This article forms the introduction of In our Interests: Building an Economy for All, a collection of essays outlining a co-operative vision for the post Brexit economy. Read the full pamphlet

There has never been a greater need for a new economy or a more important moment to act to build one than right now.

A storm that has been gathering for decades is firmly upon us. More and more people feel that they are being left behind by changes in the economy, technology and climate, changes that are making them, their families and their communities worse off. And, at the same time, they feel these are changes that nobody asked them about and that they would never have wanted. For millions of people, the future looks harder than the past – less fair, less prosperous, less enjoyable – and their chance to make their own voices heard seem to shrink at the very same time. No wonder so many of them responded with such energy to the call for them to “take back control” in the UK’s referendum on its place in the European Union. 

Leaving the EU will likely be only a mirage to those lost in the desert of economic injustice. But, fortunately, there are more concrete and more real opportunities for change available to us right now. For in the midst of all the upheaval of the last for years, a surge of constructive energy is being generated across Britain that can crack open new possibilities for change. And can do so now, not at some vague, distant point in the future. 

It is those opportunities which this extraordinarily timely pamphlet sets out. From reforms to our financial systems to better ways of grappling with new technologies, from a programme to return fairness to taxation to new ideas for placing the consumer at the heart of real economic decision-making, this pamphlet outlines a new agenda for the British economy.

But there is far more to this agenda than simply a series of individual ideas that offer the prospect of improving distinct issues within our economic life – although it does offer that. 

Instead, the values that have always been at the heart of the co-operative movement, from its inception in the nineteenth century through the battles of the twentieth to our own time, are clearly present in the ideas that are set out here. The pamphlet thus reminds us of a distinctive way to bring about change as well the direction in which we should head. 

We can see that most clearly when we realise that three fundamental insights that have always been at the heart of co-operation are also at the heart of the essays presented here. 

The first of these insights is that the ideas that drive economic change to the benefit of working people, communities and our environment, very rarely emerge from the benign reflections of government, of whichever party. Ideas for change do not begin from plotting in the corridors of power or from the rarefied air of the seminar room. Rather, ideas for real change begins from observations of people’s everyday lives. Real knowledge, profound knowledge, is thus rooted outside the traditional boundaries of politics and academia. It resides in everyday experience – be it what workers know about the shop floor, consumers know about the behaviour of large corporations, small business owners know about the operations of our banks, or families know about the strains placed on them and their communities by economic decision-making that is driven by short-term profit and nothing else. All of these essays bear witness to this fundamental reality.

The second of these insights is that just as the ideas for change will not emerge only from traditional centres of power, so too the energy to drive that change forward will also come from beyond the mainstream. To develop the proposals outlined in this pamphlet will, of course, sometimes require legislative change from Parliament, but to truly presage an economy that works in our interests, it will require much more as well. For the proposals here to succeed, working people and others to forge new partnerships with institutions ranging from devolved government and city mayors, business and trade unions, communities, campaigns and movements. Indeed, without the energy that comes from these sources, they will be still born, nothing more than ideas on paper without the prospect of entering the bloodstream of our national economy. 

These first two insights can take us, of course, from the national to the local, from the grand and the abstract to the grounded and the particular. They make the ideas here very real.

The third insight, however, is that we should not take this tendency for an absence of ambition. At times like these, we need to dream big. We need to be able to imagine an economy that works wholly differently to the one we inhabit now, one that values a different ethos and that shapes different patterns of reward and behaviour than we have grown used to for centuries now. The changes we make today have to offer the possibility of changing the entire system tomorrow.

For some, this third insight may seem strictly at odds with the first two, or may at the very least seem paradoxical. How can an economic plan be at the same time realistic and imaginative, grounded in experience and open to entirely new horizons? Surely we have to choose one or the other? Either temper our ambition in the interests of getting things done or open ourselves up to flights of fancy that enable us to imagine different worlds? 

In fact, however, the co-operative movement has always been about being both realistic and imaginative, concrete and utopian. The co-operative movement has always been located right at the heart of people’s lives, cleaving tight to the places in which they live. But at the same time, its ambitions have never been small. As the great early co-operator George Holyoake described its ambitions, the goal of co-operation is to secure an economy in which: 

Knowledge is greater; Life is longer; Health is surer; Disease is limited; Towns are sweeter; Hours of labour are shorter; Men are stronger; Women are fairer; Children are happier; Industry is held in more honour, and is better rewarded; Co-operation carries wholesome food and increased income into a million homes where they were unknown before, and has brought us nearer and nearer to that state of society which [Robert] Owen strove to create—in which it shall be impossible for men to be depraved or poor.”

We may have long since abandoned some of those commitments, of course, but most endure. And it is striking that Holyoake himself was aware of the need to think both immediate – with wholesome food and increase income – and to think big. 

Taken together, these three values outline the essence of a crucial theory of change, a theory that has driven co-operators for many decades and that offers a real chance for a future. 

Set out more schematically that theory looks like this: 

  • Change begins when people recognise the spiralling chaos and insecurity that is part of the daily life of an unreformed capitalism and begin to see that such chaos is caused by concentrations of power and ownership – whether old or new – operating increasingly beyond their control.
  • Change then gains traction when people are able to seize opportunities to take control over what matters most to them through a vast array of institutions, from their churches and mosques to their trade unions to local authorities and devolved assemblies, and not merely wait for it to be done to or for them by national government.
  • Change can then begin really to succeed when people take control over their own future in everyone’s interests, improving the place in which they live and shaping even the most powerful institutions, setting in train a new logic, from which the smallest initial intervention can play a part in the transformation of the economic order as a whole.

This is a theory of change that Robert Owen, George Holyoake and all of the great co-operators of the past would have easily recognised. Formed into a motto, it might read like this: if we really take control today, we can change the whole system tomorrow.