Why Co-Ops and Mutuals are the way forward

I have always thought that the UK economy had wrongly left the route of mutuals and co-ops too far behind in the blind rush towards capitalism. Here’s an interesting take on how we can regain our love of co-ops and mutuals written by Richard Warren for the Lib Dem Voice web site.

The Co-Op Museum in Toad Lane, Rochdale.

The Co-Op Museum in Toad Lane, Rochdale.

Lib Dems: The Co-operatives Party
By Richard Warren
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Theresa May’s plan to introduce worker directors onto company boards is a start, but she still has a long way to go to catch up with liberal thinking: Jo Grimond advocated worker-owned firms more than 50 years ago, and she hasn’t reached that point yet.

But the Lib Dems need to be more consistent and outspoken in support for worker-owned firms and other types of co-operatives, too. Over the decades, we’ve had the occasional burst of enthusiasm, such as when Nick Clegg called for the creation of a “John Lewis economy” in 2012, but it doesn’t appear to be integrated into our policy-making as it is over at the Co-operative Party. It ought to be for the following three reasons:

First, by supporting co-operatives we can create a coherent, credible, principled centre-left alternative to Corbynite state socialism that might help us find common ground with some Labour and Co-operative Party supporters. Significantly, the Co-operative Party is increasingly keen to distinguish itself from Labour now, and shares some of our views on key issues. As Labour MP and chairman of the Co-operative Party, Gareth Thomas, says, the co-operative movement is pro-business and pro-EU; so are we.

And, of course, by supporting co-operatives we reinforce our claim that we are now the party of business, not the Tories.

Second, mutuals work. Twice as many cooperatives survive their first five years than other types of businesses. What’s more, co-operatives are efficient providers of low rent homes and successfully develop human-scale regeneration projects.

Third, if the rise of the SNP and the Brexit referendum have told us one thing, it’s that people want more control over their lives. Looking to break-up the United Kingdom or have Britain reject collaborative working with our European neighbours are, of course, wholly destructive. Much better and more meaningful to give people a greater say over their affairs by looking for ways to extend mutualisation in more areas of our daily life: more housing co-operatives to help ease the housing shortage by providing low rent homes, and more businesses owned by their workers and even their customers to sell honestly-made goods and services at honest prices in an honest way. And, of course, to pay a decent salary.

Indeed, support for co-operatives could form part of a policy package aimed at giving people more power over their lives. Other components could include our continued support for proportional representation.

Co-operative ownership comes in many guises. Which is best, if any, is something to discuss. Companies don’t necessarily need to be wholly owned by their workers and customers: The Co-operative Party is arguing for carers, care recipients and their families to be represented on the boards of private companies providing social care, for example.

Co-operatives themselves are looking for their voices to be heard more loudly, and some feel both the Labour and Co-operative Parties have let them down in recent years. We would be doing them, ourselves and the country a service if we gave them a home in our party.

* Richard Warren is a journalist who is a member of the Liberal Democrats.

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