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.

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.

Co-operatives and the gig economy

I’m back from a seminar today in Manchester’s Co-operative College which brought together people from both the co-operative and trade union movements, to discuss ways of helping self-employed workers and those suffering from the worst effects of the gig economy get themselves collectively organised.

Pat Conaty and Alex Bird, who together wrote the useful report Not Alone: co-operative and trade union solution for self-employed workers last year, were there as were representatives of some British unions which in different ways are trying to help their members who are not in traditional employment relationships (I was going to say, people who are in ‘atypical’ work, but these days I think what was once atypical is now regrettably becoming the norm).

There are, we agreed, no easy answers but there are lessons which we in Britain can learn from elsewhere. We heard accounts, for example, of the ‘union coops’ in the United States supported by both the Mondragon Corporation and several labor unions there, of efforts by the main Dutch trade union centre FNV to organise independent workers, and of steps being taken by those in the arts industry in Belgium to co-operate through a shared servicing agency. And we reminded ourselves of ventures further afield, including the inspiring story of refuse collectors in Pune, India, who have improved their condition of work and obtained greater work status through formalising themselves into a co-op.

The gig economy is in the news, and it’s encouraging that there are attempts to fight back against multinationals such as Uber and the major courier companies who are using allegedly ‘independent’ ‘contractors’. The co-op movement needs to get much more actively involved in these sorts of issues.

Congratulations to Cilla Ross at the Co-operative College for making the arrangements for the seminar.

Coop movement partners with trade unions in Spain

An interesting press release arrives from the Spanish workers’ cooperative organisation Coceta which has today signed a partnership agreement with one of the two main trade union federations in the country CC.OO.  The aim is to work together to try to turn failing conventional businesses into cooperatives, as well as to convert businesses where the owner is retiring into worker-owned ventures.

The two organisations say they want to work more closely together with the aim of “not losing a single further worker’s job”.

Cooperatives and unions are increasingly rediscovering their common roots. Let me remind you of the 2013 ILO report on this theme Trade unions and worker co-operatives: where are we at? It’s worth a reread.

Cooperative and collective organising by the self-employed

What’s the answer for those people in the workforce who don’t have employment law protection because they are self-employed but who – far from enjoying the fruits of independent working – face social and economic insecurity?

Could the answer be to make it easier for the self-employed to organise together, perhaps through freelance cooperatives and/or through appropriate trade unions?

This is an issue which interests me a great deal, not just because I am self-employed and not just because I am a member of a trade union with a very sizeable (and very active) minority of members who are freelance.

I was involved some years back in a pioneering project with the global union UNI which brought together trade unions in Europe who were seeking to organise the unemployed, either (like my own union) directly in their own membership structures or through autonomous ‘new’ unions for self-employed members which they helped create. My report for UNI Global Union Opening the Doors Wide to the Self-Employed, although ten years old, is still available on my website, and you’ll also find there various articles I wrote at the time on the same theme.

Quite apart from this past professional interest, I also recall a pleasant day spent walking in the Peak District many years ago with a friend. She undertook similar work to me, also on a self-employed basis, and our walk had been arranged to give us time to ponder whether we could establish a cooperative structure for our businesses which would enable us to benefit among other things from joint marketing. We liked the idea – but the time just didn’t seem right to progress it.

So for all these reasons I am delighted that the British cooperative and trade union movements have collaborated on a new report which explores in detail some possible cooperative, mutual and union self-help solutions for what it describes as the self-employed precariat. The report Not Alone, just published and available on the Co-operatives UK website, identifies some innovative British examples of self-employed collective organising but also points out that other countries are far ahead of Britain in terms of good practice.

As the report puts it, “In the nineteenth century working class self-help organisations included craftsmen’s guilds, co-operatives, friendly societies and the first unions. Together they collaborated and proliferated to improve working conditions, to secure rights and status and to maintain standards of living for workers. In an age of economic insecurity and rapid changes in technology there is now the opportunity to reinvent democratic self-help for the twenty-first century in order to widen participation on a fair basis for all in work.”

There is indeed an opportunity here which needs to be grasped.

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!

Discussing the interface between coop and state ownership models

A phone call comes in today from Phil Frampton of Co-operative Business Consultants, who is one of the organisers of the conference next month entitled Ways Forward: Building an Economy to Serve People not Profit.

I mentioned this event on an earlier blog, but I’m pleased to see how the programme has come together since then. One very interesting session should be the one where John McDonnell MP debates the way forward as regards forms of public ownership with Molly Scott Cato, an old friend of the coop movement and now a Green MEP.

As Phil put it to me today, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is an opportunity for us to reopen old debates about the best way to ensure democratic forms of business ownership, including the possibilities of building a relationship between cooperative and state ownership models.  I’ll be contributing among other things some observations on how this same debate took place in the very early years of the Labour party in Britain.

Good to see a strong trade union input in the programme too, including a senior PCS official.

The conference is in central Manchester on Thursday Jan 21st. Details here.