By evoking the Pioneers, we can transform South Yorkshire for the better

Dan Jarvis, Mayor of the Sheffield City Region

Transforming a regional economy is not an easy task. But this is my ambition for South Yorkshire and I want co-operation and mutualism to be at the heart of this programme of regeneration.

I believe in co-operation not just because it is right in principle but because it works in practice. It is a proud movement with a rich history. In December 1844, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers opened a small co-operative shop – selling only six items – based on the virtues of equality and democracy.

Their aim was simple but powerful, to serve their community and ameliorate the effects of the grinding poverty and job losses resulting from the industrial revolution. The Pioneers’ shop was a resounding success and became the blueprint for many co-operative enterprises to follow.

Fast forward to today and modern Britain is an entirely different place from the Victorian era in which the Rochdale Society emerged but regrettably many parallels can be drawn. Technological advances have propelled us to the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution, and while this represents huge potential for society it also means roughly 15 million jobs are at risk of automation.

Under this government and the coalition that proceeded it, we’ve witnessed a culture of gross underemployment and precarious contracts spread throughout our workforce. The degradation of the terms of employment has been coupled with the introduction of draconian laws used to weaken trade unions and deny workers their voice. Capital has become a dominate force over, rather than a partner with, labour.

However, by drawing on our radical past and evoking the spirit of the Rochdale Society we have the power to solve the issues we face in the present together. That’s why today I’m delivering on a manifesto pledge to establish a Co-operatives Advisory Panel for South Yorkshire.

When I ran as the Co-op Party’s candidate for the mayoralty of South Yorkshire last year, my manifesto was titled A Co-operative Community, in which I pledged to end the political and social status quo and put people back at the heart of decision making. I wanted to confront the false dichotomy on ownership – chose either empowerment of the individual or centralisation by the state. The former has been shown to be a failed experiment while the latter did not deliver the promise of industrial democracy and was systemically dismantled as a result.

Democratically-controlled enterprises and public services improve employment stability and increase productivity, and by challenging the hegemony of private ownership we can ensure everyone shares the benefits.

The case for co-operatives is a compelling one. We already have more than 7,000 independent co-operatives trading in the UK, contributing £36.1 billion to our economy and employing 235,000 people. A recent study highlighted their resilience by showing that co-operative start-ups are almost twice as likely to survive their first five years when compared to start-ups with more conventional ownership models.

Despite their undoubted benefits, the full potential of co-operatives in our country has not yet been realised. We trail our friends in America and Europe, in part because of difficulty in accessing finance and advice but also due to the atomisation of once strong communities like the ones I represent across South Yorkshire.

The aim of the Advisory Panel is to work to overcome these barriers and translate co-operative policy and principles into practice. During my term as Mayor, I want a co-operative perspective on our entire programme including the on-going bus review, housing policy and the development of a Strategic Economic Plan.

It is true that co-operatives are not a panacea. We desperately need a national government committed to tackling the structural flaws present within our economy. For too long we’ve witnessed the selling of public goods and services, regional under-investment and devastating austerity. The chronic short-termist economic approach of the past decade has decimated social capital and political faith alike.

The philosophy on which the co-operative movement was founded was placing values above profit. By growing a collaborative, sustainable and inclusive economy where everyone shares in the decision-making process we can promote the values of democracy, financial security and community. As we prepare for the future – and for life beyond Brexit – we must build an economy that leaves no one behind; this principle is as true today as it was all those years ago for the Pioneers.