Lib Dems: The strange rebirth of cooperative Britain

It is a long time since I got excited about Lib Dem policy papers, or indeed the policy papers of any party, they are usually long, worthy and idealistic, that is until now.

In the policy paper “Mutuals, Employee Ownership, and Workplace Democracy” the Liberal Democrats have finally brought real Liberal economics back to the forefront of British politics, and in a way that is just as relevant today as when our Liberal forefathers founded the Cooperative Movement and the Mutual Societies.

Liberals have always believed in helping individuals to take and use power, enabling them to be involved in the decisions which affect their lives. We believe that employee participation in the workplace, together with wider employee ownership, is important for diffusing economic power; promoting enterprise; increasing job satisfaction; and improving service to customers.

However, there is a more fundemental role that this model of employee ownershiop can play, and that is in revitalising crumbling economies. The great cooperative that is often sited is the Mondragon experiment, in the Basque region of Spain. From a small monsatic intervention providing employment for 25 people it has grown to be the largest single cooperative venture in the world and has raise the Basque region out of the poverty in which it once wallowed.

Liberals believe that every individual has the right to play a meaningful role in society regardless of their occupation, wealth, gender, age, role, or position. Part of this meaningful role is tied up in the rebalancing of power, economic and otherwise – providing citizens with a stake in their own economy – an involvement in their own future. And part of it is ensuring that every person involved in the economy has a sense of self-worth about what they contribute – about the work that they do and the skills that they use. In this way, and in this way only, can a system of ethical, fair, and collaborative capitalism prosper.

It is from this belief that the Liberal committment to the cooperative model grew in the 1800’s, resulting in the birth of mutual societies, the cooperative movement and more latterly in credit unions, building societies, housing associations, food cooperatives and community businesses.

In the early part of the 20th Century the growth of socialism led to there being a straight battle between state ownership and private ownership. Labour believed that the means of production should be controlled by the state for the benefit of the people, whereas the Conservatives believed that only private individuals had the drive to create the jobs and wealth on which society could thrive.

The Liberal ideal was squeezed out, and indeed towards the end of the 20th Century great cooperative ventures such as mutual societies and building societies were converted into private banks and insurance companies by members who had lost that cooprative ideal.

For the Liberal Democrats to in 2012 be reaffirming their enthusiasm for the cooperative model of business is vast. It means that the party is finally stepping out from the shadows of the Labour party’s penchant for nationalisation and the Conservative penchant for Free Market Economics, and setting out their own stall of Liberal Market Economics.

Liberal Market Economics does not state that every business must be cooperative, but it does for the first time since the mid 1800’s recognise the importance of cooperatives to the economic regeneration of our nation and regions. It sets the Liberal Democrats apart from the other two parties in that by adopting the Liberal Market economy, th3e cooperative model, the Liberal Democrats are clearly stating that they will take power away from international conglomerates and from nationalised state monopolies and hand that power back to the people.

This is a revolution that is not new, it has worked in the Basque region of Spain, it has turned the Argentinan ecomonmy from a basket case to a boom economy, and it is now working in some of the most damaged parts of the American economy. Cleveland, Ohio, was one of the areas most badly hit by this recession, it was left with the Hospital and the University as its only two economic players. They used those two economies as a part of the Evergreen project, setting up local cooperative businesses and clustering them around the hospital. A local laundry cooperative to wash the laundry from the hospital, and a renewable energy company whose first contract was installations on the hospital roof. The idea is now spreading across the USA.

The time for the Liberal Economic model, the cooperative model of business is now, and the Liberal Democrats have finally retored their rightful place at the heart of the british economy.

Yes, I am excited by a policy paper, because its a policy paper that repeats what I and many other Liberals have been saying for years.


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