Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Cooperatives to challenge Big Society?

With the financial pressures all local authorities are facing I took the opportunity to attend a fringe meeting at Labour Party Conference on Co-operative Councils: mutuality and the new politics. These are my notes and thoughts (apologies for any mis-spellings, I'll be happy to amend any comments by participants).

Steve Reed, Leader of Lambeth Council said that Cameron’s “Big Society” was the use of language to try and stake a claim to an area of politics that has traditionally been Labour territory, mutualism. Steve said a co-operative approach should not be just a response to cuts, but rather a more flexible and responsive way for local government to respond to what people want in local services.

With British society increasingly less homogeneous a “one size fits all” big state approach cannot be responsive to communities like Lambeth where over 150 different languages are spoken. He disparaged Suffolk County Council’s proposal to privatise all its services. This was the right’s response to automatically see public provision as bad.
Steve talked about Lambeth’s Community Fresh View scheme. Here areas where rubbish is dumped are no longer dealt with by the council. Instead the Council provides the tools, the spades, the skips and the flowers for local residents to transform semi-derelict sites into a play area, or a garden, depending on what neighbours want. The local people take ownership of the problem and respond as part of Civic society, enabled but not enforced by the Council.

Meg Hillier MP chairing the meeting urged all present to read the book issued by Local Government Leadership - Co-operative Communities, Creating a shared stake in our society for everyone.

Jim McMahon the Leader of Oldham Council and one of the youngest council leaders in the country talked about the need for co-operativism to extend outside local authorities too. So Councils should hold their money with ethical bankers who did not fund the arms industry and land mines for example, not banks putting a culture of bonuses first.

Oldham Labour'sl policy was that the top earning member of staff should not earn more than 10 times the pay of the lowest paid member of staff. An excellent idea!

Jim wanted to restructure financial responsibilities so local ward councillors had a greater say in how monies were spent in their communities. He concluded co-operativism should be part of everything a Council did and not just a branding exercise.

Tessa Jowell MP believed there was a moment for mutualism politically and the packed fringe meeting with more than 70 people present with standing room only. Some people had to be turned away showing the enthusiasm for this in the Labour Party. Co-operativism with worker and user boards had transparency at its heart.

Tessa believed Council’s preparing their manifestos for the 2011 elections should look at including co-operative commitments in their pledges. This had approved by people in Southwark and Lambeth in 2010 local elections, who had returned councils with co-operativism in the heart of their campaigns.
Bryony Rudkin a Suffolk County Councillor commented on how unfair Big Society was with the prospect of Suffolk becoming a virtual council and the need for an alternative.
Neville Gregory a Swindon councillor saw the spending of money on the proposed new “free schools” was the wrong approach and could potentially allow BNP members to set up a school.
Money could be better spent continuing the Building Schools for the Future programme.

Michael Stephenson General Secreary of the Cooperative Party said there were 3 key things

1. The credit crunch meant people questioned financial arrangements.
2. Mutualism was becoming fashionable with 24 pledges in Labour’s last manifesto.
3. The Big Society is an insidious version of Thatcherism where volunteers were available in wealthier communities but not poorer ones.

He thought many councillors did not still understand co-operatives and mutualism, and those present should explain and evangelise for co-operatives. Co-operatives were an option but not the only solution. Trade unions had unfounded fears about the prospect of greater, mutualism and this needed to be robustly explained as co-operatives had been part of the Labour movement for more than a century.

The Co-operative Bank had an excellent record as an ethical financial institution without bonus scandals, and mutual housing could compliment Council provision. He also said that opportunities would only be maximised if the inevitable teething troubles were understood.

Sharon Taylor is Leader of Stevenage Council wgere every Labour councillor is also a Co-operative councillor. She wanted greater decentralisation of budgets into neighbourhoods and local communities. The principle should be to maximise decentralisation of budgets.
Ed Davey a Lambeth Cooperative councillor wanted to ensure cooperatives were not dominated by middle classes and that those in lower socio-economic groups were fully involved.

Helen Holland Bristol Council’s Labour Leader said trade unions were concerned about cooperativism and wanted to hear of strategies to explain and reassure trade unions that cooperatives could work for all.

John Smith from Surrey Youth service was very concerned about how Surrey County Council was looking at using this approach to cut youth services by replacing staff with young people volunteering to run clubs. He saw co-operativism and social enterprise as a threat to current provision.

Councillor Lambert from Rochdale responded that Rochdale were looking at a workers cooperative to run their youth service. He said that mutualism should be part of the toolkit of modern local government management.

Nick Yates from MIND wanted to see how those with disabilities might have their voices excluded from the running of cooperatives.

Mo Baylis from Heywood and Middleton CLP was concerned as to how coops could raise capital monies. For refuse collection, a new lorry is £250,000. Could cooperatives raise these monies and meet euro procurement rules. On accountability how do you vote out a cooperative board member like councillors who stand for election every 4 years?

Andy Sawford from Kettering thought cooperatives could lead to an atomisation of services and wanted to know how councils could ensure a core of services was maintained.

Tudor Evans leader of Plymouth Labour group wanted a quick guide to cooperative law so that when officers challenged the use of cooperatives he could insist on how cooperatives could be legally accountable.

Jim McMahon advised that Oldham had 40 senior managers yet not one of them lived in the borough whereas 85% of low paid staff did live in the borough. The managers mostly lived in leafier postcodes like Cheshire. He wanted standards of accreditation to stop people claiming to be cooperatives without achieving a kitemark.
Sandy Martin Leader of Suffolk Labour group said it was easier to have this conversation in opposition. There should not be division, cuts should be opposed but services should also be transformed through use of the cooperative model.
Councillor Alison Moore from "easy council" Barnet wanted to use mutualism to oppose the minimising of services which Barnet Conservatives wanted to introduce.

As a Thanet councillor I raised the issue of provision of affordable housing through cooperatives and how cooperativism could not just work for local authorities, but also nationally to help the Labour Party to win the next election.

Michael Stephenson said with coming elections Scotland and Wales could test cooperative approaches in their manifestoes and governments.

Steve Reed said an opinion poll in Lambeth had shown 80% of people were in favour of the cooperative model and called this political gold dust. However, safeguarding children should always remain a council function. Cooperativess handed power to the people an idea at the heart of Labour ideology.

Manchester had seen the return of its renowned wet and windy weather. With the meeting being in the USDAW marquee all present had battled through background noise as rain pounded the tent roof.
For myself I was most impressed by Jim McMahon and I think Labour's manifesto for the 2011 Thanet Council election should see a commitment for the highest paid member of staff to earn no more than 10 times the hourly rate of the lowest paid member of staff. The current Conservative administration has seen report after report which have increased the pay of senior officers ahead of the rate of inflation; even when the recession has meant that far more talented and able executives have been available in the job market.
I think a proposal like this would see senior officers showing a far greater interest in the issue of low pay, and would make for a more equitable society and communtiy locally.

1 comment:

  1. Mark,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post, and the differing views expounded within it, which show party conference fringe meetings at their best. I was rather saddened when we got to the last couple of paragraphs, I thought you were going to say that you wanted to include cooperative principles in your manifesto for next may, which would have led to an interesting difference and debate between the parties. Restricting your position to the single issue of pay multiples, which could well be an effective part of any mutual venture, I think rather misses the point of the power of mutuality. Never mind, 80% of an interesting read, and a justification of filing reports from conferences attended. Thank you!