Co-ops unleashed? A movement critiqued

‘ I don’t want co-ops in the market – I want them to form something separate from the market’

Moves to double the size of the UK sector came under the microscope at Ways Forward 7, with trade unionists and labour activists warning against co-ops being used as a tool for back-door privatisation.

Delegates and speakers were concerned that if public services run in-house by local authorities were converted to co-ops or mutuals, they would then be subjected to market forces.

Paul Bell from public sector union Unison told a lunchtime session that he was opposed to any move to grow the co-op movement by spinning off services from the public sector.

However, he said the union supported moves to mutualise services which have already been outsourced to the private sector.

“We support co-ops but we have some clear red lines,” he said. “We support the state.”

He warned that a public sector mutual, competing in the market place, could see pay and conditions suffer, adding: “Pay is not the be all and end all but it is absolutely of value if you are a poor person, a working class person, a carer – if you are not from a background where you have independent means.

“Privatisation wants division because it can exploit and profit from division … co-operation is not competition.”

John Goodman, a director at Phone Co-op and former head of policy and regions at Co-operatives UK, agreed there was a danger of using co-ops as “a staging post to privatisation” of public services. If a council spins out a service to a co-op, three years later that service is opened up to competition, he said.

Les Huckfield, a former Labour MP and MEP, now a co-op researcher, was also critical, and said the Co-operatives Unleashed report, produced by the New Economics Foundation last year for the Co-op Party as a blueprint for growing the movement, “is about driving co-ops into the market … I don’t want co-ops in the market – I want them to form something separate from the market”.

He said there was too much talk in the report of co-ops as “enterprises” and putting them into the market. Echoing Mr Bell’s concerns, he added: “I tell you how co-ops get contracts when bidding against the public sector – it’s by cutting pay and conditions.”

Mr Huckfield was also concerned by the lack of action. “I’ve been coming to Ways Forward for six years,” he said. “We’ve been talking about same things and I don’t think we’ve made a lot of progress.”

He said the co-op movement had been grown before, in line with its values and principles, and said measures outlined in Labour’s manifesto had more merit than the NEF report. He wants to see a revival of the local development agencies dismantled by the Thatcher government, which “created alternative local social economies”.

Related: Report from the Co-operatives Unleashed launch

Like Mr Huckfield. Cheryl Barrott, from Change AGEnts, sits as an individual on John McDonnell’s policy implementation group. “We need to put something in front of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell that doesn’t come back on us,” she said. “What do we need in the legislation, and what is already in the legislation where we could do with good policy and practice?”

In an other session, co-op consultant Alex Bird also looked at the on Co-operatives Unleashed report, and said there were other reports – such as Robin Murray’s Co-operation in the Age of Google.

“The NEF report comes from outside the co-op movement,” he said. “There’s some strengths in that but also some weaknesses.”

And he criticised the drive to worker ownership, saying it “will produce co-ops, true 100% worker coops, about 300 years after I’ve been buried.”

With the retail movement working in a competitive market and only so many pubs and village shops to turn into community businesses, worker co-ops are the key to doubling the movement, he added.

“We’re a long way behind other countries on worker co-ops. We can grow the co-op sector very fast with right infrastructure.”

This infrastructure meant investment, a supportive legal and fiscal environment, and co-op experts in the civil service at national level, he said.

From the floor, delegates expressed concern about workers having the confidence and expertise to become co-owners – when they might prefer to remain employees without responsibility

David Alcock, of Anthony Collins Solicitors, replied: “Alongside expanding the co-op economy we need new model of citizenship … and to educate people in what it means to be an active citizen.”

Mr Bird agreed. “The NEF report doesn’t mention education,” he said. “It’s a useful addition but it’s not the bees knees, it’s not the Bible.”