Members of the New Leaf Co-op, Edinburgh. Image: New Leaf Co-op.
Theresa May’s Government has been putting forward proposals that you might expect to be music to the ears of the left. These have included strengthening communities’ abilities to buy important assets, putting workers’ representatives on boards, a right to mutualise – to turn ordinary companies into John Lewises – in certain circumstances, more investment for small businesses.
Like the ‘Big Society’, they are the latest in a trend in the right wing’s appropriation of ideas from the left and the co-operative movement. They have been met with a mixed response from both left and right, and from small and big business, and with a cautious, limited and sceptical welcome from the major UK co-operative sector body, Coops UK. Others have called out the mutualism agenda as a way to privatise the NHS and dismantle the public sector.
However, there's another big-picture reason to be sceptical about the government’s proposals on a right to mutualisation and putting workers on boards, than that it's not as good as proper cooperative workers' control.
These proposals are part of a populist narrative the government is constructing of ‘Taking Back Control’. It’s a grand narrative which brings together their appeals across the spectrum, to the working class, small business, Brexit voters and the far right. It makes sense of how their proposals on mutuals, worker representation and community ownership, work alongside their racist populist policies on employment, migration and Prevent. They are two sides of the same coin.
If we just cautiously welcome their talk of mutualisation and community control, and don't link it to their racism and scapegoating of non-UK nationals, we are complicit with this divide and rule policy. White British people will be touted more employment rights, non whites and non-UK nationals will get harrassed and victimised, and we will be complicit.
I work for an independent food retail co-op in Edinburgh. I think that co-ops have an important role to play, by stepping up and calling the government out on this, and supporting anti-racist activists in our communities. I’m mainly writing to others in the co-operative movement, because that’s where I work and because co-ops are fundamentally based on values of democracy, internationalism and concern for our communities. But I hope what I’m saying will be of interest to anyone who shares these values.
Taking back control
The promise of “taking back control” is the grand narrative which May hopes to convince us all to play our allotted roles in the government’s basic divide-and-rule strategy. It is a dog-whistle, vague enough to cover the hopes and fears of anyone who feels they have little control over their economic circumstances or their communities. In some ways it is a mutation of the ‘Big Society’ narrative, but as a big picture story it is, suddenly, far nastier and divisive. It doesn’t say ‘we are all in it together’ – it says that foreigners have taken our power away, and now we need to take it back. It draws on a chauvinist nationalism which is at odds with co-operatives’ traditions of openness and internationalism.
But divide-and-rule strategies come with carrots as well as sticks. May’s raft of proposals such as putting workers’ representatives on company boards, a Right to Mutualise, increased support for Community Rights to buy assets, more investment for new or growing businesses, and her talk of “reforming capitalism” is definitely a carrot. Clearly from a co-operative’s point of view, all of these have big flaws – as Co-operatives UK has been good at pointing out. And as a sector I think we’ve been good at engaging critically with this Conservative approach. However as a sector I believe we have not been thinking big enough and living up to our open, democratic, internationalist principles.
For example, when Coops UK’s Secretary General Ed Mayo wrote recently for the Huffington Post, cautiously welcoming and critiquing these policies, he sounded far too supportive of a government whose overall direction is so destructive to the social values of mutual aid and solidarity that are key to our movement. It is hard to come away from the article without feeling that it is broadly supportive of this government. We need our sector bodies to be looking at the bigger picture and not missing opportunities like this (which came in the middle of a news cycle about the government’s racist employment proposals) to speak out for co-operative values, not just our business interests.
They go low, we go high
If we’re going to engage with these carrots, it’s up to us to also engage with the sticks. Because the point of a divide-and-rule strategy is to give chosen in-groups enough of a buy-in to not rock the boat. We must not be complicit as our society is set against each other.
On the one side of the political landscape of “Taking Back Control” are promises to UK-national workers, including support for rights to representation, mutualisation and community ownership. But scapegoats are needed from whom to “take back control”. And so the Tories, who previously scapegoated asylum seekers, migrants, and Muslims, have now turned on all “foreigners”.
Things have become very frightening. We have become used to the government using the language of the National Front, normalising Islamophobia, and refusing to take serious action against the wave of attacks on Eastern Europeans, Muslims, gay people. And if we take back the slice of control we are offered, and don’t speak out for those the government is scapegoating, we are complicit – it is as simple as that.
As the co-operative sector, we can’t let ourselves be complicit. There are some in the business sector who will speak out against the government’s scapegoating of ‘foreigners’ on economic grounds – but realistically very few businesses and business leaders are going to speak out on the grounds of basic human solidarity. If anyone is going to, it will be the co-operative sector – if we want anyone to speak out, we need to rise to the occasion.
We can support our local anti-racist campaign groups, asylum seeker and migrant support organisations, speaking out in our personal lives, our workplaces and supply networks. We need to support those challenging the Islamophobic Prevent agenda, and racial profiling in schools. We could donate some of our time or our money to local voluntary groups. We could close our businesses on February 20th to support the Migrants’ Strike, “A Day Without Us” (and also symbolically assert the right to secondary action). We could collectively refuse to give the government data on our non-UK national employees – a sinister threat even if we will not be obliged to publish the data. Just some ideas for starters!
We can also make sure the organisations which speak for us, such as Co-operatives UK, The Plunkett Foundation, and Students for Cooperation, know that we want them to speak out for those who are being targeted by this frightening strain of racist populism – even if it makes it harder to speak up for our own sector. Our sector bodies have a mandate to look after our interests, but right now we need to let them know we want them to be actively speaking up for others too.
Co-ops have always lead the way on speaking out for the open, democratic values of internationalism, solidarity, and concern for all in our communities, which our modern movement was founded on. Theresa May is trying to play us – so we need to “go high”, remember what we believe in – speak out against the government and get involved in anti-racist activism.