Have we got common ownership right?

I know it goes against the commonly held mantra of how we build the commonweal but do we need to reconsider when and where common ownership of the capital is appropriate, particularly for worker co-operatives?

Common ownership allows for the growth of strong organisations which will outlive the founder members, whilst allowing them and other members to get their investment back at some point. For our predominantly retail consumer societies this makes good sense.

However, worker co-ops and consortium co-ops are different, so maybe we should promote the co-ownership model more, where all the capital is collectively held by the members. This loss of capital funds to the commonweal could be balanced by a commitment to a model that shares some of the profits instead. This sharing of profit rather than capital accumulation amounts to a system of common ownership of revenue, rather than capital. Thus the commonwealth funds are available to the movement now, not at some point in the future when the co-op sells up or liquidates. If all co-ops donate at least 5% of profits to a development initiative plus a further 5% to a common loan fund, we would quickly amass some real, commonly held capital to support the movement’s development.

This methodology is different to what we have now. It produces cash, in your hand, and it will build rapidly. A central, collectively managed, mutual fund (or funds) needs to be established. These can be specific to certain parts of the movement or more general, and they need to all work together in a federal way.

It’s no good waiting for Godot

Co-ops are self-help organisations and cannot expect to be funded from the general population or by the Government. A total take of 10% of profits to the movement is the same proportion as the church once took as a tithe, and fits with the strong Methodist and Catholic social policy influences in the movement.

If the Rochdale Pioneers had waited for a Government grant before starting, we’d have no Co-operative Group today. We need to capture our own money in a relatively painless way, as they did, and use it to support the movement. We can do this by sharing a part of our profits once we make them, and we need to do it now.

Alex Bird


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