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Q&A with Les Huckfield

Illustration by
Matthiew Brazier

This Q&A was first published in STIR Spring 2022, along with an excerpt from Les Huckfield's new book How Blair killed the co-ops: Reclaiming social enterprise from its neoliberal turn, published in 2021 by Manchester University Press.

JGF Your new book How Blair Killed the Co-ops explores a politically formative period from 1998-2002, which you claim accounts for a significant shift from democratic control and local accountability, towards opening up the third sector to social investment and marginalising an existing democratic enterprise sector. Can you briefly recap this period and its legacy?

LH The critical period between 1998 and 2002 has either been missed or misinterpreted by most academic and other commentators. Social Enterprise London (SEL) was first registered on 2nd February 1998 from the merger of London Cooperative Training and London ICOM (Industrial Common Ownership Movement). Yet by the time of its first Annual Meeting in October 1998 any mention of co-operatives had almost disappeared. Its first Chief Executive, Jonathan Bland, quickly moved SEL from co-operative and mutual structures towards more loosely accountable social enterprises. After the General Election of June 2021 significant policy input from Bland and others to Patricia Hewitt, who became Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), led to the formation of a Social Enterprise Unit in October 2001 and ultimately to the DTI’s “Strategy for Success” in July 2002 as the Department’s first public policy statement on social enterprise. A last minute intervention from Gordon Brown meant that social enterprise surpluses would be only “principally reinvested” in the organisation, thus paving the way for external private investment. In September 2002, the Cabinet Office ‘Private Action Public Benefit’ sought to change third sector governance structures and the Treasury’s ‘Cross Cutting Review of the Role of the Voluntary and Community Sector in Service Delivery’ essentially formed a technical assistance manual for third sector procurement funding. Alongside this, Peter Lloyd’s further consultancy work for the Social Enterprise Coalition on funding and procurement meant that in the four years between 1998-2002, beginning with the merger of London co-operative organisations committed to democratic control and ownership, the basic elements of a third sector prepared for procurement and tendering in a competitive market were in place. 

JGF While the book covers the commercialisation of the third sector and democratic enterprise, and the declining political capital of this approach within national and local government, you argue that this is largely limited to the ‘anglosphere’. Can you explain what is happening in places like mainland Europe and Quebec during this period?

LH Surprisingly, this UK third sector journey to a procurement market was directly contemporaneous with a totally different direction in Quebec and France. In 1995 in Montreal the Women’s March Against Poverty and in 1996 the Women’s March for Bread and Roses led to the formation of the government-funded Chantier de l’Economie Sociale as a new social economy framework. In France in 2000, a significant report from Alain Lipietz MEP to Martine Aubry as Minister for Employment and Solidarity recommended a new Social Economy for France, based on Work Integration Social Enterprises and the French Revenu Minimum d’Insertion work placement subsidy. Since Aubry is the daughter of Jacques Delors, who as President of the European Commission promoted the European Social Chapter, this was an important report. 

Bringing people back to the land

Luciana Edwards

The way we use land in the UK must change if we are to protect the environment and strengthen our rural communities. Although the large-scale intensification of farming has contributed considerably to food security in the West, it has had devastating impacts on the natural world. The UK agricultural sector is responsible for 10% of our country's greenhouse gas emissions, and has contributed to a 41% decline in UK wildlife species since 1970. 

The trend towards large-scale industrial farming has altered the makeup of the rural British landscape, with a huge decline in small family farms. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has warned that few farms under 50 hectares will exist within two generations if current trends continue. 

Research shows that smaller farms employ more people per hectare, suggesting the trend towards larger holdings restricts jobs within rural communities where economic opportunities are already limited. Smaller farm businesses are also much more likely to sell to other local businesses, or directly to the customer. Such relationships strengthen the rural economy by keeping money circulating within the local community. 

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Review: Paint Your Town Red by Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones

Dan Gregory

Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too by Matthew Brown and Rhian Jones is the book of the blockbusting Community Wealth Building (CWB) idea, which first premiered in Preston, Lancashire. CWB is one of several competing ‘policy brands’, including the ubiquitous Build Back Better idea, the infamous Big Society, the rather vacuous Levelling Up and numerous others. 

CWB is positioned here as a “local economic development strategy” and much of the idea is about democratic collective ownership of local economies. Of course, while these are great ideas, they aren’t new. Worker co-ops and community finance, for instance, have long-standing roots and connections beyond Preston – in Wales and the Basque country, the Lucas Plan and Rojava, among countless other places and times. As the book says, this is about “alternative models of public spending, business ownership, and provision of basic services”. 

There is some great stuff in here – the key elements of CWB, a range of actions and tools, such as unionising in traditionally non-unionised sectors, and it reminds us of the power of the living wage. There are useful explanations, links, and resources from community energy to rural broadband and from insourcing to credit unions. Of course these are all valuable innovations which existed before anyone invented the Community Wealth Building brand

But there are also big problems here, with the idea and the book. First, the authors do almost nothing to assess the alluring idea of CWB against the reality of what it’s achieved. Words such as totemic, comprehensive, and transformative are sprinkled throughout, alongside claims that the model’s “success shows that these ideas can work in practice” and “one of the obvious strengths is that it is already producing results.” Yet no evidence is put forward. In one half-hearted attempt, the authors describe how “impact was shown in 2018 when Preston Labour Party pledged to create a regional co- operative bank”. This is not impact, just more promise. Another claim is that the model has seen Preston achieve its highest employment rate for over 15 years. Yet in the UK more widely, while these jobs may be dangerously precarious and badly paid, employment rose in the UK from 72% in 2005 to 76% at the start of 2020. 

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Q&A with Pia Mancini, Open Collective

Open Collective, launched in 2016, is a funding platform and fiscal host system that enables communities around the world to raise and spend funds in full transparency. On the platform non-profit groups can raise money from backers and sponsors, and pay expenses, with complete transparency in terms of how they receive and spend money. We talked to Pia Mancini, one of the founders, about how the organisation has evolved and where they are going next.

You launched in early 2016. How has the organisation and the community of Collectives developed since then?

It’s been quite the journey. Last year we started to turn a profit, so Open Collective is now on a sustainable path. We started growing very strongly at the beginning in the open source community. Because open source was sort of zero to one, they were already very good at organising online; they had the tools to collaborate. The storytelling around funding open source had already started to grow a little bit when we started and I think we pushed that narrative a lot. We were part of a group and it was ripe for something like Open Collective. It was definitely the organisation that took off first and really strongly. We’ve raised $21M for the open source community since we started, from 42000 contributors.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we realised we had to do our bit for the world, so we decided to go to zero fees for COVID-related groups. We provided them with a fiscal sponsorship service or they could use our charity and our platform for free. So that was our contribution to the state of the world. That actually kick-started a whole unexpected growth in the solidarity economy for Open Collective. In the last 12 months we’ve raised something like $17M for that community, so it’s been a huge success story. We started working very strongly in the solidarity economy, with solidarity as our guiding principle and strategy. The application of that – solidarity in action – is where we are currently. We’re a global platform: we have about 700 non-profits that are using the Open Collective platform to support something like 7000 or 8000 communities around the world. In the last 12 months they’ve raised $37M altogether. It’s definitely a growth story and what’s beautiful about this is that it’s coming from a genuine spirit of solidarity. All of that kind of came out from us saying, okay, we’re just going to give up all our revenue, because if we don’t have a planet it doesn’t really matter, right?

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Introducing the Young Cooperators’ Network

Hannah Watson, Owen Powell & Simin Wadiwala

The Young Cooperators' Network (YCN) has been relaunched, emerging from different iterations over the last decade to give young people a voice in the movement. It's an independent, peer-to-peer, free to join network, with a mission to support young co-operators through outreach, friendship, collaboration and knowledge sharing.

The vision is to grow and diversify the co operative movement and help young people tackle the changing nature of work, housing, and food by empowering them to join, form, and champion co-operatives. The criteria for membership are to meet at least one of the following: 

• You are 30 or under 

• You have been a member of a co-op for less than 2 years 

• You are a member of a co-op which is less than 2 years old 

The spirit of the YCN is to encourage co-creation: members are invited to help shape the identity of the network as it grows, ensuring it both reflects them, and appeals to a new generation of young co-operators. Autumn 2021 will see the launch of the YCN website, and each month we will host a Lunch & Learn social, where we hear from a guest speaker who shares their personal experience in the sector, and talk about what it means to co-operate as a young person.

The Story So Far / The Legacy of YCN 1.0

The story of the YCN goes back to 2012 and the founding of Altgen, a small organisation dedicated to challenging and addressing the structure and culture of work for young people in the post-crash economy through the creation of worker co-ops. 

“We are told time and time again that we are the generation without a future – the first ever to inherit an economic reality worse than the generation before. The good news is that every crisis creates opportunities and we’ve got ideas to help turn this situation around! Let’s stop competing and start co-operating. Let's come together and start creating an alternative future: one where we are in control of our working lives, get paid to do what we love and have a positive social impact.” —Rhiannon Colvin, Altgen, circa 2013

In 2014 Altgen partnered with the UK co-operative movement to launch the Young Co-operators’ Prize (YCP). The premise of the YCP was to promote worker co-operation as a solution to a dearth of decent employment and life opportunities. Five young co-ops would be selected to receive a £2,000 grant plus a package of training and ongoing support. Over the course of several months Rhiannon Colvin and Constance Laisné engaged with young people and university students from around the UK, promoting the YCP and encouraging those with an idea for a co-op or already in a young co-op to enter. At the culmination of the competition in 2015, five groups of young people were selected and brought together for a training weekend nested in the Worker Co-op Weekend in Oxfordshire. It was off the back of this and a further gathering in Bradford that the idea of a Young Cooperators’ Network started taking shape. In February 2016 four of the winners of the YCP – Ceramic Studio Co-op, Chapel Street Studio, Founders and Coders, and London Student – along with other supportive parties, including Stir to Action, Blake House Filmmakers Coop, and a young researcher, met at Altgen’s workspace in London for the first in a series of gatherings.

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