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Co-op Policy Blog #4: Time to get real

2018 is the year politicians and business leaders must get real about an inclusive economy. Later this month many of the powerful will gather in Davos for the World Economic Form. This year’s theme is ‘Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World’ and inclusive economics features prominently in the blurb. Please, let’s close the gap between their rhetoric and our reality. 

At home, the UK government still struggles to address the sense of unfairness and disillusionment that’s been behind recent political shocks. In 2018 Co-operatives UK will again offer politicians from all parties a pragmatic way to get to grips with this agenda, by increasing their support for co-ops. With the help of our members, perhaps we’ll get somewhere.

The greatest challenge of our time is coming to a head: we need an economy that allows everyone to provide for their wellbeing within the carrying capacity of our planet. 

Idiots, liars and optimists 

The greatest challenge of our time is coming to a head: we need an economy that allows everyone to provide for their wellbeing within the carrying capacity of our planet.

Many at Davos will dutifully point out reasons to be cautiously optimistic. In the first decades of 21st century growth in the developing world allowed half a billion people to escape extreme poverty. At the same time significant progress has been made to create economical alternatives to fossil fuels. And governments, businesses and consumers are starting to act on issues like modern slavery and plastics pollution.

But only idiots or liars would profess comfortable optimism about our chances of meeting the challenge. Escape from $1.25-a-day poverty does not equate with meaningful wellbeing. And recent global growth has distributed wellbeing very unevenly, with middle income countries now home to fastest rising populations of poor people. Meanwhile growing numbers of people in the rich world face deepening economic and social insecurity. Furthermore, experience has taught us that the relationship between material prosperity and wellbeing is subject to the law of diminishing returns.

At the same time these inadequate gains have only been possible by inflicting severe damage on our planetary ecosystem. We’re on course to overshoot the hallowed two degrees warming red line by a whopping 50 per cent by the end of the century. And the annual rate at which species are now becoming extinct is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the long term norm. Welcome to the Anthropocene. We’re blowing it.

And all the while trends in technology, work and inter-generational transfer point to an ever widening gulf in opportunity, wealth and power between a privileged few and the rest of humanity.

In these circumstances those gathering at Davos should not be surprised when the legitimacy and stability of their economic and political order is eroded by demagogues, oligarchs, extremists and tyrants. 

Escaping the straitjacket   

There are no easy answers. Governments can’t solve these problems alone. Business has a huge part to play. But business as usual is not an option. And we all need to accept responsibility as global citizens.

Globally-recognised conceptions of an inclusive economy call for opportunity, power and profits to be shared broadly; and for more of us to participate not just as workers and consumers but as decision makers and business owners, allowing us to take greater collective responsibility for our work, our communities and our planet. 

This means finding ways of doing business that escape the straitjacket of lone wolf entrepreneurship, investor control, the single bottom line and shareholder primacy.  It means actively seeking out alternative means of earning a living, organising work and sharing value.  We need much more transparency, accountability, solidarity and responsibility in business. We also need a far broader distribution of ownership and control in the economy. 

This is what co-ops do. Any inclusive economic policy that fails to create the right conditions for co-op development is fundamentally flawed. The UK government needs to hear this.

​2018 in Westminster

The year will acually start well for co-ops in Westminster, with government legislation passing through Parliament to make audit requirements for co-ops fairer. But let’s not pretend this is anything other than maintenance work, something government should really do as a matter of course through mainstream business policy.

Thinking bigger, we are responding to the Labour Party's call for ideas on doubling the size of the UK co-op economy. What emerges is a progressive but pragmatic policy programme that any UK government could adopt. Among other things, the UK government could champion and support community economic development, reconfigure business start-up schemes, overhaul co-op law and make it easier and cheaper to incorporate as a co-op. With a bit more political support the potential is huge. 

Click here to read our briefing for the Labour leadership

January will also see the launch of the UK government's Civil Society Strategy consultation, which will focus on how different parts of the Whitehall machine serve charities and the social economy. While the framing is not quite right for co-ops, it’s an opportunity to challenge the government to make it easier for people to start and run a co-op. 

This year government will also begin consultation on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. This will eventually replace EU Structural Funds when it comes to things like regional growth spending. The 2017 Conservative Manifesto linked it specifically to ambitions to foster a more inclusive economy.  We'll be making a case for diversifying approaches to local economic development and enterprise support.

While the powerful gather in Davos we hope you'll join with us and other co-ops to renew the campaign for bolder action closer to home. 

Let us know what you think. Email me direct or post on the Facebook discussion.

And have your say on how we influence policy on your behalf by responding to our online member consultation which closes 17 January.

Thank you for supporting our policy work through your membership of Co-‑operatives UK. 

James Wright, Policy Officer

Written by James Wright
Updated: 05/01/2018