We need to democratise Wales – starting with the workplace

Picture by Eneas De Troya (CC BY 2.0)

Cyffin Thomas

We, in Wales, have a proud history of fighting for democratic values and progressive ideals.

Chartism, founded in Carmarthen, was a working-class movement that fought for greater democracy across the whole of Britain in the 19th century.

The Welsh working-class and middle-classes rose up to demand a society where all men had the vote. Women were excluded, but it was a start.

Chartists also fought for secret ballots, and the payment of MPs, therefore allowing those without wealth to stand.

Chartism was a spark behind the battle for democracy in Wales – it is time for us to relight the struggle for true democracy.

Democracy means more than merely casting a vote every few years. Democracy is a system where the people control the country.

While we may be able to influence the country, we the people do not control the country; democracy needs extending in Wales.

We spend, on average, nearly 40 hours a week at work. Considering how much time we spend working, it’s shocking that the workers of today have a minimal say in their work.

Why is this? It is because our workplaces follow the same template as the undemocratic workplaces of the Industrial Revolution.

Democracy must be extended to our economy and workplaces. The way we do that is by supporting the creation of more co-operatives.

Co-operatives are businesses owned and run by their workers and members, who share the profits and benefits.

This means that decisions are not taken by a single boss, but by all of the workers of that business.

A democratic way of working makes the lives of workers, customers and the community as a whole better. Workers build up, not exploit, their friends and neighbours.

Not only is the co-operative a fairer and more democratic system of organising a business, it’s a better business as co-operatives are more likely to provide the service people need, as local workers control the business, making them more profitable.

Co-operatives are active in every economic sector and together are worth £2.7 billion and provide 40,800 jobs to the Welsh economy.

Studies of co-operatives show they have many benefits, such as a smaller pay gap, workers retaining more of the businesses’ profits and that they last as long as other businesses – while giving more stable employment.

However, co-operatives are very much the minority compared to traditional enterprises in Wales. To understand what we can do to help grow existing co-operatives and start new ones, we must understand what holds them back.

Bank

One of the most obvious issues, and simplest to solve, is that many people and workers have no idea what a co-operative model is. A co-operative education campaign is already underway by the Welsh Government. Informing people is the first step to achieving change.

When I interviewed the Welsh First Minister, Labour’s Carwyn Jones, he said that it’s not a lack of “capital, it’s advice” that holds co-operatives back.

But, to be blunt, this is a cop-out.

The lack of capital, wealth in the form of assets or money, is the biggest stumbling block for most co-operatives.

This is because banks often do not lend favourably to co-operatives, despite them being more stable.

To counter this, we must create a Welsh National Investment Bank that invests in infrastructure, communities and co-operatives.

To be fair to the Labour Party, their manifesto had a bold pledge for co-operatives. It offered a “right to own”, giving employees first refusal to buy the company they work for, when it’s up for sale or being closed.

It may be worth considering whether the government could play a further role by subsidising the purchase of workplaces by its’ workers.

In a previous article, I discussed Rojava. In a region of Rojava they do not tax income derived from co-operatives.

We need to look at innovative taxation to help people control their work and control their future. Wales could take some inspiration from the Rojavan system or by adapting corporation tax for co-operatives.

The Welsh Chartists of the 19th century fought for a democratic Wales.

Let’s reignite the democratic flame and take the next step. To democratise Wales, we must democratise the workplace.

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