Building a social enterprise economy

Mark Drakeford finds grounds for optimism in the spread of co-operative ideas in today’s Wales

In building Wales as a co-operative nation we have three major reasons for optimism. First is that in the National Assembly over the last decade social policies have developed around a set of ideas which have clear and direct links to cooperative principles:

  • Good government regards individuals as citizens rather than consumers.
  • The relationship between providers and users of services should be rooted in trust, reciprocity and mutualism.
  • The key object of Welsh Government policy should be equality of outcome, not just of equality of opportunity.

A second reason for optimism is the fertility of the ideas which are to be found in Wales which provide an intellectual bank from which practical policy ideas can be drawn. A good example is the Collective Entrepreneur, a paper published earlier this year by Kevin Morgan and Adam Price. It is a plum pudding of a publication, into which it is possible to stick a finger in at any page and pull out an idea which sends you away better informed and a good deal more cheerful about the future. Here are just a few examples which the paper puts forward:

  • A social square mile for Wales, with a social stock exchange.
  • Social impact bonds.
  • Worker cooperatives in social care.
  • Creation of a development bank for Wales, drawing on the experience of Solidarity Funds in Quebec, and on the finance held by the eight major public sector pension funds in Wales.
  • A Welsh Housing Bond.
  • A shift from shareholders to stakeholders, not just in water, but in other natural monopolies where public goods are provided – transport, renewable energy, broadband infrastructure and so on.
  • A Welsh savings super-mutual.

It is unlikely that every one of these ideas can be translated from the page and into practice. However, what they demonstrate is that we have in Wales a great renaissance of ideas for cooperative ways of taking back ground in the public interest which, over the past thirty years, has been lost to private profit.

Thirdly, there is the political commitment of the present Welsh Government to putting those ideas into action, and to making them a reality. Of course, a commitment to basic cooperative principles is one which stretches beyond just one Party. It was clearly evident in the programme of the last One Wales administration, and it is very obviously there in the Labour Manifesto for this year’s Assembly elections. If you want to see it in action, then look at the record of the exchanges on the floor of the Assembly of Wednesday last week where Cooperative Party sponsored Assembly Member, Vaughan Gething raised the issue of cooperative approaches to housing with Cooperative Party member and Minister, Huw Lewis. In the difficult times which lie ahead, Wales is able to draw on a set of principles, practices and political commitments which, together, underpin the prospects of our becoming a truly co-operative nation.

I believe we stand on the cusp of a period when people will turn their backs on shareholder solutions, in favour of models based on the decentralised, distributed principles which underpin cooperation. The cooperative sector in Wales should learn lessons from Spain and Italy about overcoming fragmentation and building up a critical mass of cooperative and mutual ways of doing business.

We should also have the confidence to use the capacity for innovation which the sector possesses: to be less anxious about imitating what goes on elsewhere, and to use the opportunity which devolution, on the one hand, and cooperation on the other, provide to create new policy solutions for the future.

Anyone involved in the practical business of politics or delivering services knows that perspiration runs ahead of inspiration, most of the time. But we will never achieve the sort of cooperative nation we seek, unless we bang the drum for our beliefs in:

  • Working to place collective benefit above personal gain.
  • Designing services to be controlled by the people they serve and who work in them.
  • Knowing that we all do  better when we cooperate together to maximise our strengths, rather than compete to exploit each other’s weaknesses.

These are the beliefs which continue to inspire those across the world today who seek to improve the lot of ordinary working people and their families. They remain the beliefs which animate us here in Wales and which give us an opportunity to make ourselves, truly, a cooperative nation.

Mark Drakeford is Labour AM for Cardiff West. This article is based on the keynote presentation he delivered at the IWA and Co-operative Society conference in Cardiff last weekend, Wales a Co-operative Nation.

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