From an Experiment in Industrial Democracy to Driving the Difference: The John Lewis Partnership Co-ownership model 1964 - 2014

Lead Research Organisation: University of Essex
Department Name: History


In 1914, John Spedan Lewis began his 'experiment in industrial democracy' at the drapery store, Peter Jones. He created the Staff Council in 1919, giving employees, both shop-floor and management, the opportunity to discuss and explore issues which were relevant to the running of the business. The John Lewis Partnership (JLP) has since become the largest co-owned business in the United Kingdom and the 'John Lewis model' - an apparently successful conciliation of free-market capitalism and social good - continues to draw the attention of politicians, the media and academics. Yet the ways in which the founding ideology has been expressed, interpreted and understood within the development of a profit-maximising retail organisation remains underresearched.

There has also been little attention given to this process of accommodating commercial success and co-ownership in wider historical and political contexts. Many different models of industrial democracy were advocated in Britain in the post-war period and interest in the potential benefits of employees having a stake in the effective running of their workplaces spanned the political spectrum and remained on policy agendas into the early 1980s. Even though it has since lost this prominence - the reasons for which will be explored - it is an idea that has periodically resurfaced.

No comparative, historically-attuned analysis of the co-ownership model, and the relevance of the role of the Councils and other democratic bodies has been undertaken. This will form the major area for research, addressing the fifty-year period between the centenary/jubilee celebrations and the major reorganisation of the democratic structures of the business as part of the 'Driving the Difference' programme, undertaken in 2014.

As a continuing aspect of this project, research will be useable by the John Lewis Partnership and other businesses. The oral histories or transcripts and photographs/scanned images of items brought to interviews by partners will be contributed to the John Lewis Heritage Centre with the agreement of the participant to allow for further analysis by various parties in the future. As an ongoing part of the project, I aim to regularly contribute to the memory store site to highlight the contents and role of the heritage centre.

The analysis carried out on the oral histories and contextual information will be tailored to be relevant to discourse among business today. A focus of the analysis will be gender and participation as gender inequalities in working environments is a current issue. Ramsey and Scholarios have highlighted that the workforce tends to be treated as a 'homogenous group' in theoretical discussion. This project will challenge and analyse different elements of the workforce such as gender, race and disability to determine the overall inclusivity of worker participation within the John Lewis Partnership. Areas of success would be highlighted as well as areas for improvement. This approach would be aimed toward the John Lewis Partnership itself but would also have relevant applications for other businesses.

Another usable application of the research will be toward Great Britain's membership to the European Economic Community and the effect on worker participation. With Britain's supposedly imminent departure from European Union, research that revisits the period prior to membership will be able to provide insight into the shifts of changing attitudes toward industrial democracy and more broadly, worker participation.


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