Friday, 29 November 2013

Public Common Ownership or Cooperative Collective Ownership?

Consider the basic definition of socialism and/or communism - common ownership of the means of production. What does it mean? What are the practical steps towards achieving this? What are the best forms of common ownership and are there alternatives worth considering? This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately and thought I'd do a blog post on the topic so here we go.

It's obvious to me that we could do with an alternative to the normal methods of private ownership. Private ownership is entirely run for profit, and in almost all cases the majority of the profit goes into the hands of the directors and shareholders rather than the ordinary workers who actually make the private companies their money. Of course the idea is supposed to be that people will not pay for services unless they are useful and good value for money, and any business that does not fulfil those 2 requirements will go out of business. Once upon a time this may have been the case, but no more. As time has gone on private companies have done as much as they can to spend as little as possible and done as much as possible to earn as much money as possible. In the name of competition, as time has gone on there have been less and less companies and more and more monopolies, where there are many industries controlled almost entirely a small handful of massive companies. This has lead to worse rights and pay for workers because when a multi-national company kills off small businesses and then builds a warehouse in your home town employing a thousand people, what alternative do people have for work other than work for other similar companies? It has also resulted in companies doing what's bad for the environment because that is usually the cheapest option. At the extreme end of private ownership just look at the American healthcare system. Instead of their healthcare system being run to help improve people's health and to heal the sick and injured, it is run entirely for profit. This has lead to thousands of people dying from not being able to afford the healthcare they need. Big private companies don't care about you, they don't care about the environment, they don't care about people in the third world who they are keeping in poverty, they only care about profit.

Common ownership is where everyone owns and has some form of democratic control over something. In practice this means public ownership, although under different systems it could be run differently. Collective ownership is similar but instead of you owning something by default, you opt in to owning it. One of the main forms of collective ownership, and the main one I support is cooperatives. In society today most business is exactly that, business and solely for profit, and for the profits of the big bosses, managers, directors and shareholders. Business structured either under public ownership or cooperative ownership are run for the interests of either the public or the members of the cooperative and therefore seek the interests of the many and not the few. But why do we need both?

Firstly take a look at public ownership. At the moment everything in public ownership is run by either the national government or by local councils or regional/national parliaments or assemblies. These are all themselves run by politicians from political parties elected by the general public. The current democratic system is deeply unfair where politicians are not directly accountable to the people who elected them and the party system is undemocratic with it being run by the parties who have lots of money and can win under first past the post. In an ideal situation this wouldn't be the case and we can change this. I believe in my lifetime we will at least see a change from first past the post to some form of proportional representation and I also believe there will be better legislation to make politicians a little more accountable to the people who elected them. In the mean time we can scare politicians into giving us a little of what we want by threatening to vote for other candidates at the next election, or better yet electing better politicians who will give the people what they voted for. In my ideal situation at least local councils would be run under pure democracy as opposed to the current elected representative democracy so that all citizens living in the council boundaries get the chance to be involved in decision making. It's this decision making which is key to the whole thing. With everyone being able to have some say in the decision making we can get down to services and society as a whole being run for the interests of the people. Take the NHS for example, the aim isn't to make a profit, the aim of the NHS is to treat unwell, sick and injured people. The aim of the fire brigade isn't to make a profit, it is to put out fires and potentially save people's lives and limit any damage caused by any fires. These are actually services which are of use to people and are run to be of use to people.

Now cooperatives. There are many different types of cooperatives; housing coops, workers coops, consumer coops, credit unions/cooperative banks, etc. Like publicly owned services, coops are run democratically and for the interests of their members. Some cooperatives are for profit, but instead of the profit mostly going into the hands of a small number of people it gets shared equally between members unless the members agree otherwise. There are certainly some grey areas for me when it comes to cooperatives, largely being that I am not sure if in my ideal society having workers cooperatives provide services that the service users do not have any democratic control whatsoever. On the other hand, should service users have the same control over the services as the workers? Let's use shops as an example to demonstrate this. Should we support shops being run as a workers coop or as consumer coop like the Co-operative Group is. The Co-operative Group is run by it's members (under a elected representative system) which can include it's workers, but the majority of it's members are it's customers. I am a member of the Co-operative Group and I shop at the Co-op probably about once a fortnight yet I have as much right to stand for election to the bodies which influence decision making as people working full time at the Co-op or people who shop there every single day. We can talk about cooperatives fitting into a market based economy or a society without money or a market as we understand it but that's another discussion for another time, let's assume for now that coops can fit into both scenarios .

How do they both fit in together? It's clear to me that there are some industries that people shouldn't have choice but are currently privatised and therefore people are given choice. Take gas and electricity for example. It doesn't matter who supplies your gas and electricity, at the day of the day you get the same product and use it the same way. Getting gas from a different company doesn't change how you use the gas, just how much you pay for the gas. Yet, the amount of money and resources wasted on advertising and competing between other companies for your custom is ridiculous and that is a cost that could be saved for the consumer. The same can be said for public transport, nationalise it and you save a lot of running costs and still supply the same service and people don't need to choose between 2 different services to get a bus or train from the same A to the same B. I believe that services where it doesn't matter who supplies the service should be publicly owned. You shouldn't have the choice of several different fire brigade companies, or different libraries on the same high street. However, there are some things I think you should have choice in. Take bread for example. People have different tastes in bread and different companies supply different types and flavours of bread. Same goes for all food, drink, clothes, entertainment, restaurants, pubs, clubs, hairdressers, etc. Those services should be run as cooperatives, with membership open to either just the workers or perhaps the workers and the service users. Having those services run by either the local council or the national government would take away people's freedom to choose from their own preferences. This way you get a society run for the people and by the people (or the 99% if you prefer) rather than just for the profit of the few.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Why I am not leaving the Green Party.

Over the last couple of years, quite a few decent activists have left the Green Party for various reasons. Some have gotten a bit fed up that the Greens aren't achieving a lot and therefore have decided to join Labour. Many have had enough of what's been happening on Brighton & Hove Council where the Greens have administered cuts and caused a strike of bin workers over reducing pay for male bin workers. While these things are true, I am not going to leave the Green Party. I still believe the Greens are just about the most radical party in at least England. The Greens are achieving things and making changes throughout the country. With over 130 councillors, 2 London Assembly Members, 2 MEPs, an MP and a life peer in the House of Lords the Greens are achieving things that no other left-wing party could possibly be achieving at the moment.  The alternative at the moment is not worth considering.

First of all, let us consider one obvious alternative - revolutionary politics. Having a revolution to overthrow capitalism and to replace it with some form of socialism is a very very good idea. Until this happens we will still have some form of capitalism, and I hope I don't need to explain the evils of capitalism here. I do want a revolution to happen. However, before we have a revolution we need to have the vast majority of the population willing to participate in the revolution and before that happens, things in society need to get a lot worse. Near enough every revolution that has ever happened as a response to tyranny. No revolution has happened purely because of a campaign to build for a revolution. There will be a time for revolutionary action but it is not now. And while there are plenty of good positive changes that can be made outside of electoralism (that the Greens should support), in the mean time, I see electoral politics as one of the best ways to create wider change.

Another alternative, join another left-wing electoral group. I'm opposed to this for 2 basic reasons. Firstly, other than the Greens I have yet to discover another left-wing electoral group that takes issues outside of socialism seriously. Issues such as environmentalism and animal rights are just as important as worker's rights and human rights. The Green Party's policy document, Policies for a Sustainable Society is several hundred pages long and covers many different topics. You can read it here: . Secondly, the Greens have spent the last few decades building up their name and becoming more and more electable while no other left-wing electoral group has prioritised becoming electable and winning elections for anywhere near this long. I did have hope for Respect at one or two points, but they seem to have blown it and are dwindling. There are many unelectable left-wing parties and alliances that keep on changing, in-fighting and splitting the left-wing vote. The left does not need this.

For those unhappy with the progress of the Greens, wanting to be part of creating change quicker than the Greens are delivering is tempting at times. That's why some people are joining the Labour Party instead of the Greens. Part of the thinking behind this is that they offer a better and more effective opposition to the Tory-led coalition government. While it is true that Labour are the party most likely to defeat the Tories at the next general election, if you think this is any alternative whatsoever you are kidding yourself. Ed Milliband and Ed Balls have both said that they won't reverse any of the cuts or welfare reforms that the coalition government have put into place. Even before the 2010 general election Labour were saying they want to perform similar amount of public sector cuts, just over a longer period of time. The theory behind this is that cutting too quickly will do too much damage. But would delaying sacking public sector workers by one year really have made that much difference in the long run? They would have still been made unemployed and less jobs would have been made available. Sorry Labour but you are just Tories in disguise. The Greens are the largest party opposed to all public sector cuts.

This brings my onto my next point, Brighton & Hove Council. Many people have left the Green Party because of what our councillors have been doing on Brighton & Hove Council, the only council in the country where the Greens are the largest party (although we do not have a majority of councillors). The Greens have made some unpopular choices in Brighton such as passing on government cuts to the council, raising car parking fees to around the region of £15 a day and tackled a gender pay gap of bin workers by lowering the pay of male bin workers rather than raise the pay of female workers. I don't know if I could remain a local member of Brighton & Hove Green Party if I lived there, but I don't and therefore I don't see the impact they're having. The vast majority of voters across the country don't even know we are the party administering Brighton & Hove City Council, and in fact I have found when going out canvassing that a lot of people haven't even heard of Caroline Lucas MP. I'm not excusing what the Greens have done on Brighton & Hove Council, I would have much rather they refuse to implement a budget with cuts and therefore left the Tories and Labour to have passed a cuts budget while instead leading an anti-cuts campaign across the city. While that is what I would have preferred to have happened the truth of the matter is that no matter what happened there would have been cuts to the budget of Brighton & Hove City Council. If the Greens had not passed cuts, either Tories and/or Labour would have passed a cuts budget or Eric Pickles' department would have forced a cuts budget upon Brighton & Hove. And let's not forget, the Greens don't even have the majority of seats on the council so can be outvoted at any point. Outside of Brighton however I notice that Green councillors are making good positive changes throughout the country. My local party used to be North Lancashire Green Party, which includes Lancaster who have had at one point 14 seats (2 county council seats and 12 city council seats) and attending their meetings was a delight as it was full of reports about what councillors had achieved, from parking permits to stopping a Tesco from being built, from the canal side being tidied up to delaying the closure of the indoor market. What I think I am most proud of those Lancaster councillors is they have told me that when they first started winning seats back in 1999 the party with the majority of seats on the council would propose and pass motions without anyone questioning them or debating things (possibly even from within their own party before being proposed), and thanks to the Greens putting forward amendments to motions and always questioning things, council meetings are now full of debate. This is a good thing for democracy.

Yes, despite what's happening in Brighton the Greens are achieving lots of great things throughout the country. Even just small things achieved by a single lone Green councillor such as getting trees cut back so that road signs can be read or getting a grit bin installed or helping a resident order a new recycling bin. While these small things are not going to change the world, where we have greater power we have achieved greater things. In Kirkless for example our councillors have managed to get free insulation for hundreds and hundreds of social houses that has saved people money on their heating bills which has gone directly into the local economy. In London all buses will be running on hybrid engines soon because of our Green Assembly Members. Lancaster City Council is now a living wage employer because of Green Party councillors. The list goes on. The mainstream parties are not pushing for these changes throughout the country and the smaller left-wing parties are not anywhere near to achieving this amount of change as they hardly have anyone elected at all. Sticking with the Greens is helping to get people elected who will be making good left-leaning changes throughout society.

What about the future? Will the Greens drift further and further to the right as they gain more seats or as more members of the mainstream parties start to join us? After attending Young Greens convention last month I can assure you the future of our party is radical. The Young Greens (for all members under 30 years old and student members) are full of radical ecosocialists who continue to push for radical policies and campaigning. Ideas such as getting young adults involved in trade unionism, citizens income, cutting the pay ratio in any company down to 10:1, the living wage and smashing patriarchy were all discussed and gained wide support. I often see environmentalists join the party for environmental reasons, and a couple of years down the line they realise they need to oppose capitalism in order to protect the environment. There was a lot of talk about putting serious resources into getting some of these radical Young Greens elected as councillors. The majority of people on the London Federations of Green Parties' committee are now Young Greens and left-leaning influence is growing all the time. I can't wait for the future of the party to begin.

So I would urge those who agree with our principles and policies to join the party and stay in the party. Tactics, strategy and direction can be debated and changed by the members of the party, so if you don't agree with a few things that have been happening you can influence changes in the Green Party. We're a bottom up rather than top down party, and I'm proud of that.