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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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!

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.

Just round the corner: 2016

This is the time of year when journalists fall on back on two familiar ploys in order to turn in the copy that their papers need.  Firstly, they look back over the past twelve months and cobble together some sort of review of the year.  Secondly they offer predictions to the year ahead. It’s pretty cheap journalism (in two senses of the word) but, hey, it’s Christmas.

I did ponder for a brief moment offering you selected highlights of my 2015 posts here, but frankly you can scroll back through the blog if you’re so inclined. But indulge me as I prove my journalistic credentials by offering you a quick look ahead to 2016.

Internationally, the ICA movement’s new President Monique Leroux will have one central date in her diary: the third of the Co-operative Summits in Québec city, which her own cooperative Desjardins hosts and which will be held from October 11th-13th.  The last two Summits have been useful occasions (if slightly overfull of business suits). Québec will be the only significant global cooperative event next year that I’m aware of.

Incidentally 2016 will also see changes at the top at Desjardins: Leroux’s two terms in office come to an end, so the powerful Canadian financial cooperative federation will be finding itself a new leader.

I’ll be following developments at Mondragon, where their new business strategy for the whole cooperative federation (drawn up in the aftermath of the failure of their white-goods cooperative Fagor Electrodomésticos) is due to be approved during the year.

The British movement has to hope for the gradual return to trading health of the Co-operative Group, and for its new democratic structures to begin to work more convincingly. On the wider political agenda, I do hope that there is space under Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership to explore alternatives to the highly centralised state ownership model of nationalisation we had in the last century – we need Labour to be promoting a model of public ownership which is more creative, more bottom-up, and more attuned with cooperative ideas. The Ways Forward conference in January which I have previously mentioned is a potentially important springboard for these discussions.

In my own diary for early next year will be work with the Co-operative Heritage Trust to discuss the proposed workers’ cooperatives archive project which I’m hoping will get the funding it needs in 2016. Late January sees another advisory board meeting for the Woodcraft Folk’s 90th birthday heritage project, where we will have to start planning ahead for the 100th birthday! Locally, I will be continuing to try to help bring cooperative housing solutions to my neighbourhood, through the work of our local Community Land Trust.

And professionally, I’ll be looking to continue to work with a range of cooperative organisations at home and abroad on their publications. Unlike 2015, I’ve no book coming out next year, but can I mention that my All Your Own Work on early productive coops in Britain continues to be on sale… (and in fact would make an ideal last-minute choice of Christmas present…)

My best wishes to you for 2016.

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