How do we build a democratic economy?

Another useful Ways Forward conference yesterday in Manchester, the fifth that Co-operative Business Consultants have organised in a commendable attempt to stir things up in the British coop movement (or at least in some of it) and get debate and discussion going.

My impressions? A good turn-out and (given what was happening at the same time in Washington DC) a good spirit to the event. The majority of speakers in both the opening and closing plenaries were women (the only male speaking before the first coffee break was Vivian Woodell of the Phone Co-op, and I guess his name can confuse some, anyway), and there were younger people both on the platform and in the hall. Ieva Padagaité from Blake House Co-op, for example, reminded us of why she, and other young people, are looking to the co-op model as a collective response to low pay, job insecurity and the gig economy.

Molly Scott-Cato, Green MEP for the South-West, was here again as last year and – as last year – well worth listening to. She is right: capitalism has lost credibility in this country and we have to build a response to public fear and to anger at growing inequalities. She quoted a banner which had gone up in London on Trump’s inauguration day: “What happens next is up to us”. That’s the spirit we need.

So let’s take stock. How are we doing, a year on from the conference when both Molly Scott-Cato and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell were discussing an alternative way forward for the British economy?  In some way, and disappointingly, perhaps not so much has been achieved. The Labour leadership has not yet been able to get across its vision for an economy serving social need rather than shareholder greed, and I’m not sure the coop movement has really geared itself to the task it could be undertaking. Good ideas emerge in the workshops and plenaries at the Ways Forward events but there’s not really the mechanisms in place yet for the follow-through.

Ways Forward has become a valuable event in the cooperative calendar and Phil Frampton and his CBC colleagues deserve considerable thanks for their organising hard work. Their event needs supporting. But somehow we have to gain more momentum if the opportunities of the present are to be grasped.

 

Finding ways forward

Phil Frampton from Co-operative Business Consultants rings.  He is making arrangements for the Ways Forward conference he and other CBC colleagues are organising in January in Manchester (Fri Jan 20th to be precise). We discuss possible ideas for workshops.

This is the fifth such event, and the first four have been valuable occasions which have brought together a good mixture of co-operative activists and practitioners. I’m sure this will be equally useful.

Phil ends our telephone conversation with a request – can I mention the event on my blog?  I just have…

http://www.uk.coop/uniting-co-ops/events-calendar/ways-forward-5-conference-manchester

 

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.

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.

Cooperative engagement in Labour’s ‘ways forward’

Well done to the Co-operative Business Consultants, and in particular to their members Jo Bird and Phil Frampton, who are arranging a conference in January in Manchester under the banner ‘Building an Economy to Serve People not Profit’.

This will be the fourth time in the past three years that CBC have staged their “Ways Forward” events, and the previous events have provided a valuable forum for debate among cooperative activists about how to rebuild the movement after the Co-op Bank and Co-op Group awfulnesses.

This time their focus is very much on the opportunities opening up in the Labour Party and John McDonnell the shadow Chancellor has already been bagged as a guest speaker. “The new Labour leadership says that nationalisation, but without the old style bureaucratic policies that left control in the hands of the Establishment, will be accompanied by co-operative democratic principles in the new People’s economy. The challenge is ours – to thrash out how a People’s economy can be shaped to benefit everyone,” the organisers say.

I’ll be in Manchester on Thursday 21st January to play my part in the discussions. More details at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/ways-forward-4-building-an-economy-to-serve-people-not-profit-tickets-19311820174

Attention! Controversy ahead!

The news this weekend that Co-operative Party general secretary Karin Christiansen is standing down after three years should, I think, be seen as an opportunity for the movement to reconsider whether it needs a political party.

I know that talk of this kind runs the risk of playing into the hands of those in the Co-operative Group looking for opportunities to cut back on their funding for the Party. But I still think the discussion one worth having.

What I think is urgently needed at this juncture in the British cooperative movement is a broad-based grouping which brings together individuals who are committed to cooperative principles and who want to see the movement strengthened. (This is what the activists at Co-operative Business Consultants are calling for, in their current Co-operative Ways Forward campaign for democratic cooperation).

What I’m not convinced is needed any more is a body established as a fully-fledged political party, with its curiously arcane relationship with the Labour Party.

Ideally I’d like to see the Co-operative Party turn itself instead into a vibrant membership body (perhaps by making common cause with Co-operative Ways Forward). This could even, dare I say it, attract cooperatively members of other political parties such as the SNP or Lib Dems who are currently excluded from membership by the direct Labour Party link.

If it’s argued that such a solution would deprive MPs and councillors who sit under the ‘Labour and Co-operative’ label of much-needed support, I have a response. Just as trade union members can pay a political levy to Labour, so members of my suggested organisation could also elect to pay a levy to Labour.

The Co-operative Party was formed in 1917 specifically because the government was discriminating against coops. Some in the movement at the time weren’t convinced a would-be parliamentary party was the correct response. Now in 2015 I think the argument is even harder to make.

New campaign for cooperation proposed

Here’s an idea from Co-operative Business Consultants, who have been responsible for staging the three ‘Ways Forward’ activist conferences in Manchester over the past eighteen months.

CBC are proposing a new campaigning network/organisation specifically to bring together individuals who are engaged in the cooperative movement and who want a forum for “open and democratic discussion” about its development.

It’s true that neither Co-operatives UK (which is an organisation for member cooperatives) nor the Co-operative Party offer a mechanism for individual supporters of cooperation of the kind CBC have in mind. I think CBC’s idea a good one.

They have a survey monkey open for responses at present.