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Co-op Policy Blog #3: Should co-ops give up on Westminster?

Given the progressive nature of policy in Scotland and other parts of the UK compared with Westminster, it is tempting to give up on the place. Edinburgh is prettier than London anyway.  But we should probably keep lobbying at the UK level too, says Co-operatives UK's James Wright.  The potential opportunities for co-ops at a UK level are still massive. 

 “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.” Voltaire

These eighteenth century words might have contemporary resonance for anyone who thinks our civilisation needs to get serious about establishing a genuinely inclusive economy for the common good. 

On paper at least the Scottish Government’s political economy is among the most progressive around. Inclusive growth is a one of the pillars of an economic strategy that explicitly aims for greater equality, better access to opportunities for all and a fairer distribution of economic and social goods. Scotland’s Programme for Government includes a community wealth building programme and a possible expansion of support for employee ownership and care co-ops, among other things. The Scottish government is even exploring the possibilities of a universal basic income, an idea that just a few years ago was considered outlandish by the mainstream, and probably still is in Westminster.

On paper at least the Scottish Government’s political economy is among the most progressive around.

But it’s not just the SNP government. At the end of September we watched MSPs from the Conservatives, the Greens and Labour all contribute positively to an informed debate on worker ownership in the Scottish Parliament. And a couple of weeks ago co-ops and MSPs attended a packed out meeting of the Cross Party Group on Co-ops at Holyrood, convened by Labour and Co-op  MSP James Kelly. 

 But that’s all words. What about action? 

Scotland leads the UK in employee buyouts as part of planned business succession, averaging a buyout a month. Co-operative Development Scotland, the government agency whose work is so instrumental in mainstreaming this succession route, says there are about a hundred buyouts in the pipeline. Not all of these buyouts result in businesses we’d call co-operative, but some operate with real employee control and a commitment to decent work and we welcome these into our movement. 

Scotland’s community empowerment framework is also laudable from a co-op perspective, most notably because the law there demands democratic governance of organisations benefiting from asset transfer. The growing use of community shares will be strengthened by new government funding for Community Shares Scotland.  And in a show of political support for our model at the highest level, the Scottish First Minister even spoke at the launch of Govanhill Baths' community share offer last month.

Hopeful for more 

If there is a criticism of the current Scottish government, it’s that their agenda often sounds more progressive on paper then it turns out to be in reality.  What about support for grassroots co-op development, we ask? Does Co-operative Development Scotland really have the resources in needs to support a step-change in employee buyouts? 

We have big hopes that the Scottish Government will be bold and throw its weight behind place-based, grassroots economic development as part of its new community wealth building agenda. We’re also hopeful that experts and politicians will heed our calls for a more co-operative approach to the platform economy. We’ll be lobbying for policy to head in these directions in 2018, both directly to government and through our work in Holyrood. 

Look elsewhere too

It’s not all happening in Scotland. The Welsh Government leads the UK in support for co-operative approaches to care. And when power sharing resumes in Northern Ireland we’ve got high-level commitments that there’ll be a major review of co-op law to follow up on. Both Leeds and Greater Manchester have inclusive growth agendas we need to explore. We’ve also had a conversation with a local authority in Devon about supporting worker ownership as part of its local economic strategy.  And the localist political economy of a market town called Frome has even been the subject of a BBC Radio documentary

 It’s not all happening in Scotland. The Welsh Government leads the UK in support for co-operative approaches to care. 

And Westminster?

Perhaps it’s the Brexit workload, the minority government, or the fact that once powerful levers of power have weakened, but it sometimes seems as if Westminster and Whitehall are behind the curve; unwilling or unable to reimagine the economy even as the world demands it more than ever. 

This can change. We know there are influential Conservative MPs who want to see  concrete action to foster an economy that shares wealth, opportunity and power more equally; who place big importance on economic ownership and feel an affinity with mutualism. Most other parties in Westminster are more or less there already. 

And, given that some vital policies for the co-op economy can only be made in Westminster, we’ll not give up on the place just yet…

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

Thank you for supporting our policy work through your membership of Co-operatives UK.
James Wright, Policy Officer

Written by James Wright
Updated: 13/12/2017