Learning lessons from European co-op development

“Co-operatives are a successful business model, innovative, resilient and effective in both the short and long term, capable of working at both small and large scale, appropriate for all sectors of economic activity, and the generator of millions of jobs worldwide.”

Indeed yes, although these are not my own words.  This is my best effort at translating some of the text on the website of the Cooperatives de Treball de Catalunya (the Catalan Federation of Workers Co-ops), which I’ve been browsing through with interest.  There are around 4000 co-ops in Catalunya, just under three-quarters of these being workers’ co-ops. And Cooperatives de Treball de Catalunya has reported an upsurge in interest in the co-op business model recently, with 2016 being the best year for co-operative growth for twenty years.

The Labour Party is making welcome noises about strong support for co-operative business when it is returned to power. We will need to ensure that this latent support is converted into real long-term achievement (learning the lessons of both the Tony Benn ‘phoenix’ co-ops of the 1970s and the work of co-operative development agencies in the 1980s).  My view is that there is much in mainland Europe to help us.  As well as looking at developments in Catalunya I’ve also been looking into what’s been happening in France – a subject for another blog shortly, I think.

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The community’s Right to Bid

The Community Right to Bid (part of the 2010-2015 coalition government’s enthusiasm for localism) is on the statute book. It allows communities to nominate buildings or land for listing as assets of community value. If these assets subsequently are put up for sale, communities are given six months to find the funding to purchase them.

Our businesses are assets of public value, too. We need an equivalent Right to Bid for employees. If a take-over bid is made for a firm, workers there should have the first option of acquiring the business and converting to a co-operative.

Radical? Only if you think it is. What a pity, for example, that Cadbury’s ended up part of Kraft Foods when for the last six years we could have been welcoming representatives of the Cadbury’s Workers’ Co-operative at UK co-op events.

Who are the wealth creators?

Last Friday’s Ways Forward conference in Manchester, organised by Co-operative Business Consultants (or to be accurate, organised more or less singlehandedly by CBC’s hard-working Jo Bird) was the sixth such event in what is becoming a regular feature in the co-operative activist’s diary.

Two speakers particularly impressed.  Both reminded their audience of all that’s wrong with the present economic system – and why, as at least one way forward, co-operative business models need to be nurtured. Molly Scott Cato (the Green Party’s MEP for the South West) stood in as a speaker at short notice and offered a robustly radical appraisal of the issues facing us, while leaving us at the end of her contribution with a sense of hope.

Rebecca Long Bailey, Labour’s shadow Treasury spokesperson, is an articulate and passionate political speaker who is becoming a regular at the Ways Forward events. She was in fine form on Friday. The text of her speech has come through to me, and I will offer here just one short extract:

“Our co-operatives embody a forgotten truth about the world: wealth is created collectively, not by some small minority group but by workers, the community. Sadly when we talk about wealth creators however we don’t mean those people who created the wealth in the first instance, it usually means the wealth controllers and the wealth owners. But we know the reality is that the resources of our world are created collectively and we want that to be reflected in the way our wealth is owned and managed, and that is why we are dedicated to expanding the co-op sector and making sure that in the future we all feel that we have a real stake in our economic future.”

Public ownership and the Labour Party – and please don’t use the ‘n’ word

I’ve blogged before about the debates which took place towards the end of the nineteenth century – in the co-op world, in the trade union movement and in the fledgling Labour political movement – about business models which could be used to ensure that key enterprises like the railways were run for public good, not private profit.

It’s good to see these debates gaining traction again today. Over the weekend at the Labour Party’s Alternative Models of Ownership conference in London both Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Chancellor John McDonnell set out their own thoughts on how a future Labour government would tackle this.

Corbyn in particular was clear that Labour would be looking for new forms of public ownership based on accountability to workers and users: “not a return to the 20th century model of nationalisation but a catapult into 21st century public ownership,” as he put it.  (Despite this, if rather predictably, the CBI responded with scare tactics based firmly on the use of this particular ‘n’ word.)

The conference last weekend follows on from the publication of a report, also called Alternative Models of Ownership, written by an external advisory group for the Labour Party and published last summer. Perhaps because of the General Election, this report hasn’t had the attention I think it deserves. I think its critique of state nationalisation is spot-on: “Older forms of national state ownership in the UK have tended to be highly centralised, top-down and run at arm’s length from various stakeholder groups, notably employees, users and the tax-paying public than ultimately funds them. The post-1945 nationalisation programme set the trend here… the result was that a small private and corporate elite – in some cases the same people who had been involved in managing the pre-nationalised private sectors… – ran and oversaw the nationalised industries”.

The debate over how we can create new forms of public ownership is a vital one, and clearly needs input from the co-operative movement. I think there are challenges ahead (trade unions themselves have nasty tendencies to be very centralised and top-down, for example, and not every co-op is a paragon of democracy).  But the task of developing new, public-focused, democratic forms of business model is the issue of the day.

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!