Playground for the New Economy 2023 looks for ways to rebuild democracy

Stir to Action brought the event north for talks, workshops, music and networking opportunities, with contributors from across the co-op movement

Stir to Action visited an urban setting for the 5th edition of its Playground for the New Economy festival, a programme of events which has previously been held in both fields and on screens.

This year’s event, held on 19 and 20 May at Stretford Public Hall in Greater Manchester, featured talks, workshops, music and networking opportunities for those working on the ideas and action needed to drive us into the “new economy”.

The evening before the festival marked the 10th anniversary of STIR magazine, Stir to Action’s quarterly publication, with a guest lecture from Carne Ross, former British diplomat and author of The Leaderless Revolution: how ordinary people can take power and change politics in the 21st Century.

In his talk, Ross argued that in order to build a successful democracy, we need to think more broadly than politicians and parliaments, to a system made up of “compounded elements that fit together to make a coherent and sustainable whole”, putting forward the co-operative model of ownership as a “necessary component of a true democracy”.

This argument was echoed in Friday’s first session of the day entitled ‘The Ownership Gap: Why it’s at the Root of Inequality’. Co-operatives UK CEO Rose Marley stressed the need for mainstream conversations around ownership to go beyond the public vs. private binary, particularly when businesses fail. Marley offered the example of Thomas Cook, hypothesising what might have happened there if the UK had systems in place to enable worker takeovers of failing businesses, such as Italy’s Marcora law.  

Examples of organisations working towards the new economy were also shared at the event, with members of co-ops, mutual aid groups, unions and community businesses sharing examples of their work on ground.

One such example was the event’s host, Stretford Public Hall, who provided tours of the grade II listed building over the two days and shared their experience of bringing the hall into community ownership in 2015 after it had fallen into disrepair and faced closure. Charitable community benefit society Friends of Stretford Public Hall has over 800 members who have collectively raised over £1m to transform the space into a community hub.

Spaces and culture were also on the agenda elsewhere in the programme, such as in a session on social infrastructure, which showcased Projekts skatepark in Manchester and Kitty’s Launderette in Liverpool, both providing social space along with services for their local communities. Later, a session on DIY culture heard from speakers including dancer and artistic director Darren Pritchard, as well as DJ, curator and GMCA policy officer Rebecca Swarray, who also played for festival attendees on Friday night at a nearby venue.

DIY community action was also looked at in the context of the energy and climate crisis. A session led by Carbon Co-op posed the question, How appropriate are ideas of mutual aid in responding to these large-scale challenges? 

Input from the audience around this question included the assertion that while mutual aid can help to alleviate problems, it is not just a “means to an end”, but rather “the end in itself”.

Panellist Mark Simmonds shared his experience in supporting co-ops and community businesses, explaining that “often stuff doesn’t get off the ground because [groups] need a constitution in order to apply for a grant, or they need a bank account, and it’s is getting harder and harder for smaller groups to set up.”

Simmonds offered the example of a food sharing project in Hebden Bridge that is being funded  through an online tool called Open Collective, as a way groups can finance their activities without needing to set up formally. 

Deeper conversations around the food system were held in a session entitled ‘Changing the Face of British Farming’, which focused on barriers and opportunities for people of colour in the farming sector. 

Researcher Naomi Terry explained that “in the UK, the legacy of our land is very, very much tied up with colonialism.” Terry recently authored a report for the Ecological Land Cooperative(ELC) entitled Jumping Fences, which presents the experiences of Black and people of colour farming in Britain today. 

As part of its work, ELC purchases agricultural land and then sells or rents smallholdings at affordable rates to new entrants to ecological farming.

Other inspirational examples of groups working towards the new economy were shared throughout the sessions and networking opportunities, such as the Landworkers’ Alliance, Support and Action Women’s Network, Promising Trouble, Solidarity Economy Association and more.

Alongside these examples were sessions that laid out some of the levers available to those trying to make change in their communities, including finance and government. 

On the topic of finance, Tim Coomer gave an overview of the social investment market, within which his organisation, Co-operative and Community Finance, sits. Coomer noted that social investment needs to be patient, flexible, and offered over a long enough period of time. He also explained that loans can be seen as just one of the “three pillars” of community finance, along with grants and equity.

An example of equity being used to finance member-owned businesses that has taken off in recent years is community shares, where members of a local community buy shares in a community asset or organisation, giving them a stake in the business. Alice Wharton of Co-operatives UK explained that over £210m in community shares has been raised for 540 community owned businesses in the UK so far. 

Grantmakers also participated in discussions, posing the question: What might it look like for foundations to play a more active role in moving towards a democratic economy? Ali Torabi of Lankelly Chase highlighted the inconsistency that often grantmakers are investing around 95% of their wealth in funds that either have nothing to do with, or go directly against, the interests of the communities they are supporting. Torabi argued that this needs to change in order for foundations to play a meaningful part in a democratic economy. 

Examples of supportive political environments for a more democratic economy were also shared, such as the council-supported Cooperate Islington agency, the wider Co-operative Councils’ Innovation Network, and the Scottish government’s decision to house its co-op development agency within its wider Scottish Enterprise department. It was noted that local, regional and devolved governments are much more likely than the central government to engage in initiatives such as these.

Community wealth building was brought into the conversation by ‘think and do tank’ CLES, which highlights five main levers for building wealth in local communities: employment, procurement, finance, land and ownership. In a session on the cost of living crisis, CLES’s CEO, Sarah Longlands, asserted that “extraordinary times call for bravery”, and challenged the audience to consider “How can these difficult times give us the energy and the insight to go further… what would we do in this space if we were brave?”