Power to the people?

Collective Power reportAt the time of writing, there is no sign of the Co-operative Party’s new manifesto appearing on its website. However, its pamphlet on local energy cooperatives, Collective Power, has now been put online. So this provides some opportunity to see what “co-operative politics” look like in concrete, practical terms.

This proposal is for local residents and businesses to band together in energy purchasing cooperatives so that they can:

  • cut their energy bills by purchasing gas and electricity from the wholesale market rather than retail energy companies (the report suggests that savings of between 10% and 20% could be achieved; and
  • share the costs of implementing community-based energy efficiency methods and microgeneration systems.

It’s a fascinating idea, which the report looks at in some detail (including a number of case studies). I’d be interested to know what others think, especially since I can’t pretend to have the expertise to assess how workable it would be in practice.

(Incidentally, I do think the authors could have left out some of their more partisan digs at the Conservatives, though some of the criticisms seem well-placed: for example, the contradiction between David Cameron’s invocation of “green” causes and Conservative councils’ 80% rejection rate for wind-generation proposals.)

What I find appealing about the idea in general, though, is the cooperative model around which it’s based: a decentralised, voluntary system based on a “practical expression of self-help” among local communities. The conclusion to the document (p.29) states:

Overall, it is necessary for the Government to take a lead in making this happen, acting as a supporter, cheerleader and facilitator. While Governments cannot create social movements; through help and encouragement they can allow them to thrive.

The ‘Collective Power’ model provides a blueprint for how this can be done – building a broad based social movement by combining an appeal to self- interest with a commitment to combating climate change.

This points to a role for government that is neither coercive nor laissez-faire: one in which a desirable end is identified, and then the question is not “How do we make people do this”, but “How do we enable people to do this? What obstacles, what hidden advantages in favour of the status quo, need to be removed in order for this to happen?”

Co-operative politics may turn out to be a dead end – I’m not rushing into anything here – but I like what I’m seeing initially.


5 thoughts on “Power to the people?”

  1. Of course, the status quo might have the hidden advantage that it simply works better! I think energy co-operatives are worth experimenting with (I’m not going to say they will or will not work), but we return to the point about wanting a level playing field. So as a think-tank piece arguing that there is another way, it’s quite good; as a piece of policy, it reads as a plea for government money to be bunged the way of a special interest scheme.

    The politics of it amuses me. I liked the line “As 21st century individuals, we are not used to the idea of solving our economic problems through collective action.” You might almost think the Labour party hadn’t formed the government for the duration of the 21st century thus far! I know that social structures have been under assault for longer than that, but the authors seem too willing to lambast the Tories for Thatcherism without criticising Labour for its more recent errors.

    As for “the contradiction between David Cameron’s invocation of “green” causes and Conservative councils’ 80% rejection rate for wind-generation proposals,” how does that square with a belief in decentralisation and localism?

  2. Yes, it does slightly elide the issue of Labour’s record in office. Like I said, that partisanship is a weakness in the report.

    But to return to a more fundamental issue: I’m not convinced a “level playing-field” is what governments should be aiming for. Only this morning I was reading Psalm 72: “May he defend the cause of the poor and needy, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” – one of a large number of texts that call on the king to actively promote the interests of the poor. (Yes, there are also texts calling on the ruling authorities not to tip too far in the opposite direction, unjustly favouring the poor against the rich, but those are a minority – reflecting where the balance of risk tends to lie in practice.)

    At the risk of going OT – but hey, it’s my blog 😉 – I was acutely reminded yesterday evening of the advantages that money and what you might loosely call “access to social resources” can bring, in a discussion with my wife about how many of Thomas’ classmates’ parents are already looking into private tuition to coach them for entrance exams in the local state selective schools. Year’s waiting list for a “good” tutor”, £100+ a month in tuition fees, that sort of thing.

    What dismayed us is the way in which the education system (and “parental choice” within it) is driven by a combination of fear and middle-class advantage. Now, we can get into that discussion another time, but my point was to provide a concrete illustration of how the “level playing field” is a myth in education as in much else.

    Now government is a highly imperfect way of redressing that balance (Psalm 146:3), but attempting to do so is still a central part of what government is about (Proverbs 31:8,9) – not simply providing a “level playing-field” between the Manchester United of the middle classes and the Gillingham Town of the poor.

  3. Hey, I was *singing* Psalm 72 this morning if we’re playing that game. 😉 It’s the new C&C version, to the tune of “We are marching in the light of God,” would you believe.

    Anyway. I have enough doubt in my own abilities to recognise that I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone knows, whether a co-operative would be good or bad or indifferent, especially for the poor. So favouring co-ops is just that: favouring co-ops. It’s not, of necessity, favouring the poor. In fact, I’d wager that the main movers and shakers in these things are the liberal middle classes. That’s why I want a level playing field, because I don’t see how that you can make the necessary logical move from a co-operative energy purchasing scheme to benefits accruing to the poor.

  4. “This points to a role for government that is neither coercive nor laissez-faire: one in which a desirable end is identified, and then the question is not “How do we make people do this”, but “How do we enable people to do this?”

    Compared to other things government does, it may not be coercive. But in an absolute sense, it is coercive, as even if the government functionaries act merely as cheerleaders, taxpayers must fund their cheers. And some may wish other things were cheered for instead.

  5. Rick: well, that’s one reason we have elections. And yes, in the sense that everything governments do is funded by taxes, and (with very few exceptions) taxes are not voluntary, everything governments do (right down to buying the teabags for the office) is “coercive”.

    In Britain, especially since the war, there’s been a tendency to think the only models available are (a) private enterprise, and (b) government control (e.g. of nationalised industries). What I find interesting about the co-operative movement is its attempt to promote another way (can’t bring myself to say “third way”!) which rejects the traditional Labour model of nationalisation and state control without simply leaving everyone and everything to the mercy of capitalist enterprise (which in practice brings its own forms of coercion) – which is what I meant by its not being “coercive”, even if on libertarian principles there are elements of government involvement and hence “coercion”.

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