John McDonnell and Labour’s ‘new economics’

OK, so let’s have a proper scrutiny of John McDonnell’s speech in Manchester yesterday. You’ll find it on the Labour Party website. It’s available here.

Let’s start with the section a few minutes in.  McDonnell said: “We’ve depended too long on a strategy that looked only to the state as a vehicle for change. The argument that came to dominate the left, from at least the 1930s, was a simple one. First take the state. Then use the state to change society.”

“This simple proposition achieved an extraordinary amount,” McDonnell said.  But he went on: “deeper questions of ownership, control and democracy were left to one side…. Deeper questions about the economy were left unasked by the mainstream of Labour.”

This is, I think, a welcome analysis. It doesn’t dismiss the achievements of twentieth century state ownership through nationalisation, but it does suggest that we need new tools for the future.

And that leads to a second section of McDonnell’s speech I want to highlight:

“There is a long labour movement tradition of decentralisation and grass-roots organisation. But it has been somewhat hidden… This radical tradition has deep roots in our collective history. From RH Tawney, GDH Cole and the guild socialists, back to the Rochdale Pioneers, the Society of Weavers in Fenwick, Ayrshire, and even further back to the radicals of the English Civil War. With the stress on self-organisation and on-the-ground-solutions to problems, this tradition stressed the need to organise not just to win the state.”

This is an encouraging approach, and it provides a potential space for those of us who stress worker and community self-organising and cooperative solutions to engage with Labour as it looks again at its economic policy for the future.

McDonnell finished his set speech with:  “In an uncertain world where a laissez faire market approach continues to fail, cooperation is an idea whose time has come again”. On the one hand this is the sort of pat-on-the-back to the coop movement which, given the audience, you’d have expected a politician to offer. But it’s useful nonetheless to have it said.

I mentioned earlier today that McDonnell himself read his speech without a great deal of apparent enthusiasm, but I’m prepared to give him at this stage the benefit of the doubt. Certainly there is more opportunity now than for many years for the labour, union and coop movements to engage in dialogue with each other. The window of opportunity may close very soon, however.  Get stuck in!

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Finding ways forward in Manchester

Phil Frampton and his colleagues at Co-operative Business Consultants can be very pleased at the way their Ways Forward conference in Manchester went off yesterday.

The star catch was, of course, the shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. McDonnell’s speech was heartening for those of us wanting to engage with Labour in finding new (more co-operative) models for public and social ownership of business. After a somewhat lack-lustre delivery of the prepared text McDonnell came to life at the end when he went off-copy briefly (I plan to comment on his speech in another blog shortly). Molly Scott Cato, who I last bumped into at a Robert Owen commemoration at New Lanark and who is now a Green MEP, also made a very inspiring intervention in the opening plenary.

I was privileged to be asked to contribute to the final plenary and to one of the workshops, and one of my presentations (together with those from some of the other speakers) are available on the CBC website.

Apparently, when I reported on the first Ways Forward conference for the Guardian more than two years ago I described the venue (the Methodist Central Hall in Manchester) as ‘shabby’, something Phil Frampton obviously remembered and berated me about yesterday.  Shabby venue, maybe, but nothing shabby about the politics.

CAMRAH: the campaign for real affordable housing

Having (mis)appropriated the concept of the Living Wage the current UK government is doing something similar with another term which, you’d think, would mean what it says: affordable homes.

The government’s idea of what constitutes an affordable home is certainly not mine, and I wonder whether we need to coin a new term, one which celebrates the original idea behind the public provision of ‘council’ and ‘social’ housing for people in our communities who are on lower incomes.

I’m looking forward to being at the National Community Land Trust Network conference in London in a couple of weeks, along with I’m sure a whole host of people from CLTs and from the wider cooperative housing movement. Maybe we should launch a campaign for proper, sustainable, genuinely affordable housing for rent, led from the grassroots. Maybe we should stop talking of ‘affordable housing’ and start talking about community housing.

Fat Cat Tuesday

I commend the initiative of the High Pay Centre who have done the sums and have pronounced that today is Fat Cat Tuesday in Britain: in other words, by today the average FTSE100 chief executive will have earned as much since January 1st as the rest of us will on average earn over the whole of 2016. As the HPC’s director Stefan Stern puts it, “We are not all in this together, it seems. Over-payment at the top is fuelling distrust of business.”

What about cooperatives?  I’ve banged on for some time that coops need to take more of a leadership role when it comes to ridiculous executive pay packages although, let’s face it, not many coop CEOs want to be the first to come in for scrutiny.  Nevertheless there are some commendable examples, and of course there are coops such as Suma where all workers receive equal pay.

What do the new Guidance Notes on the international cooperative principles have to say on this issue?  They say: “The remuneration of senior executives and board members ought ultimately to be subject to member democratic control. This guards against excessive executive and board pay, which increases wealth inequality and reduces the economic benefits of co-operative enterprise for co-operative members. Board pay should always be subject to approval by members in general assembly. Where remuneration committees are established to advise on senior executive and board pay, their recommendations about how executive pay should be set and by whom should be subject to approval or endorsement by members in general meeting.”  These are not earth-shattering recommendations (after all, building society directors’ pay is subject to exactly this type of member endorsement), but maybe it’s better than nowt.