Green Party ‘clause four’ moment?

Posted on September 8, 2012 by | 41 Comments

It didn’t take long to discuss, but one policy motion at today’s Green Party of England and Wales conference marked a line in the turf for the party. It is a part of broader proposals around economic democracy, and reads as follows:

We will grant employees the legal right to buy out their companies and turn them into workers co-operatives. Buy outs would be funded by a Green National Investment Bank and contingent on the co-ops following green and ethical policies. These co-operatives would localise economic decision-making and give employees incentives for greater productivity.”

There was a bit of a debate about whether this should apply to all companies, or if the motion should be opposed as it implicitly includes small as well as medium and large companies. But one speech about labour rights abuses in small companies put paid to that.

The motion was opposed by one member who said that this was effectively Labour’s old clause four. Much of the conference floor cheered in agreement – yes, it is, yes, that’s what we want. It passed overwhelmingly. And so the Green Party committed to collective ownership of the means of production.


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41 Responses to “Green Party ‘clause four’ moment?”

  1. Tom ChanceNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 5:32 pm

    What do we mean when we say this bank will fund buyouts? Will it stump up billions so workers can take over a large company, or just fund the process costs leaving the workers to pay up?

  2. steven durrantNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

    Presumably the seller still has to agree a price? They can’t be made to sell at X to suit buyer.

    From the other end would the bank be obliged to stump up a piss-take price agreed between buyer and seller?

    Maybe there are good answers. If not, best not to crow till there are. Large parties seem able to suggest ill thought ideas and carry them out. We get ripped for it.

  3. Chris HylandNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

    I think there are definitely details that would need to be worked out if this exact policy was put in to practice, I think the principle of the mutualisation of businesses is an important one. Id go as far as to say it’s the one policy I’d pick that would lead to a just society.

  4. Christian ErikssonNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 10:58 pm

    On small step for man, one gaint leap for Green Labour.

  5. Neil KingNo Gravatar
    September 8th, 2012 @ 11:32 pm

    “give employees incentives for greater productivity” is the bit that worries me. Give, incentivise, compel???

  6. Arron FitzgeraldNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 7:20 am

    This is an absurd policy. Employees already have the ‘right’ to buy their employing companies, ever heard of a management buy-out? In fact, anyone can own shares in any company. I suspect the reality of this policy is in fact to ‘compel owners to sell at a huge discount’, i.e. state sanctioned expropriation. Naturally, such a policy would destroy the nation’s wealth in a matter of months, a central plank of the Green utopia.

  7. Gary DunionNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    @Tom, I agree the wording here is woefully vague but it’s easiest to assume this would operate similarly to the already extant Green Investment Bank, i.e. that the bank would ‘fund’ such buyouts not by paying for them outright but by lending the money to the workers’ consortium at a preferential rate.

    @Steven, there is legislative precedent for right-to-buy for a community of interest, namely the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which gives communities the right to buy the land on which they sit. This law requires the owner to sell to the community at a fair market value assessed by a person appointed by Scottish Minsters. A similar provision could easily be made here.

    @Arron, because the aforementioned law has been in place for nearly a decade and Scotland’s rural economy has not collapsed, it is difficult for me to take your apocalyptic prediction seriously.

  8. Tom ChanceNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    In addition to the vagueness about funding, this policy worries me for a few reasons:

    1) Why should these worker co-operatives be required to adopt “green and ethical” policies above and beyond those we would require of all companies? What do we even mean by “green and ethical”? If the company is owned by the workers, will they be required by statute to keep them even if they want to vote to drop them? How will it be monitored? This seems like a pointless additional requirement that sounds nice but just raises more questions that it can answer.

    2) How high would the threshold be for the turnout and vote, and what other safeguards would be put in place to ensure this didn’t lead to problems?

    3) How would we introduce this in a way that didn’t lead to every company that was able immediately relocating its headquarters in another country to protect itself from the risk of a worker buyout?

    4) Is there any evidence of a similar policy operating elsewhere, and its impact on people starting up small businesses? It strikes me that few people would be willing to take the risk of starting something up if they thought their employees could take ownership if the business became successful, suggesting that we think that workers’ co-ops will become the norm for start-ups.

    It’s the sort of policy motion that expresses a great sentiment, a great vision, but is worded in such a specific way as to suggest we actually think this is something we would put in our manifesto for the 2015 General Election. Conference has just put Natalie, Will and our press office in a very difficult position by adopting a policy that is extremely difficult to explain and defend because, going by the responses of people who were in the plenary session, the policy hasn’t really been thought through.

  9. Martin CrossNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    I’m not a Green Party member, but could someone just clarify this policy a little for me please. Are you saying that any business, however large or small, can be taken over by its employees, with or without the agreement of the current owner, and turned into a workers cooperative with the support of Government funding, provided that they agree to certain policies? I’m all in favour of mutualisation, and would like to see far more, but expropriating others businesses is surely not the way to achieve it, and may well set back the broader campaign for cooperatives and other social enterprises. Will you also be supporting the mutualisation of services currently provided directly by local authorities or other government agencies?


  10. David JattNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

    er, good luck with that.

  11. NickNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

    I’d say ‘the legal right to buy out … companies and turn them into workers co-operatives’,whilst being extemely welcome, is a long way from being ‘committed to collective ownership of the means of production’

  12. Vic ButtonNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

    You can not tinker with capitalism – it must be made obsolete.

  13. HarryNo Gravatar
    September 9th, 2012 @ 11:08 pm

    Oh dear, the GPEW on the road to the Liberal and Catholic policy of “Distributism”.

  14. HowardNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    Hi Tom – it seems you don’t like to policy but you don’t say if you object to it in principle – which would be helpful.

    As the proposer I was surprised to see that no one put forward any amendments – which is the thing to do if you don’t like the wording. I’d have been more than happy to accept friendly amendments.

    This isn’t the best place to debate it but I’d be happy to at sometime in the future.

  15. Jonathan KentNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of the principles behind the motion it’s a classic example of the need for policy to be worked out and not scribbled down on the back of an envelope without any though about the details or unintended consequences.
    I want to be fighting on issues that will chime with people not handing our opponents a massive stick to beat us with and in such a poorly draughted form that none of us know what the answers are when people ask us any one of a myriad questions about how it will work.
    Even Gary calls this ‘woefully vague’ and has to make ‘the easiest assumption’. Gary, you know as well as I do that ain’t going to wash. We’re going to get mullahed for it and we’ll damned well deserve it. As for Adam going ‘Hooray’ – Adam, you’re in danger of handing every right wing sketchwriter a gift. C’est magnifique but it’s not bloody politics.

  16. Adam RamsayNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

    Jonathan, I disagree. I think most of green party policy is in way too much detail. There are lots of different ways you could achieve this objective and I really don’t think it’s that important to establish which of them a future green government might adopt.

    I do think though that there is a difficulty in policy making processes highlighted by our disagreement though. Sometimes, policy is very reactive to the world as it is: what do we think about this piece of legislation? How should we change how that department is run? I do think that these questions often need detail.

    Other bits of policy quite clearly are about something else – a vision for the world we are trying to create. I don’t think that the way to work out how to implement these things is in very detailed policy motions now.

  17. Jonathan KentNo Gravatar
    September 10th, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

    If this motion offered workers whose employer was going to the wall the right to buyout rather than face redundancy, or if it encouraged the setting up of new coops we’d be onto a bloomin’ winner.
    But all people are going to think is that some poor business person who put their house on the line and who worked 14 hour days for five years to make a success of it is going to have his business taken over by the workforce just because they fancy it.
    And our opponents will point out, quite rightly, that no one is going to take the risk of starting a business if a lower risk way of getting a piece of a successful business is to go work for someone else and simply wait until they’ve taken the risks and made it work and simply vote to get taxpayer backing to take it over.
    This is precisely the sort of wooly, poorly focused, sweeping aspiration that put Thatcher in Downing Street – because to many people it looks no less unfair than screwing over the less well off and bailing out the banks – precisely because the case they test it against is themselves or someone like themselves taking the next step up the ladder and not the workforce of McDonalds deciding to turn the burger business into a social enterprise.
    However enthusiastic you might be you ain’t going to sell this on the doorsteps – even to swathes of existing Green supporters. Try running your own small business for a while and then tell me it makes sense.

  18. Lynton NorthNo Gravatar
    September 11th, 2012 @ 4:42 am

    Some of the objections to this policy seem to slightly miss the point.

    I would agree that it could perhaps have been a little tighter in its wording. The policy does state that it is in reference to Medium and Large businesses. However this wording should have been repeated with reference to each section.

    As Howard has stated it is a pity that more attention wasn’t given to amendments and clarifications at an earlier stage by members. I feel rather guilty for not contributing more feedback during the emergence of this motion. Even so I am proud to have been one of the names proposing this policy.

    I am somewhat puzzled that people keep suggesting that it would be OK to make a failing business into a worker run cooperative, but to balk at the prospect of democratizing a viable business by those whose work has allowed it to thrive. This amounts to socializing the risks of private capital, then leaving it to the workers to pick up the pieces. A now all too familiar story.

    There is no suggestion in this policy that private property will simply be expropriated, without recompense to its “owners”. Although I would suggest in the case of Dow Chemicals, for example, such expropriation would seem more than just.

    Clearly the party’s commitment to the collective ownership of the means of production needs to be developed more. However, until the working class has a stronger more united movement, we will not be in a position to spell out what the details of common ownership and direct democracy will look like.

  19. Jonathan KentNo Gravatar
    September 11th, 2012 @ 8:59 am

    @18 “This amounts to socializing the risks of private capital, then leaving it to the workers to pick up the pieces.”
    No it doesn’t and the fact you don’t get why it doesn’t fits in well with the rest of your analysis.
    Firstly where a company goes to the wall and there’s a buyout the former owners will bear most of the loss because its book value will have fallen radically. Secondly no one would force the employees to buy it. If the business isn’t viable they could just walk away. Likewise no UK industriial bank would be obliged to lend money to save an unviable business.
    There have been numerous instances of administrators failing to respond to attempts by employees to buy out businesses that the workforce feel could be made to work, moreover employees have struggled to get financing, not always because they are trying to salvage the unsalvagable but because banks and venture capitalists don’t like and/or aren’t geared up to lend to such groups.
    How that can be in any way construed as sosialising the risk of capital escapes me – you’re not bailing out the owners of bust businesses. Full stop. With the banks we paid, the shareholders got a lift, the bankers kept their jobs and we paid out bonuses – I hope you can see how very different those situations are.
    As for “I would agree that it could perhaps have been a little tighter in its wording.” Yah don’t say. It was a badly worded motion that leaves us to do all the explaining and putrs us on the defensive.
    Lastly you don’t even bother to try to persuade me why I should take a risk with my own money, start a business and make a success of it just so someone like you can come along and take it over having done no more than turned up at work, done a nine to five and taken the pay packet you signed up for when you applied for a job no one forced you to take.
    The far left never get the relationship between risk and reward because they never take risks and go and start their own businesses. There won’t be any businesses for the workers to take over if you peddle this sort of silliness. If you want worker owned co-operatives the stage at which to incentivise it is where workers form a co-operative and start their own business. That needs encouragement and isn’t going to scare off Joe and Jane from starting a pie making business in a farm outbuilding. This motion would – if anyone dreamed for even a minute that the Greens will make any progress supporting such woolly and ill-thought-through policies.

  20. Gary DunionNo Gravatar
    September 11th, 2012 @ 9:09 am

    I agree with Adam: it is no only okay but to be encouraged that party policy deals with aims and values and not details. Policy is on the books until actively changed. Do we really want to write details like the interest rate for Green Investment Bank loans into policy that needs a conference resolution to change?

    Not only will circumstances change, but so will our knowledge – a policy like this would be implemented on the far side of a research and consultation exercise, one which would be useless if conference had already made its mind up about all the details possibly decades before.

    Jonathan, I think there’s something revealing in some of the class assumptions of Greens in observation that “many people test it against themselves or someone like themselves taking the next step up the ladder and not the workforce of McDonald’s.” Believe it or not, many more people are employees than are business owners and I find it interesting that you are instinctively more concerned about the possible loss of support from the wealthy and almost-wealthy than the possible increase in support from everyone else. If we had the votes of every McDonald’s employee we’d be in good shape.

  21. Gary DunionNo Gravatar
    September 11th, 2012 @ 9:22 am

    BTW, I am starting a business and I would be bloody delighted if one day it was bought by its employees since a) the idea expropriating surplus value gives me no great pleasure and b) I would get paid a fair market value for it which frankly in the case of *some* large business owners is a lot more than they deserve.

  22. Ricky OvertonNo Gravatar
    September 11th, 2012 @ 9:33 am

    One problem is that it is much easier to imagine small businesses being mutualised than big ones. They have smaller capital bases, there are fewer people to persuade, and they are more likely to be able to meet sustainability criteria.

    So the policy may fail to attack the real enemy – big business – but discourage people from taking risks setting up small workplaces.

    Most of the economy and employment is small businesses. If the Greens really believe in this policy, then they should at least have the courage to discuss it with business people and their representatives to understand the likely consequences. Are you doing this?

    Else you or your leaders are just behaving like the rest of politicians, inventing policy proposals, pushing pet projects and expecting the rest of us to live with the consequences.

    You scream when the other side do this (climate change, road building, planning deregulation, NHS privatisation).

    Can you show you are any better?

  23. Tom ChanceNo Gravatar
    September 11th, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    Gary, Adam, the problem is that this motion goes far beyond aims, values, visions.

    If conference passed a motion that stated a Green Government would support workers taking over companies as co-operatives, giving the reasons in the final clause of the motion, that would be fine.

    This motion offers a legal right, a funding pledge and a condition requiring certain policies. It really isn’t good enough to include those specific pledges and say “the details can be worked out later”. You’re just handing a golden opportunity to a journalist to make any spokesperson look like a complete idiot. What’s more, it’s always possible for good ideas in principle turn out to be bad ideas when you think through the detail.

    I’d also echo Ricky’s point about talking to bodies like the FSB and Co-operatives UK before proposing specific policies. It would show us to be a really grown up national party if we made that effort. It’s something I did extensively when writing the London GLA elections manifesto, and that other manifesto authors have done. It would be interesting to explore how we could do that more with conference motions that include specific policies.

  24. Gary DunionNo Gravatar
    September 11th, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    Tom, the motion you describe also wouldn’t mean anything. To call something policy at all requires it to go beyond “X is quite nice”.

    This policy is a hell of a lot closer to implementation readiness than Citizens’ Income or tradeable personal carbon quotas, both happily ensconced in GP policy.

    Only an incompetent spokesperson or one who rejects the policy need “look like an idiot” when promoting it.

    You don’t like it, fine. Seems unfair that instead of arguing it back on it’s merits (or, as you see it, lack thereof), you seek to set an unreasonably high bar for minute implementation detail that you do not require of other policies.

  25. Peter AndersonNo Gravatar
    September 11th, 2012 @ 11:44 pm

    Its nothing like Labours clause 4….

    Clause 4 called for the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

    This calls for private co-ops….

    I would not be happy for my tax money to be given to workers in one company to HAND IT OVER to the bosses and shareholders in a buy out. Where those workers then pocket the profits made rather than it being spent on societies needs.

    The bosses and major shareholders are rich enough – they shouldnt get a golden handshake. Compensation should be on the basis of proven need.

    Big firms should be run democractically with a co-operative style structure….but they need to be publically owned – not privatly owned.

    I.E I dont want Virgin workers giving Branson billions of OUR TAXES (through your Green bank) and then running the private company themsleves….I want it taken off Branson, owned publically and run by the workers themselves, including government representatives so that we can co-ordinate the other industries to work well with the railways. Any profit made shouldnt go to only those virgin workers – it should be spent where society democratically decides via its elected national and local governments.

  26. BikehoundNo Gravatar
    September 12th, 2012 @ 12:00 am

    The Daily Mail are, unfortunately, going to rip in to this. There are so many flaws that seem up in the air – to start with there doesn’t even seem to be the money in the system to loan to established, efficiently run business looking to expand their manufacturing, never mind taking a risk and lending to businesses that are going to have a wholesale change in owners/directors.

  27. Tom ChanceNo Gravatar
    September 12th, 2012 @ 9:52 pm

    Gary, it is very unfair of you to criticise me for not criticising the motion based on its merits when that is the very thing I did in my first comment on this article. Those questions have yet to be answered, as have others posed on this article.

    I’m a bit unclear on how you would define an “aim” (in an earlier comment) if not by the outcome you wish to achieve (namely more workers taking over their companies as co-ops), and why you consider detail such as an funding commitment from a bank to be acceptable but not, apparently, a simple explanation of what that even means.

    Your point about other policy is a classic fallacy to distract from this motion. As a matter of fact I have a problem with a lot of policy that is poorly thought through, though at least in the case of the Citizens Income party members who have contributed to that policy over the years have written and engaged extensively with the academic literature, and we have had worked examples over the years. As we are talking about policy for a national political party aiming to get many more seats in Parliament, I would like to see people take the trouble to develop a well worked policy proposal, preferably accompanied by short papers setting out the evidence and answering obvious concerns and criticisms.

    I suppose we will have to differ on the spokesperson point. I just cannot imagine how Natalie could have come back with a convincing response to the following questions that might have been put hours after the motion went through, particularly considering that nobody has been able to answer some of these to this date.

    Q) Earlier today you voted to fund workers to buy out their own companies, giving them a legal right. Are you really going to give hundreds of billions so people can take over every company from Sainsburys to your local hairdresser? Where will the money come from?

    Q) How are you going to stop every large company in the country moving its HQ abroad? How will you cope with the loss of tax revenue?


  28. Alasdair ThompsonNo Gravatar
    September 12th, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

    Gary said:

    “I would get paid a fair market value for it which frankly in the case of business owners is a lot more than they deserve.”

    Fixed it for you.

  29. Alasdair ThompsonNo Gravatar
    September 12th, 2012 @ 10:16 pm

    I think the comparison with the community right to buy is interesting. That hasn’t led to any sort of serious redistribution of land in Scotland and I really don’t think legislation along the lines of this motion would achieve any significant change in the balance of means of production either.

    More fundamentally, though, I think Peter Anderson is right, a commitment to bring the means of production into collective ownership isn’t the same as one to pay market prices to buy-out businesses and turn them into co-ops.

    This isn’t a step towards socialism. The co-ops will still have to compete in the market, still have to turn a profit or be forced out of business and the workers will still have their position defined by their relation to wage-labour. The former owners will still have far more capital than the workers and they’ll be able to start new businesses and continue the whole process.

    Co-ops are fine, working for one sometimes (though certainly not always) offers better quality of life. But the problems with our economy are much deeper than corporate or cooperative ownership of private industry. We do need to bring assets into collective ownership, but as a part of a process which also destroys the concept of private ownership and all the other features of capitalist economy, that is wage-labour, exchange and the state. [/communist rant]

  30. Tom ChanceNo Gravatar
    September 12th, 2012 @ 10:54 pm

    One final thought… If Labour or the Conservative party adopted a policy at their conference and then couldn’t answer basic questions, wouldn’t we all rip into them for their half baked right wing nonsense throwing a load of facts and questions at them?

  31. Jonathan KentNo Gravatar
    September 14th, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

    @29 Alasdair you’ve just suggested that the scope of the state should be pretty much without limit. Some of us want to see a limited state – limited to that which citizens mandate it to do. The boundless state of which you speak concentrates even more power in places where some of those least fit to wield it can get their hands on it – which has been the downfall of statist socialism time after time.
    Given that we’re unlikely to agree on this we might at least get the state to the stage where it can provide the essentials without which we cannot live; water, power, housing, education and health to a decent standard without taking its eye off the ball by getting it to design and produce the next generation of .mp3 players and smartphones.

  32. Alasdair ThompsonNo Gravatar
    September 17th, 2012 @ 7:56 pm

    Actually Jonathan I said nothing at all about the state, and in fact I’d like to see it totally abolished.

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