At party conference I asked Nick Clegg why the word ‘co-operative’ appeared only once in our economy paper and not at all in the resolution presenting that paper to conference. He advised me to write my views on a postcard and send them to him, and this is that postcard.
The third clause of the preamble to the constitution sets out the underlying principles of economic liberalism clearly and concisely:
We will foster a strong and sustainable economy which encourages the necessary wealth creating processes, develops and uses the skills of the people and works to the benefit of all, with a just distribution of the rewards of success. We want to see democracy, participation and the co-operative principle in industry and commerce within a competitive environment in which the state allows the market to operate freely where possible but intervenes where necessary. We will promote scientific research and innovation and will harness technological change to human advantage.
The approach taken by Liberal Democrats in Government to tackling economic problems has been co-operative, be that using credit unions to tackle loan sharks or co-operative energy switching to tackle energy prices or removing the restrictions on companies to direct their surplus food into food banks, luncheon clubs and other local charities.
In his response Nick cited the Royal Mail privatisation and the shares for rights schemes of examples of extending co-operative values, but these are small fry compared to what could be achieved if Liberal Democrats were to embrace the co-operative principles of economic liberalism. Recognising and encouraging the co-operative principle, not as an adjunct to our economic and social policies but as central to it, clearly and precisely answers the age old question of what the Liberal Democrats stand for.
Liberal Democrats must work to see the co-operative principles extended to allow workers to have a guaranteed option to buy out their company if it is under threat of takeover (hostile or friendly) or of liquidation. Indeed there is no reason why we couldn’t take the Argentinian approach of making worker co-operatives the first option in such circumstances.
The Tories despise co-operatives and Labour want to harness them with the dead hand of state. Only Liberal Democrats see the incredible potential that they bring to securing workplace democracy and ensuring that the people who do the work get a fair share in the profits they create.
Liberal Democrats should legislate for workers and shareholders to be able to vote for limited companies to become co-operatives, but to do that we must first make co-operatives a business model in their own right; in doing so the Liberal Democrats would make clear our ambition to build a strong economy and a fair society, enabling everyone to get on in life.
* Chair of Manchester Gorton Liberal Democrats, a member of the NW Regional Executive and the English Council and a former City Councillor of 19 years