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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Co-op Group launches “Have Your Say” survey

The Co-operative Group’s Have Your Say survey has now gone live on-line.

It asks a lot of the patience of its members (the survey says that it should ‘only’ take twenty minutes to complete, and this is probably about right), and it annoyingly does not tell you how far through the survey you have progressed:  I suspect a lot of people will give up half way through.

As a service to those who may be interested in seeing in advance what they will be asked, I have put up a ‘bootleg’ copy of the main questions here:  http://www.andrewbibby.com/pdf/survey.pdf.

The survey has already attracted controversy (for example, in today’s Guardian) over the implicit steer towards rejection of the current funding given to the Co-operative Party. (I may return to this issue, and to some of the other areas of the survey, in a future blog.)  It also strikes me as a little cavalier of the Co-operative Group to call itself just ‘The Co-operative’ in the survey, as if the national brand was entirely its own affair.

In the meantime, let’s have a go at one of the early questions, What is the first word that would come to mind if you were asked to describe The Co-operative?  Democracy?  Quality? Ethics? Fairtrade?  Or maybe:  A venerable British institution rooted in working-class self-help which these days doesn’t always deliver value to its members and which needs to rediscover its principles and values?   Ah,  that’s more than a single word.

Ways forward for Britain’s coop movement

I’m pleased to hear that around 140 people have booked in for this Friday’s conference, called by Co-operative Business Consultants following last year’s Co-op Bank debacle to discuss – as CBC puts it –  “Ways Forward for the Co-operative Movement”.   This is a potentially important initiative, and the high level of attendance suggests that there are plenty of activists determined to prove that there’s life in the old coop dog yet.

I’ve been working this morning on the short presentation I’ll be making to the workshop looking at member capital.  Co-operative capital is, as you’ll know if you’ve been following my blog, one of the issues I consider most important for the coop movement to address, and I just hope that people don’t see the word ‘capital’ in the programme and feel that this session is not for them.

The conference is in Manchester, the city which has over the past century and a half hosted many of the most significant events in the UK coop movement’s history.  This could be another one.

I’ll be contributing a report to The Guardian’s social enterprise hub afterwards and will post a link here.

What’s on the agenda for the international cooperative movement?

I’ll be blogging next week from the conference of the International Co-operative Alliance, taking place over the next few days in Cape Town.

The ICA came into being in the 1890s very much through the efforts of the British cooperative movement, and the Brits also played a big part in helping the organisation survive and regroup when it nearly went under a decade or so ago.  (Pauline Green, then head of Co-operatives UK, played a key role at that time and is now the ICA’s President).

Things have been looking up more recently, though there’s still plenty which a global cooperative organisation needs to be doing.  I’ll be looking out for the launch of the new ICA global ‘COOP’ brand, scheduled for tomorrow, and hoping to catch the session dedicated to cooperatives and sustainability on Monday.  I also await the launch of new guidance notes around three of the seven international cooperative principles and just hope I won’t be disappointed at what the ICA is proposing with regard to environmental and social business objectives, where at present the principles are very weak.

I also gather from the ICA’s Director-General Charles Gould that the ICA is establishing a Commission to explore new ways that cooperatives can find the capital they need (given that coops are generally not able to access equity capital without doing a Co-op Bank type deal).  The well-respected Kathy Bardswick, CEO of The Co-operators insurance company in Canada, is to chair this Commission, an appointment which bodes well for its work.

Sneezing in Manchester: the wider effects of the Co-op Bank’s difficulties

There’s a twitchy feel at the moment around Manchester’s cooperative quarter, where I was this morning.  This is the historic area near Manchester’s Victoria station where many of the most important institutions in the British cooperative movement (including Co-operatives UK, the Co-operative College and the Co-operative Press) have their offices… just down the road from the Co-operative Group’s sparkling (hubristic?) new office block.

The twitchiness comes of course from the Group’s current financial plight, brought about by the capital shortfall faced by its subsidiary, the Co-op Bank. The Bank will be going public soon on the precise deal it is proposing to its corporate and private bondholders.  But there is an expectation that the Group will be entering a period of considerable retrenchment – and that this will directly affect many other parts of the coop movement which directly or indirectly rely on the Group’s support.

This is the drawback of having the ‘one big society’ which the British coop movement talked about and debated for almost a hundred years before finally the Group came together at the start of this century.  When things go well, big can be beautiful.  But having all your coop eggs in one basket means risking much more when things go wrong.  As a senior figure in the movement put it to me today, “When the Group catches cold we all sneeze”.

Talking of the Bank and its need for private capital, Co-ops UK has moved quickly to commission coop historian and academic Johnston Birchall to write a report on experiences elsewhere in the world where cooperatives have brought in external minority investors.  Johnston’s report Good governance in minority investor-owned co-operatives is out today, and looks very valuable.  I hope to read it and offer some comments tomorrow. In the meantime Co-ops UK’s Ed Mayo has a thoughtful blog on the same subject.  Well worth a look.