Are we all cooperative now? The battle over employee ownership

Sunday 31 October, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Lecture Theatre 2

The ‘John Lewis model’ is in fashion, although instead of catwalks, this time it’s boardrooms being taken by storm. Businessmen and policymakers alike are examining the employee ownership model, most famously practised by the John Lewis partnership, as something to aspire towards. ‘Red Tory’ Phillip Blond, who apparently has the ear of Prime Minister David Cameron, has outlined his vision of an ‘ownership state’, where local communities are empowered by having a stake in the provision of public services: ‘the state of ownership, and the ownership of the state, would be extended to the masses’. Also getting in on the act, Lambeth Council has announced plans to rebrand itself as ‘the first John Lewis council’ where, among other things, tax rebates will be offered to residents in exchange for their help running services. In the private sector too, directors are looking favourably upon the co-operative model as a way of motivating staff by giving them a ‘vested interest’ in the development of the company. 

Few would disagree that many employees have valuable knowledge they could bring to an organisation. But how much power should they actually have to make real changes within an organisation? Will organisations actually become democratic, or is this simply a way of managers shunting responsibility onto their staff? Is the employee ownership model always more successful? What are the new challenges that employers, staff and now the public will face with this structure?

Is this trend towards employee ownership and the ownership state ideologically aligned with the long history of the cooperative movement, or more of a passing fad? Indeed, is this something that staff and the public are actually demanding, or simply a top-down initiative? Could this, as some have argued, be little more than a cynical ploy to celebrate front-line staff and community spirit, and distract from imminent cuts? Will the increased responsibility placed on already hard-working staff be adequately rewarded? And should we welcome the passing of the old era of ‘us and them’ dividing lines between managers and employees in favour of a new consensus that we’re all co-operative now?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Will Davies
research fellow, Institute for Science Innovation & Society, University of Oxford; associate, Demos; author Reinventing the Firm

Dr David Erdal
non-executive director, Baxi Partnership; author, Beyond the Corporation: humanity working

Rob Killick
CEO, Clerkswell; author, The UK After The Recession

Patrick Hayes
director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)

Produced by
Patrick Hayes director, British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA)
Recommended readings
Now try the John Lewis way

The department store chain’s distinctive style of employee ownership is now becoming a model for other firms

Carly Chynoweth, The Times, 19 April 2010

All together now

Conservatives and co-operatives

Economist, 20 February 2010

The risks and benefits of employee ownership

The news that the Conservative Party intend to facilitate greater employee ownership in public services is one of the boldest policy announcements of David Cameron’s leadership.

William Davies, Prospect, 16 February 2010

Another good reason to love John Lewis

Things seem to go better for businesses when workers have a stake in success

Tracy Corrigan, Daily Telegraph, 11 February 2010

Oxford University centre to run Commission on Ownership

The economic crisis has led to a widespread mistrust of institutions and one of the Commission’s main tasks will be to look at what lessons can be learned and to examine the importance of a diversity of corporate forms to the British economy.

University of Oxford, 16 December 2009

Ownership Matters

EOA Manifesto 2010

Employee Ownership Association, December 2009

The Ownership State

Read the report that started the mutualism debate

Phillip Blond, ResPublica, October 2009

Reinventing the Firm

We have a once in a lifetime chance to renew our idea of what a company is for

Will Davies, Demos, 2009

Employee ownership could tame

Coming out on the anniversary of Lehman Brothers' collapse, the report says more diverse ownership structures could help counter another crisis, driven by the 'speculative excesses' that Alan Greenspan warned of this week.

Demos, 12 September 2009

Local Heroes: How Loch Fyne Oysters Embraced Employee Ownership and Business Success

n 1977 a company was formed at the head of Loch Fyne in Scotland that became Loch Fyne Oysters.This book is the story of that company from its first tentative beginnings at the head of the loch to the internationally recognised brand that Loch Fyne Oysters became

David Erdal, Penguin, 2 July 2009

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