Presentation #WF4 ~ Andrew Bibby

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Andrew Bibby speaking #WF4. Image © Jonathan Nicholson/NurPhoto/Corbis

People’s Power in the Workplace

I have been allocated seven minutes, and I am going to use up about three of them in a way you may think is quite bizarre.

I am going to refer to a heated exchange in 1899 in the letters page of an obscure magazine between two people you have probably never heard of.

The exchange was in a magazine called Commonwealth and was between a Fabian socialist called Henry Macrosty and a co-operator called Robert Halstead. Halstead was shortly to become the general secretary of the Co-operative Productive Federation but at that point he was a weaver in a worker-run cooperative textile mill in Yorkshire.

They were talking about the way the ownership of industry could be organised differently, in a future socialist economy. Macrosty was arguing strongly against the worker-run cooperative model. “There is nothing revolutionary in it, nothing socialistic, nothing which is necessarily finally ameliorative of the condition of the workers,” he wrote. Effectively he was pushing the Fabian line. He was arguing for the sort of state ownership we saw develop in the 20thC model of nationalisation.

Halstead counter-attacked. “I have to confess that the idea of a well-drilled, well-conditioned, wage-earning, labour population such as Mr Macrosty wants is to me morally repulsive. Unless we workers can realise that the best part of the Industrial Democracy is, like the kingdom of Heaven, within us, to be worked into outward realisation, there seems very little democracy except an exchange from capitalistic to official domination from the top, with the same disinherited wage-earners at the bottom.”

Well, here we are in 2016 discussing what we’ve learned from the twentieth century and how we might be able to move forward from what Halstead called capitalistic domination to some new form of public ownership. And I think the crux of the issue is that we may find that public ownership in the future means something subtly different from traditional models of state ownership. How, as we debate what forms public ownership might take, can cooperative practice and experience feed into that discussion?

Well, firstly I’d argue that my journey back to 1899 wasn’t a waste of my precious minutes. I’d argue that in our discussions today it is more relevant than ever to remember those debates in the labour and coop movements at the end of the 19thC (debates incidentally which regularly included discussion of how railways could be publicly owned in quasi-cooperative ways which involved stakeholders such as railway workers). We have, in a sense, been here before.

So I suppose the key question for us in 2016 is: who had it right in that 1899 spat?

Was Macrosty right that public ownership would only be possible with state intervention? Was Halstead right to promote bottom-up worker-led initiatives?

Do you want my opinion? My own view is that both Macrosty and Halstead were in their way correct. If we are to move even a little way away from a purely investor-led capitalistic economy, we need action by the state. But we equally need to develop models that empower workers (and indeed other stakeholders) and which bring them formally into the governance structures of publicly owned enterprises. That’s what Halstead wanted. And there is great scope here for the coop movement to use its own experience to propose innovative solutions.

Where are these innovations? Well, to a large extent they are to be found in overseas coop movements rather than in the UK movement but that’s OK, we simply mustn’t allow ourselves to be insular. There are some fascinating things going on in, for example, France and Canada and Spain and Uruguay and Argentina. We can learn from other countries.

I am delighted that the coop movement internationally is on something of a roll, building on the 2012 UN Year of Cooperatives. I am delighted too that the Labour Party is engaging its members in a more profound debate about the way forward.

So I think it’s time to do what happened in the 19thC and for the labour, coop and union movements to engage with each other and talk actively to each other. There are solutions out there. Between us, we can bring them about.

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