It is time to turn Brexit into a triumph of democracy

Over one year on and with the exception of a now accepted transition period, there couldn’t really be less clarity in the public mind on what Brexit means. So do we leave it to the negotiators and the um, experts?

It is not just whether and how we exit the EU, but what comes next? If we want to be sovereign, and succeed, how do we want to use that freedom?

Somehow, democracy has to get a grip.

Alongside what happens in Parliament, to my mind, there are three vital ingredients for a truly democratic Brexit.

  1. The first is that we need a much better objective sense – and public literacy – of the facts, of what the issues and trade-offs are. This is not to curtail knock-about campaigning and tribal communications – this is a wedge issue after all and that is what wedges do, they divide. But we can’t only have that post-fact tribal rhetoric – that is demagoguery and not democracy.
  2. The second is that we need genuine deliberation – that characteristic of all great democracies that in exchanging views and sharing information, we change our views and come together around different options. John Dewey would describe democracy as starting in conversation. Well, we need an adult, respectful and informed conversation around Brexit.
  3. The third is that we need a decision-making process which can draw on these first two to make decisions with full democratic legitimacy on behalf of the people of the nations and regions of the UK. That may simply be the working through of our current representative system, or supplemented in ways that support that – whether through effective parliamentary scrutiny, new referenda or greater dialogue across political representatives at a devolved level.
But we need the first two in order to make a success of the third. If we leave it to MPs, what mandate really do they have? If we run a second referendum, is that because those who propose it simply see it as a backdoor to reverse the first one?
Luckily, we now have a start on the first two: information and deliberation.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit is taking place this month, with the second of two sessions coming up in Manchester next weekend.

A deliberative forum like this is a well established participatory tool. It brings people together who are broadly selected to be representative of the electorate of the United Kingdom. The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit allows members to engage in detailed, reflective and informed discussions about what the UK’s post-Brexit relations with the European Union should be.

By the end,  the goal is to agree on recommendations for what should happen next. 

The project is led by the Constitution Unit at UCL, supported by a range of partners including Involve, the democracy charity I am proud to be Chair of. It is also supported in principle by UK politicians across the Brexit spectrum. 

At the first session, all 51 assembly members turned up and stayed engaged throughout the full weekend. It makes me hopeful for Brexit and democracy that they also enjoyed it! Average scores out of six across the Assembly Members were:
  • The event overall: 5.2
  • The lead facilitators: 5.8
  • The table facilitators: 5.5

A balanced range of expert speakers gave an information input to the event: Angus Armstrong, David Paton, Thomas Sampson, and Shanker Singham spoke on trade policy. Catherine Barnard, David Coleman, and Jonathan Portes spoke on immigration. Anand Menon served as roving expert. Alan Renwick – Director of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, and the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit – gave his thoughts in a blog on the first stage of the event.

The briefing papers for the Citizens Assembly are the most comprehensive and unbiased source of information on the options for trade and immigration after leaving the EU that I know of.

This is the first step of the three above, and is essential for a working democracy, even more so in an age of fake news. One participatory pioneer, Perry Walker (a distringuished colleague from days at the New Economics Foundation), created a ‘democracy in a box’ game some time back, called Democs. He explained to me the vital need to separate out facts from opinions:

“The first part of the kit was ‘facts’ – what an academic would call a factoid – something that is generally accepted and ideally, in this case, would be signed off by Full Fact or a similar authority.

The second was explicitly opinionated. For example, one was by Jeremy Clarkson, in a Democs kit on Climate Change, saying that it didn’t really matter if we lost Holland to rising sea levels – there were other places to go on holiday. In a kit on the Scottish Referendum, we had two sets of opinion Cards, one pro and one anti-Independence, to make sure that each had the same exposure.”

To my mind, we would benefit from establishing a core set of facts around Brexit and its implications and options. These would be signed off by a relevant authority (perhaps the UCL Constitution Unit, perhaps the Office of National Statistics) and circulated widely in a concise, social marketing-led form through libraries, GP clinics, government offices and civil society. A programme like this would be part of building a wider public Brexit literacy helping in turn to ensure that whatever future we face going forward is one which people can feel responsibility for, rather than surprised by or embittered about.

The Assembly meets again this weekend to make decisions such as the best options around trade and immigration arrangements post Brexit.

This is hopeful stuff. So far, national politics and the media are not helping to shape dialogue or debate. Rather than widen the base of facts on which we can deliberate between trade-offs, as democracy aims to do, we are ruled by every variety of shallow promise in terms of having our cake and eating it.

It is time to turn Brexit into a triumph of democracy.



The livelihoods of one in ten people in work around the world are sustained by co-operatives

The scale and reach of the global co-operative sector is charted in a remarkable new report from the team at CICOPA, part of the International Co-operative Alliance. It is the second global assessment of co-operatives and employment, led by Hyung-sik Eum with input from Bruno Roelants, and can be situated as part of a wider emerging focus on improving co-operative data worldwide.

The headline is that the livelihoods of just under one in ten people in employment (9.46%) around the world are sustained by cooperatives.

In total, this is 279.4 million people in employment across the 156 countries for which data has been collected. The majority of these are what CICOPA classifies as producer members. These are people working as typically small-scale producers, for example in food and farming, clustered into co-operatives. 

The largest numbers are in Asia, with over 31 million producer members in India alone (served by many of the 610,000 co-operatives in the country). Alongside these are people directly employed by a co-operative or by enterprises grouped co-operatively. In the European Union, for example, over 1.5 million people work in worker co-operatives – worldwide, this is 11 million people.

As part of this work, CICOPA has updated the global statistics on the overall co-operative sector, last tracked by the United Nations statistical agency. Overall, there are an estimated 2.94 million co-operatives around the world (2,937,323). The number of memberships is 1.2 billion (1,217,457,660), providing positive substantiation for the previous estimates by the United Nations of around one billion members of co-operatives worldwide (recognising that a minority of memberships may be of people who are members of more than one co-operative).

Alongside this data, the team offers an analysis of changing trends in work and points to the role of co-operatives in advancing the ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goals around employment and decent work. Alongside continuing levels of unemployment, inequality and gender inequality worldwide, there are trends towards self employment and a reversal of employment patterns, back towards informal labour markets. The UK is one case study, drawing on our own Co-operatives UK report, Not Alone, on freelancer co-operatives.

The International Labour Organisation is running a debate on the future of work, with key themes feeding into its own 100 year centenary events in 2019. 

If it is about what works, then co-operatives should be on the agenda. 

What happens when you google ‘Google Monopoly’?

A warm welcome to the Open Markets Institute – the new home for the anti-monopoly team led by Barry Lynn at the New America Foundation.

It is quite a story.

The Open Markets team was forced out of the New America Foundation think tank on August 31. The story began nine weeks earlier, when they put out a statement welcoming a European antitrust action against Google for its abuse of monopoly power. 

Google complained to New America’s leadership. Two days later, the team was given notice.

The only good news was the media response. The coverage of Google flexing its muscles and their dismissal shone a light on the threats that monopoly power poses. 

Kenneth Vogel’s initial article ran on the front page of the August 31 New York Times. Thoughtful articles and editorials have been published since in 300 mainstream media outlets, including the Economist, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. 

The best tradition of open markets thinking, from Karl Popper onwards, has always favoured the equitable distribution of power. There is no such thing as an open market where monopolies set the terms of trade. 

So what happens when we all google ‘Google Monopoly’? 

The think tanks that retail ideas in today’s world may be subject to corporate pressure, but ideas themselves are free. They are free to resist.

Solidarity in the winds

We launched an appeal at the start of this week across the UK co-operative sector, in support of countries in the Caribbean and South Asia hit by storms and floods. I tell the story of the appeal in a blog here on Huffington Post.

It was an appeal prompted by one coastal co-operative, Southern Co-op, out of concern for others on coasts on distant shores.

Now the appeal has been taken worldwide by the International Co-operative Alliance. One of the first to respond, outside of the UK and USA (where there has been an ongoing appeal through credit unions after storms in Texas and Florida) is the Philippines. 

Sylvia Paraguya of the National Confederation of Cooperatives said “We received support during the Haiyan time and we cannot forget that. In our own ways, we would also like to express our solidarity.”

In 2013, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, with the loss of over six thousand lives. The co-operative sector, with over seven and a half million members, was hit hard at the time, but with support and resilience, played a vital role in the subsequent recovery, in line with their core purpose – to meet the needs of their members.

Steve Murrells is Chief Executive of the UK Co-op Group, which made a substantial gift of £50,000 to kickstart the worldwide appeal. 

As he commented to me yesterday, it all feels like a movement again.

What is the future of Europe? A co-operative contribution

The best way to move forward is to look ahead. That is the rationale for a consultation launched by the European Commission on the back of a recent White Paper on the Future of Europe.

17_WhitePaper logo

Co-operatives were involved at the start and at the heart of the European project. The Commission White Paper starts by saying that Europe was once the future, pointing to the inspiration of the Manifesto di Ventotene, co-written by Ernesto Rossi while he was held prisoner by fascist authorities in the Second World War.


Rossi was the founder and member of a co-operative, and its exchanges were core to his ideas.


So the Manifesto calls for a free and united Europe, as the Commission White Paper points out. But the Manifesto also goes far further by suggesting how that Europe should be organised – with “industrial reform which will extend workers’ ownership in non-nationalized sectors, through co-operative adventures, employee profit-sharing, and so on.” This Europe is still the future.


Co-ops are big business in Europe of today, with 141 million members and 4.7 million employees. But co-ops are not just business as usual. You will find in the co-operative sector enterprises that are utopian, in the best sense of ventures that challenge the status quo in search of new shores and new worlds.


It was European co-operative enterprises that were first to introduce an eight hour day in factories, the first to champion a minimum wage, the first to give business backing to the idea of national health and welfare services.


If we look at Europe today before looking forward, there are at least three challenges many would point to.


  1. The acute phase of the Eurozone crisis has passed, but the risks in terms of state and banking sector liabilities have not gone away and the legacy continues, with the ILO warning recently of worsening medium-term structural unemployment, even though short-term job numbers are on the rise.


  1. The enlargement of the European Union across Central and Eastern Europe is widely regarded as one of its greatest achievements. At the same time, it has changed the character of the union, including raising levels of intra-EU migration. At a public level, 47% of people say that enlargement has gone ‘too far’.


  1. Migration into Europe, coming out of the conflicts and political instability of the Middle East and North Africa, has also shaped public attitudes. Alongside acts of humanitarianism and openness have been fears and heightened concerns around security, not least with an illiberal drift in some countries of Central and Eastern Europe.


In its own way, each of these has an impact on the underlying values behind the idea of European unity.


Solidarity is a value that is set out as a core objective in the original Treaty of Rome, signed by the founding six countries. A quote from Robert Schuman adorns the Commission White Paper. In May 1950, he said that “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”


Solidarity still exists. There is majority support at a public level for example for the idea that richer member states should financially support poorer ones (50% agreement, with only 18% disagreement).


Yet solidarity in Europe is also being eroded. Income inequality has increased in two thirds of EU countries. The Eurozone crisis created a divisive framing of creditor versus debtor countries. And Brexit, lest we forget.


The challenges of the future, including climate risk, automation, skills are ones which will require co-operation to resolve, and solidarity to do so in ways that sustain the dream of European unity.


Like a fractal, the echo of patterns from large to small, co-operative and mutual enterprises – the social economy of Europe – have an insight on these great issues, because we know what sustains voluntary and open co-operation in practice.


Solidarity itself, for example, is one of the six ‘co-operative values’ set out for co-operatives working across Europe. We know that solidarity is fostered and sustained in exactly the way that Schuman describes – through practical action in the name of a common cause.


So, in the spirit of Ernesto Rossi, working through Co-operatives Europe, we are looking to explore the future of Europe through the hopes and dreams of our members.


We have a working group coming together and, to help their work and kick off the dialogue, here are five co-operatives across Europe that I have come across to kick-start our conversation. These are five that offer a radical economic alternative to a failing status quo:


  1. Democratic Technology
    Robin Hood Asset Management Co-operative out of Finland is a new form of financial investment and organizing. Robin Hood Co-op has been described as an “activist hedge fund”, but it is more than that. First, it is a co-operative, operating on the basis of one member, one vote. Second, it is both automated and decentralised, with assets placed in the stock exchange using an algorithm and tracked using blockchain technology. Thirdly, it is about reinvestment on the Robin Hood principle: part of the profit generated by the fund is invested into projects “building the commons.”


  1. Common resources
    The Cooperativa Integral Catalana in Spain has around 850 members that interact through a mutual credit network and a highly developed model of collective decision-making. One of the initiatives linked to this open co-operative is Faircoin, a complementary currency. One of the programmes of the co-operative is designed to move resources from private to common ownership.


  1. Socially useful money
    The Jord Arbete Kapital (“Land Labour Capital”) or JAK Bank in Sweden has been operating since 1965 on the basis of an entirely different model of banking, using interest free banking to serve its 35,000 members, particularly around housing and home improvements. JAK founders in Denmark inspired the development of the Swiss WiR (the ring) in 1934 that today operates as a co-operative bank providing interest-free finance though a mutual credit currency for about one in four small and medium businesses in Switzerland.


  1. Low carbon economy
    The German Sparkassen and Genossenschaftsbanken (co-operative banks), such as DZ Bank, with twelve thousand branches, are the leaders in using funds from the state development bank, Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW) for Germany’s carbon reduction programmes. KfW provides capital at 1% to DZ and other banks for on-lending. Since 2001 more than 2.5 million homes have been upgraded to high-energy savings standards.


  1. Integration
    Cooperativa Impresa Sociale Ruah is a social co-operative in Bergamo, Northern Italy. The co-op works with refugees, providing and working on housing, work, literacy, education, training and integration issues. In one year, according to the ILO, Italian social cooperatives like RUAH provided 18,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants with support and integration services, working out of 220 welcome centres.


To these five, many more could be added. Just remember, the only qualification to make, is that utopian ideas are about possibilities and not predictions for the future. The way to move forward is not just to look ahead, but to set steps, our direction, towards our chosen destination.


The reason why these co-operative possibilities are important is because as hard as alternatives may seem – whether tax reform, land reform, monetary reform or banking reform – the status quo is simply impossible.


In terms of climate change alone, the greenhouse gases that are forcing temperature rises stick around longer than we do. If we want to level off at no more than two degrees, then we have a choice.  We can grow the economy, or we can cut emissions and try and do so rapidly. It is increasingly clear that we can’t do both.


The big economic choices of our day are for an economy of prevention, a great transition to low carbon living within limits, or one of adaptation, a great disruption of coping, survival and loss.


We hide behind the idea that it might not happen; that resource efficiency means that we don’t have to choose; that the pace of technology development and innovation will save the day. But with resource efficiency, when people save money, they spend it elsewhere, typically redistributing rather than reducing carbon emissions. It is called the rebound effect. And technology? The futurist Ray Kurzweil reminds us that the pace of technology is accelerating far faster than we assume. We will see, he predicts, innovation over the next ninety years that are equivalent to the last ten thousand. But for now, though, when perhaps it matters most, the thrust of technology change underpins high carbon as much as low carbon economic activity.


The prevailing winds today are ones of intolerance, rather than of solidarity, ones of environmental hazard rather than of sustainability.


Imagination is the most powerful tool that we have for social change. By re-imagining the world around us, we can put it together again in a different way – first in our minds, then in our stories and ultimately in reality.


On September 13th, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will give his views in the annual State of the Union address.


Lets hope for some signs of co-operative imagination…