This blog post was originally published on 17th January 2022
We have a proud history of giving people a say and a stake in our economy in the North.
The prototype for the modern co-operative was created in 1844 when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers opened a small shop selling a handful of items. Their aim was humble but radical: to serve their community and ameliorate the effects of the grinding poverty and job losses resulting from the industrial revolution.
Just over the Pennines, I am proud to help write a new chapter in our rich story with the creation of the South Yorkshire Ownership Hub. Our Hub is a joint venture with Co-operatives UK and the Employee Ownership Association – the first of its kind, and will offer training and advice to build inclusive businesses across our region.
Modern Britain is of course an entirely different place from the Victorian era in which the Pioneers emerged but regrettably many parallels can be drawn. Work is insecure. Pay is unequal. Conditions are deteriorating. And we too are on the cusp of another industrial revolution. It’s no wonder why so many Britons feel alienated from the economy.
When I stood for election as Mayor of South Yorkshire, I did so on manifesto titled A Co-operative Community. I have consistently placed the need for a collaborative, sustainable and inclusive economy in which everyone shares the benefits at the heart of everything we do as a region. And not just because it is right in principle but because it also works in practice.
Crucially, there are more to co-ops and employee-ownership than being ‘capitalism with a conscience’. The economic, political and social case for their expansion is irrefutable.
Co-operative and employee-owned businesses already contribute £40bn and £30bn respectively to the UK economy. In addition to being significant, co-ops are resilient – despite the immense strain placed on the economy during the pandemic, their numbers grew and were found to be four times less likely to cease trading. While employee ownership is a powerful motivator, leads to increased productivity and roots jobs in the community.
In short, exactly the outcomes you would bargain for when communities and workers are given a say.
I believe we can and should set our sights on a step-change in the role co-operative and employee-owned businesses play in the UK. Growth should be bold enough to shift the nature and structure of our economy, but reform on this scale will take time and effort.
Despite the huge benefits, the UK’s co-operative and employee ownership economy is small and growing slowly by international comparisons. Co-ops tend to struggle with implementing business strategy, organisational development and raising capital. Employee-owned businesses suffer from a lack of understanding from professional advisors and leadership capacity during transition. These are precisely the gaps our Ownership Hub will fill.
By harnessing the power of co-operative and employee-owned businesses we can help arrest the growing feeling of disillusionment in our economy and build resilience, but they are not a panacea. We need a government willing to address the grotesque inequality we see every day. We need a government willing to invest in our public services, not idly witness their decline then flog what’s left to their mates. We need a government willing to put its faith in people and entrust them with the tools they need to forge a better tomorrow for their communities.
I have no faith this government will do what is required, so we must act. It’s time for this generation’s Pioneers to step forward and do just that. And like the Rochdale Society, from the ground up. Our Ownership Hub is a chance to help transform South Yorkshire’s economy. This is only the start – and there will be challenges – but we are extremely proud to lead the way.
Please note – this was written when Dan Jarvis was Mayor of South Yorkshire between 2018-2022.