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.”
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.
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.