave societal problems? The time is probably running out to find out.