Ways Forward searches for answers to the climate crisis

Two days of debate and workshops featured contributions from organisations including Union Co-ops UK, the Green Party, Preston’s Larder and Tipping Point UK

Co-op Ways Forward, now in its eighth year, represents the “radical wing of the UK co-op movement”, said the Green Party’s Jo Bird, opening a two-day event on community-led responses to the climate crisis. 

Bird was joined on the opening panel by Chris Saltmarsh (co-founder of campaign group Labour for a Green New Deal) and Majdouline El Hichou (anthropologist and community organiser), who shared different opinions on the role – and approaches – of co-ops to crisis. 

Jo Bird

Saltmarsh believes the climate crisis and other linked issues have the same route cause: “The push for growth and for corporations to make as much money as possible [which] pushes out the consideration of people, planet and culture”.

For him, profit-dominated marketisation has thwarted the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. “Where green energy has emerged, usually as privatised forms of renewable energy, it has raised prices and depressed wages [in a] fragmented energy system that is irrationally divided up,” he said. He believes any transformative response needs significant investment, and therefore requires the fiscal capacity of the state, including “massive regulation and expansion of public ownership”. 

While there may be some organisational preference for co-ops, he added, “this doesn’t mean they have some special strategic role in decarbonisation”. In sectors such as energy, water transport or finance co-ops can do “very little” in leading transformation, he warned. 

Climate justice needs democratic national and municipal public ownership,” he said, “which means opposing the deployment of co-ops to uphold markets and undermine nationalisation. The provision of everyday goods and services is more the domain of co-ops.”

He added that a cynic might suggest calls for co-ops were specifically designed to undermine nationalisation and democracy, including within the Co-op Party, which he described as “a breeding ground for right-wing candidates” – an argument robustly countered by John Boyle, support and principle six officer at the Party.

Political approaches to the climate crisis were also addressed by Jo Bird, a long time co-operative activist and Ways Forward co-founder, who has been expelled by the Labour and Co-op Parties and is now councillor for the Greens. 

“I’m devastated that the Labour Party no longer campaigns for ecojustice and worker’s rights,” she said, arguing that Labour has scrapped most of its green pledges and offers “nothing” to co-ops. “The Green Party offers climate justice and co-op solutions in all sectors,” she said, including through support for housing co-ops, retrofitting, renewable energy at scale and scrapping Trident. 

Bird announced plans to launch a Green Cooperators Network, with membership open to any co-operator “who is a member of the Green Party, or at least not a member of any other political party”.

For Majdouline El Hichou, the way language is used can also hamper progress. “A lot of people organising around co-op structures might not be accessing ‘co-op’ spaces – but they are working and making change,” she said, adding that inspiration should be taken from what is working.

Workshops included a session on the Larder, a food project and cafe in Preston, which drew on collective knowledge in the room to discuss the future of its legal structure, which consists of a CIC and worker co-op working side by side.

Other sessions looked at how co-operation might be scaled up, including a presentation from Cliff Mills and Shaun Fensom on Innovation Co-op, which aims to create a space for co-operation between a range of stakeholders within an agreed framework, negating the use of contracts in favour of governance to maintain trust and accountability.

Ways Forward also looked at public commons partnerships (PCPs). Keir Milburn said these see public bodies work on development projects with a commoners association, which can include co-ops. Unlike public private partnerships, where investment decisions are insulated from democratic pressures, PCPs try to keep democratic decision making insulated from financial pressures, he added.

Mick McKeown, from Union Coops UK, said there is a need to “reenergise our big democratic institutions”, including trade unions, which he feels have been too focused on the “defensive” activity of casework for employees rather than proactive collective organising. But he thinks unions are warming to co-ops, having previously viewed them as vehicles for privatisation. 

With marginalised groups suffering more from climate change, several sessions explored ways to make the co-op movement more diverse. 

Steve Graby shared research around the experience of disabled people in co-ops. “From my research and from my life experience, it’s quite clear there are shared principles between co-ops and the disabled people’s movements,” he said. These include inclusivity, egalitarianism, collective self interest and leadership from those at the centre of an issue. But co-ops still have a way to go in ensuring people with impairments are not disabled by exclusionary practices, he warned. His findings will be published next year.

A conversation about class inclusivity in the climate justice movement was led by Tipping Point UK’s Elle Glenny and Adriana Swain. Glenny asked why more isn’t being done by trade unions to connect the climate crisis with conversations around the cost of living and workers’ rights, to improve the class imbalance in the climate movement.

Towards the end of the conference, Kate Whittle hosted a discussion on how the co-op movement might develop an anti-racist action plan. Delegates argued that the experiences of people of colour must be centred any action plans. Some disappointment was expressed that the session was not a whole conference discussion as billed, reflecting the view across the two days that none of the issues being discussed are separate, but intimately connected. 

This echoed a point by Majdouline El Hichou during the opening session, where she suggested that the co-operative movement should be looking towards coalition building – where all struggles can be traced back to a common root and worked on together in solidarity.