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.”
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.
How is an incoming Labour government – when it arrives – to restructure the British economy so that it is run as much as possible for the public good rather than to meet the short-term demands of private equity companies and shareholders?
It was an issue which was debated ardently at the end of the nineteenth century, when there seemed real hopes that the twentieth century would see an end to rampant capitalism and a move towards more social forms of business ownership. The co-op movement was of course actively involved in these debates, as were trade unions. To take one example, in the debates about the need for public control of the railways (then, as now, run by a host of private sector companies) all sorts of options were discussed, including quasi-cooperative solutions involving workers and users of the railways.
Plus ca change. We need to have some of these same debates today, because I’m convinced that the way forward is not simply to revert to the twentieth-century model of state-ownership through nationalisation. Other, broader, forms of public ownership need to be considered.
This is a lengthy way of getting to the point of this blog. I had an email yesterday from Jo Bird of Co-operative Business Consultants, one of the organisers of next month’s Ways Forward conference Co-operative Solidarity. She’s keen to get the word out about what will be the sixth such event organised by CBC. Labour’s shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey is one of the speakers, and I hope she’ll be in listening mode too. There’s thinking going on in (parts of) the cooperative world which could potentially help Labour.
It’s the 50th birthday this year of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies and the organisation is gearing up for its main yearly event, the annual conference which is being held in Newcastle at the start of September.
The event seeks to bring forward the historic concept of the ‘Co-operative Commonwealth’ into our own times. Here’s how the organisers have put it: “The conference looks at the broad concept of ‘common wealth’, which requires re-thinking about ownership, control and management of ‘public’ goods and services. Can co-operatives and multi-stakeholder owned and managed enterprises continue to provide a ‘public’ alternative to the McDonaldization and Uber-ization of society?”
I’m planning to be there, and will be offering a workshop on the Saturday. I’m approaching the theme by looking back as well as forward, exploring the role which an early co-operative leader J.C. Gray played – at the start of the twentieth century – in trying to encourage the British movement to seize the potential he believed it possessed. You may not have heard of Gray, but I’ll try to convince you that he’s a significant figure in our history and one with much to say that is still relevant today.
Here he is, dressed up for the studio photograph!