Government at all levels should help platforms co-ops to flourish, Claire McCarthy, general secretary of the Co-operative Party, told the Open:2017 conference.
Opening the second day, Ms McCarthy explained how the party, which is celebrating its centenary this year, has worked in partnership with Labour for 90 years to elect those with co-operative values to office.
“We want to champion co-operative and mutual forms of economic and social forms of organisation,” she said.
One place where this kind of organisation is making great strides is Ghent, in northwest Belgium. Dirk Holemans, a local councillor in the city and co-founder and director of Oikos (a think-tank for social-ecological change), explained how Ghent is engendering a new kind of relationship between the city and the authorities.
“Co-operatives have grown exponentially over the last 12 years – the market and governments are favourable and more citizens are the initiative and starting co-ops,” he said. “The city is seen not as a territory, but as a vibrant community of creative citizens. Instead of a neo-liberal focus on punishing privatisation, we are developing public-civic partnerships. It’s important to create virtuous circles.”
Mr Holemans described how platforms are being used to the benefit of citizens. Gent en Garde allows people to share gardens – and then share the vegetables grown there. And if you take part in the city’s car-sharing scheme, you don’t pay for parking.
But the city is also aware that the process is as important as the plan in the end. “What do citizens want this vision to be? There needs to be a dialogue with a range of commons initiatives.”
Responding to financial crisis
Preston City Council is another example of where public-civic partnerships are being developed.
“In Preston we’re looking at the trends we’re seeing nationally and globally,” said Cllr Matthew Brown. “Before 2008 we were promised £70m of investment; after the financial crisis, we had to think of new ways to organise.”
The city, which has hospitals, universities and councils all tendering big contracts, began looking at how spending could be kept within the local economy to keep the wealth within the community.
“This is where platform co-operatives come in,” said Mr Brown, explaining how networks have been created to help fill the gaps needed by these contracts, which could not previously be fulfilled by local organisations.
As well as investing in renewable energy and student housing in community ownership, the city is working with business schools to help them see co-operatives as a business option, and is also looking at co-operative banking.
“In the UK, there are five major bank brands, and it is hard for small businesses – including co-operatives – to access finance,” said Mr Brown, who compared the situation to that in Germany, where a “vast majority of financial services are fulfilled by credit unions.
“Trends show that the neoliberal agenda of the last 30-40 years isn’t working; the new ideas emerging show a movement towards a new democratic economy,” he added.
New forms of ownership
John McDonnell MP, shadow chancellor, agreed. “The domination of neo-liberal theory means we have a government that presides over the worst housing crisis since the Second World War,” he said, adding that the relationship of dominance between those representing capital and those it affects was “highly damaging”.
“The old Faustian pact between capital and labour, which has allowed free markets to let rip, has broken down completely,” said Mr McDonnell. “It’s about ownership , not just the redistribution of work.
“We need to enable people to develop new forms of ownership over their lives – one key element of that is the development of the co-operative movement.”
The shadow chancellor reiterated the Labour Party’s commitment to doubling the co-operative economy, acknowledging that even then, it would still be below levels in Europe.
Mr McDonnell expressed the need to recognise technology can be used in the gig economy to exploit workers. “We need to ensure that technology is not only not exploitative, but that it also transfers ownership. We need to ensure that people are driving that change – that’s where platform co-operatives come in.”
He added: “The power that these changes in technology give us all is the ability to pool our collective talents and skills and produce wealth not just for the benefit of a tiny handful at the top, but for all of us. It can help us mitigate the potential growth in the ‘Uberisation’ of the workplace.”
He believes that one of the solutions is government support to ensure that the next generation of platform technologies would be co-operatively, rather than privately owned. In part this could be achieved by reviewing current tax reliefs, directing them into developing credit unions and co-operatives, fostering employee ownership and engagement.
Karin Christiansen, chair of Open Knowledge and former general secretary of the Co-operative Party, also sees the future of co-operatives as digital. “You get value from services from the people that use them,” she said, “but platforms that have no people on them have no value.”
She outlined four ways to encourage a more digital future:
- Understand the people you are talking to (“If you want to change people’s behaviour, you need to understand them.”)
- Know what you want (If you don’t get to people with a message and crsip examples of successes, it’s hard to take them any further.”)
- Use the Co-op Party (“The Co-op Party is the political party of the co-operative movement. You’re the movement – so use them. Even if you don’t vote for them, use them – it’s their job.”)
- Elections matter (“policy is made by the people in the room – disengagement and cynicism are such dangerous things, and are one of the reasons the world is such a scary place right now.”)