Everyone agrees mutualism helps, but where’s the action?

Chris Nicholson looks at the agenda for co-operatives following Nick Clegg’s call for John Lewis capitalism.


Nick Clegg’s speech on the “John Lewis economy” at CentreForum yesterday certainly hit the headlines, writes Chris Nicholson, CentreForum’s director and chief executive.

All three party leaders seem to be falling over themselves to attack “crony capitalism” and define a more responsible capitalism. The effect of the economic crisis has been to lead many to question how our economy is organised. Even the Financial Times is running a fortnight of features on capitalism in crisis.

For some, such as Denis MacShane writing on Progress online, Nick Clegg’s speech is a cause for weary cynicism. Nothing will happen, he says, just as there was no willingness to push this agenda forward under the Labour government.

But that would be a missed opportunity for progressives.

Attacks on executive pay and calls for workers to go on remuneration committees currently seem to be the limit of ambition. Frankly this is little more than a sideshow in giving workers more say in the decisions which affect their lives.

There is now good evidence that employee ownership and participation have a beneficial impact on company performance, pay and employee well-being.

Furthermore, as Patrick Brione and I argue in our CentreForum report Employee empowerment: Towards greater workplace democracy, even where substantial employee ownership is not present government should encourage much broader employee participation, and if necessary legislate to achieve it.

Many on the left and in the trade union movement seem to have a strange ambivalence when it comes to mutuals, employee share ownership and participation. Whilst declaring support, their actions often belie their words.

So the TUC supports co-ops but then seems to oppose the government’s moves to mutualise some public services. The CWU opposes the move to give Royal Mail workers a significant stake in their business whilst supporting the widespread employee participation in BT.

And whilst Labour from Purple to Blue to Compass talk of reclaiming this part of Labour’s tradition the evidence of Labour in government as described by Denis MacShane was that this agenda was ignored.

Nick Clegg’s proposals for a John Lewis economy should then be welcomed by progressives and the government should be pressed to go further on issues like workplace democracy. 2012 is the international year of the co-operative. It should be the year when there is progress in giving workers a real stake in the economy and a say over their working lives

See also:

We need a new kind of tenure for a new kind of housing market – David Rodgers, October 8th 2011

Community ownership must be the focus of Miliband’s Labour – Richard Carr, September 25th 2011

How the Tories’ fake co-op friends are biting a chunk out of the NHS – Pete Jefferys, November 10th 2011

Jowell: Co-op movement standard-bearer for Labour values – Tom Phillips, June 19th 2010

Lambeth Mutual – the co-operative way? – Jim Dickson, March 19th 2010

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