State of the Economy Conference Report Back

State_of_the_economy

This Saturday, the Labour held a ground-breaking conference on a vision of the future for the left. John McDonnell kicked off events by introducing a speech by the internationally renowned economist Ha-Joon Chang, who layed out a powerful case for the re-industrialisation of Britain. I would be unable to do justice to his full presentation and those of the many other good speakers, hopefully they will be made available on-line soon.

What I will do is focus on the absolutely superb content of the first breakout workshop I attended. In his opening remarks, McDonnell said that part of the point of the event was that Labour isn’t just a party of protest, it is a party that is looking to make real and lasting change. He said he wants Labour to lead an entrepreneurial state, with the setting up of a National Investment Bank and a co-operative sector that will be doubled in size. The workshop “Alternative Models of Ownership” provided some vision of how these aspirations could, and in some cases do, work in practice.

The session had three speakers, the first of whom was Professor Andrew Cumbers of Glasgow University, a writer on the failure of neoliberal policies worldwide and the emergence of new forms of enterprises and services that ave been formed in opposition to them. He said Latin America had led the way, as a result of the struggle against privatised water and sanitation, in which novel “hybrid” water providers have been established, which combine state and co-operative ownership. It is a form de-centralised public sector, that does not have to depend on the massive public sector model left wing governments relied on in the 20th Century. This hybrid model has more recently spread to France and even some American cities. It also how green electricity is being implemented in parts of Europe, including much of Denmark and even the English city of Nottingham. Cumbers said that we, as a movement, need to grapple with widely-held criticisms of the old models of centralised public ownership, and point to working alternatives that aren’t just the market.

The second speaker was easily one of the most qualified people in England to discuss such matters. Councillor Matthew Brown was able to talk about what he and his colleagues in Labour-run Preston Council have done to significantly improve the local economy. Preston council has made radical changes by looking around the world at progressive municipalities and learning from them. One of the key examples for all this has been the Spanish Basque Country’s venerable co-operative Mondragon Corporation. Mondragon’s long-standing commitment to what it calls community wealth building has contributed to the regions living standards being around 30% better than the national average. This has led the council to become interested in two key concepts:

  • Anchor Institutions – the services, groups and business that hold the local economy together
  • Sticky Capital – the concept of getting wealth made in the area to get re-invested and spent in the area

Mondragon

Based on this thinking, the council has achieved the following:

  • Vastly expanded the living wage at local businessesGuild
  • Promoted co-operatives to fill gaps in the local economy
  • Expanded the membership of credit unions and introduced a local “guild money” scheme to encourage people to spend local
  • Begun a campaign to get people to “move their money local”, into smaller regional building societies which are more secure than the big banks
  • Set up a Social Forum to find out what people in Preston want to see done for the economy

The Preston Model is currently one Labour’s most exciting successes and something we should really be talking about everywhere.

The final speaker in the session was Jenny Rouse, who works for left wing think tank the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. She followed on from Councillor Brown’s presentation by talking about how the approaches Preston have used can and are be applied in other cities. She also revisited some of the themes that Andrew Cumbers had discussed, saying that all the traditional sectors of the economy have there own drawbacks (the private sector chases profit, the public sector is bureaucratic and the voluntary sector is governed by its funding) and that all three need to be moderated with a people-focused strategy.

This was only one of ten workshops throughout the day, and the content of the others will hopefully be available elsewhere. The second one I attended was on Technology and the Future of Work, which contained some very interesting discussion about automation, decentralisation and the rise of the self-employed as a large proportion of the working class, which was also very good. The conference ended on a very high note with a broad panel of speakers and a closing speech from Jeremy Corbyn. It has been a huge success and will, hopefully, be only the first of many such events as we work towards a Labour government.