The Vestas Alternative

July 23, 2009

The Save Vestas demonstration outside the Department for Energy and Climate Change last night was a lively affair. Despite the absence of a loud hailer, and the persistent intervention of the number 91 bus, several speakers were heard, from groups like Workers Climate Action, the SWP, Socialist Resistance and the Green Party.

The major speaker was Simon Hughes of the Liberal Democrats, who perhaps did not anticipate the nature of the audience, and launched into a speech which, while strongly advocating support for a British renewables industry and laying into the other major parties, failed to offer solidarity with the Vestas workers (who continue their occupation of the Isle of Wight plant). Much to the chagrin of several vocal protesters, Hughes failed to support the nationalization of the Vestas facility, setting out his preference for a private sector solution, with the government adopting an enabling and nurturing role, while avoiding taking direct control.

It all degenerated fairly rapidly into a slanging match, with neatly defined poles – nationalization/workers power vs private sector/state enabler, and nothing in between.

Personally, I find this rather limiting. Although I have great sympathy with the call for nationalization (several hecklers referred to the banks as a precedent, and flagged the NHS as a case of successful nationalization), I share the suspicion of state control. Certainly, “workers power” is hardly best served by a state which is sure to embark upon massive cutbacks and pay restraint/cuts in the public sector, and is running down what is left of it to sell off in the near future.

In any case, without a strategic vision for how such publicly owned entities would work with private parts suppliers and consumers, the call is a little premature from an environmental perspective. The general call to “Save Vestas” – and a British wind power manufacturing base – is more potent and attractive. The question about what next? is more tricky.

After all, what’s best for the Vestas workers is not necessarily what’s best for the environment, or the economy as a whole, but that shouldn’t stop us protecting their livelihoods as best we can, and supporting the occupation.

I think that we need more imaginative suggestions in order to sway public opinion and politicians to support such resistance. One such proposal could involve the creative linkage of manufacturing, energy production and energy consumption.

Vestas could be supported (by the government, initially) as a workers cooperative, or a community supported venture (perhaps, a non-profit). Its products could be sold regionally as a prototype to communities with wind power potential, which would be able to install capacity with public loan support and feed in tariffs.

A portion of the revenue generated by the electricity production could then be recycled into the ex-Vestas cooperative, with the rest going to the communities having installed the turbines, forming a cycle of production – which benefits both those producing the blades/turbines and those installing the capacity. This might help to circumvent widely held prejudices against hosting wind turbines. Giving communities a stake in the revenue generated works in Denmark (ironically, given Vestas’ origins). It would work in Britain too.

Vestas would become a publicly held company or non-profit with tight links to other cooperatives hosting turbines. It would be neither state owned, not private in the corporate sense, but owned by the people involved in manufacture and consumption. The state, in a role which echoes, but does not mimic, the neo-liberal “enabling” role, would provide support and expertise but would not control.

Other alternatives being discussed include the establishment of a wind energy R&D facility on the Isle of Wight, which would be fine, but would not provide the broad economic benefits that the above proposal would. Such ideas would benefit an intellectual elite without being linked to the consumption of wind power products.

We need to think more creatively. How can jobs be saved, and economically viable institutions be established while also surmounting the objections to wind power which hold back the industry? It might be possible to use Vestas as a test case for doing both at the same time. As many campaigners are stressing, it’s certainly a great opportunity to link the issues environmentalism and workers rights, but workable proposals are important to build public support.

Another report on the demo here

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