Thursday, 25 February 2010

The case for co-ops

I trust Dr Rory Ridley-Duff of Sheffield Business School will not object to my copying large chunks of his letter to yesterday's Independent . The Cooperative movement in this country has, by an accident of history, come to be associated with the Labour Party. However, I venture to suggest that the Toad Lane pioneers, if they had a vote, would have been split between Liberals and Conservatives. There have been leading Liberal and Liberal Democrat Cooperators down the years. More significanctly, three years ago, Iain Duncan Smith saw the cooperative principle as a way of improving local services, something which was not remarked on much at the time. More notice was taken when David Cameron recently relaunched the policy, with particular reference to schools.

Dr Ridley-Duff writes: "Labour, and particularly Ed Balls, would do well to review the intellectual sources underpinning the Conservative position, as they expose the intellectual weakness of New Labour's leadership on the issue of co-operative economics and participatory democracy." One could add that the Coop has led the way on Fair Trade and ecological matters, where the government has faltered.

But he goes on to twit the Conservatives: "why is the policy only being suggested for public sector institutions? Why is David Cameron not championing this for the banks (as Mutuo are doing)? Why is he not arguing for workers to have a right to take over insolvent companies (as happens in Argentina and Venezuela)? Why is he not championing employee-ownership as a business succession policy (as both the Employee Ownership Association and Cooperatives UK argue)?"

He concludes: "The UK is one of only four EU countries without co-operative law: an appalling indictment of a government that includes Cooperative Party MPs. Hopefully, the current news story will move them to action."

One of the few areas of UK industry to survive the Thatcher/Howe economic blitz of the 1980s was that of small co-ops and employee-owned businesses, enabled by possibly the only Liberal-inspired legislation during the Lib-Lab pact. The "Sheffield" approach may show a way out of our current difficulties.

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