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We need to democratise Wales – starting with the workplace

31 Oct 2017 4 minute read
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.


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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The Bellwether
The Bellwether
5 years ago

I agree wholeheartedly with the author and this article. Da iawn. But…(there is always a but!) having founded a co-op in the past and also been a member of various small co-ops over the years it must be warned that the main obstacle to a successful co-op is not them but us. Just as in our politics we Welsh love to fight amongst ourselves leading to diametrically opposed groups even within a tiny village. Everyone has an opinion and nobody actually does anything. Personally, I like the idea of bringing back specialist ‘guilds’. Honourable League of Bullshitters anyone!?

leigh richards
5 years ago

“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” – Amen to that Cyffin.

Capitalist and Welshnash
Capitalist and Welshnash
5 years ago

This person forgets that we are not all the same. Some people are more ambitious than others, some people are simply not good decision makers. Our evolution made us a competitive species, and that has made so many things about us better, from competing for love, status, positions, it’s good. Nothing wrong with founding a co-operative, but the nuance of this article suggests companies are inherently bad because of a lack of democracy. A democratic ethos is good in its proper place, our legsl system and tr balot box and descrimination issues, but while we all have and should have… Read more »

5 years ago

As an evolutionary biologist…….Intelligence in adults is mainly due to environmental upbringing – the genetic influence is only really seen in the first 5 years of a childs life at any significant level – this influence declines with age

Simply stating “It is a simple fact of evolution. ” – can appear to be a very dodgy statement when you dont back it up with any hard research

It really isnt “simple” and these myths are harming society – we are not exactly like many animal species in societal structure or ability to have certain hierarchies…..we are very complex

Eos Pengwern
5 years ago

About this time last year I read “William Hazell’s Gleaming Vision” by Alun Burge, a fascinating account of the co-operative movement in early 20th Century Wales. I’d warmly recommend it to anyone with an interest in this area, but it does make it clear that the cooperative model in itself is no panacea. Like any other business model, sometimes it works extremely well (the John Lewis Partnership – itself having Welsh roots – being a good example) and sometimes not so well (the Co-op Bank is probably the best counter-example). My view is that what Wales needs is more new… Read more »

5 years ago

However this is exactly the type of article we need to see more in the world! People actually empowered in the companies they work for! *****One big note of caution to Cyffin Thomas***** In principle all workers get to work on all issues in the company, which can work ok in smaller ones – however in larger companies with specialised divisions this can lead to bad decision making as people with no expertise can vote on issues that experts in specific fields know much better about (a receptionist telling engineer how to make something is not going to help) To… Read more »

5 years ago
Reply to  Edeyrn

In principle all workers get to VOTE on all issues in the company (sorry typo with ‘work’)

5 years ago

This article reminds me of a book I read a number of years ago. It was titled Beyond Command and Control (or something like that). It examined different types of organisation focussing on alternatives to the ‘top-down’ style we are familiar with here in the UK (both in business and politics). It looked at how organisations could work from the bottom up – where those most knowledgeable about the effectiveness and problems (those on the coal face) had the ability to make changes. The effect was a much more efficient business and a happier workforce. Japanese car manufacturer Toyota and… Read more »

5 years ago
Reply to  glasiad

You are dead right – I read it too, but have little recall of title etc and indeed most of the impact of the content was worn away by years of continued exposure to loads of little Hitlers, power crazy tripping on their “ability” to boss others around but offering very little in terms of real problem solving capability or real leadership capacity. That said I remain somewhat unsure of the capacity of people to take more responsibility for their own efforts, an inner confidence to reappraise the way they do things and willingly conclude that real change is necessary.… Read more »

Tame Frontiersman
Tame Frontiersman
5 years ago

Politicians are often more supportive of co-operatives in principle than in practice. More active support is needed for business models that anchor capital and retain profit in Wales, without stifling innovation and investment and businesses that provide meaningful, fulfilling work and decent wages.

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