Hard co-operation: campaigning for mutual alternatives

“How can the Co-operative Party take the passion and turn it into action for the next five years?” Luke Pollard asked delegates at the Co-operative Party annual conference....

“How can the Co-operative Party take the passion and turn it into action for the next five years?” Luke Pollard asked delegates at the Co-operative Party annual conference.

Mr Pollard was a Labour/Co-op parliamentary candidate for Plymouth but narrowly lost the election by 500 votes. He thinks co-operative values have never been more relevant, but that they continue to be seen as marginal. “We have to be mainstream, not peripheral. We’ve got the momentum, but that might not be enough,” he said.

“More of the same is not acceptable, we have to be different, and we need to build on our legacy. It is time to develop a harder edge, not soft co-operation, but hard co-operation. Our opportunity is to be mainstream.”

Mr Pollard went on to say that the Labour Party’s primary level of choice for public sector should be mutualism. “By putting mutualism at heart of our agenda we put the Tories out. We don’t want public services to be privatised but we are powerless to stop them, we don’t have the numbers in parliament, our approach has to be different.” He suggested mutualising the BBC, schools, the NHS, Network Rail and the Job Centre.

He also envisages creating a co-operative sovereign wealth fund to invest in infrastructure, in which every citizen contributing would have a stake.

“The way to locking the Tories out is mutualisation, nationalisation would give them the chance to privatise it again. Mutualisation is a clear destination; it is mainstream, not peripheral. We need to apply our values to the Labour Party.”

Contributing to the debate, Erskine Holmes, Co-operative Party member from Northern Ireland, said that nations could teach some important lessons in co-operation. “We should be looking to nations as well as mainland. In Wales water is mutualised. It is a success story,” he said. A company limited by guarantee, Welsh Water is owned by mutual Glas Cymru and has no shareholders, only bondholders. The company is thus saving money that would usually be paid off to investors for money raised on privatisation. Welsh Water has also kept price increases down.

In Northern Ireland, the savings of credit unions equals the savings of English credit unions, even though NI has a population of only 1.8m people. “Support is there in Northern Ireland for credit unions and virtually every family is part of a credit union. So there are lessons to be learnt,” said Mr Holmes.

Another delegate engaged in the discussion, Cheryl Barrott from Yorkshire Co-operative Party Council, talked about the need for a different approach to the provision of care services by bringing together those who receive care, those providing the service and the owners. “Let’s mutualise the private sector rather than privatise the public sector,” she said.

While delegates explored ideas of mutual ownership of public services, Dave Ward from the Communication Workers’ Union talked about Royal Mail’s journey to privatisation. A report by Lord Myners into the deal revealed that shares could have been valued up to 30p more than the flotation price of 330p. Over 60% of shares were sold in the flotation, with a further 10% of stock given to the company’s employees and the government retaining a 30% stake. Earlier this year the government sold 15% of its remaining state and gave up to 1% of shares of its remaining holding to employees. Employees currently own 10% of the organisation, and the government has recently announced they are to receive £50m worth of free shares.

Royal Mail may have a different ownership but the service is owned by the people, says Mr Ward, adding that service delivery should come before competition. “We are looking for support to introduce stronger legislation that protects the daily, six days delivery in the UK,” he said, asking for the Party’s support to achieve this. He disagrees with the dominant view that competition is always good, arguing that companies should not be allowed to enter the market and introduce zero hour contracts or pay low wages.

Dave Ward addressing the Co-operative Party Annual Conference 2015 © Andrew Wiard
Dave Ward addressing the Co-operative Party Annual Conference 2015. Photograph: Andrew Wiard/Co-op Party

At Royal Mail, employees and the management reached a legally binding agreement that restricts what the company can do and provides protections for staff. “We had to protect our workforce structure and union repress, there is still strong local representation in the workplace,” Mr Ward said. The agreement also stops the company from changing pensions, protects against the introduction of a two-tier workforce and enables maintaining pay rises.

This year CWU has also launched the People’s Post campaign, an initiative designed to protect postal services and the rights of employees. The campaign sends a defiant message to the government and shareholders, said Mr Ward. “The message is that you may have sold the ownership but the actual service we provide is owned by the people.”

The campaign also calls for the renationalisation of Royal Mail, and as a minimum they want the government to continue to retain the 15% stake. Another pledge in the campaign is to create a workers trust in Royal Mail that gives staff a meaningful collective voice. The employees do not currently have the ability to exercise a collective voice through the trust.

“We need to bring Labour, trade unions and the Co-operative Party together and see how to shift the balance of forces in the world of work.”

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