Democratic Business Summit looks for ways to support the sector

Report from the event convened by Stir to Action, Power to Change, JRF, and Lankelly Chase

“As a wider business movement that promotes workplace democracy, there is an opportunity for more strategic partnerships between federations, think tanks, and funders that can shift the focus away from benign campaigns – such as ‘a better way of doing business’ – towards more confidently asserting the benefits and value of democratic ownership models,” said Stir to Action’s Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, opening the 2023 Democratic Business Summit.

Convened by Stir to Action, Power to Change, JRF, and Lankelly Chase, the event aimed to bring together organisations and individuals dedicated to expanding the role of democratic business ownership in workplaces and the wider economy. 

Delegates explored open questions about the nature of the democratic business movement, the option of shared identity, and discussed how new or existing partnerships can have a stronger influence on communities, business, and different tiers of government. 

The event also looked at how the sector could develop a new evidence base, finance the transition to a democratic economy, develop national and regional support infrastructure, and how policy programmes can frame the value of business ownership to the government.

“We’ve got a crisis of democracy across our shared institutions, political system, civil society, and, of course in business,” warned Gordon-Farleigh. “We’re experiencing historic and unprecedented levels of concentrated private ownership across business, public infrastructure, and across our communities. If we look at the business sector, we’re seeing forced precarity across the private sector.”

He shared the plight of food, energy and health systems unsupported by crumbling public infrastructure, and the “rapid disappearance of social infrastructure” from social clubs to places of worship – and how under-pressure councils are selling 4,000 public assets a year to balance their books. 

“This is nothing less than an urgent crisis. And it’s not one that will be simply reversed by efforts to make businesses more responsible.”

The solution, Gordon-Farleigh said, is more democratic businesses. “Everyone in this room believes democracy is a key to strengthening our economy and our lives,” he said, adding that the event, held in the community-owned Stretford Public Hall in Manchester, wanted to “convene something that harnessed energy and brought together fragmented sector.”

Related: Building community wealth in the cracks of a broken economy

Throughout the day, delegates heard panels discussing why business ownership matters, and took part in a number of practical workshops to develop practical asks for the democratic business sector, which were captured by facilitators with the aim of creating a Summit report and playbook to support the sector’s work around engaging funders, developing research partnerships, diversifying business support, and raising awareness of the role of democratic models of business ownership.

“If we really want to be serious about changing business, we have to confront the fundamental structure of ownership,” said Gordon-Farleigh. The term ‘democratic business’ is not about the promotion of a single model, but a description of the powers that can exist in almost any legal structure. A really simple test for any government or infrastructure body is to focus on the basic characteristics of business – who owns it? Who benefits from its value? And who makes the decisions?