The problem with undemocratic institutions – be they the government of a country or a business – is that they do the bidding of those in charge at the top, without being accountable to others who have to live with the consequences of their actions.
One of the most notable features of the democratic struggle during the 19th/early 20th centuries was the drive to enable the disempowered majority to learn why and how they go about getting a greater say about the decisions that affected them. Reformists who wanted democratic cooperation to replace authoritarian controls recognised their cause could only be effectively advanced if education played its part.
And in quick succession, learning providers such as the Working Men’s College (founded 1854), Cooperative Women’s Guild (1883), Ruskin College (1899), Workers’ Educational Association (1903), Cooperative College (1919), National Council of Labour Colleges (1921), were set up. But ironically, the achievement of universal suffrage for all adults aged 18+, the establishment of the welfare state, and the emergence of the (short-lived) post-war consensus on social justice, had by the 1970s led many to believe that the struggle for democracy and cooperation was over.
Support for politically orientated education began to slip down the agenda, and at every subsequent economic downturn, funding from state and philanthropic sources would be further cut, and lifelong learning in general became more tightly squeezed into employment-focused training to meet the needs of a largely non-cooperative economy.
In order to rebuild the momentum to democratise state and business institutions so that cooperation is structurally and culturally embedded in how they operate, four steps should be taken to develop a new business model with reciprocity at its heart.
First, lifelong learning providers should explore with representatives (from social, cooperative, and community enterprises; trades unions; worker-owned/worker-run partnerships; and other progressive institutions) what type of education will best encourage and enable more people to contribute to the success of those organisations, both in terms of how to apply the principles of democratic cooperation internally, and how to promote suitable economic and political changes externally.
Secondly, they need to put in place partnership arrangements to deal with course development, financial commitment, and impact review. These should be at a level that would be neither too large to render communications superficial nor too small to hinder economies of scale. This points to a federated structure with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London, East of England, and other English regions (or sub-regional City-Regions such as Greater Manchester or Greater Birmingham) as likely units of strategic cooperation to steer and monitor progress. Within their own areas, they can set their respective priorities, but they will also have the option of sharing course contents and other provisions across the UK where appropriate.
Thirdly, the partners can agree their organisational backing and funding support on the basis of how they will benefit in directly quantifiable economic terms and as measured by SROI (social return on investment), from a range of courses and programmes co-designed to raise awareness and understanding of:
• Why institutions work better to the extent they are more democratically run.
• How to correct superficial or flawed approaches to facilitate democratic cooperation so that real improvement can be made.
• What kind of incremental changes can be brought forward to modify non-democratic institutions in the short-term.
• How to transform existing institutions or set up new ones so that they are legally, financially, democratically robust enough to foster high performance and stakeholders’ satisfaction.
• What the common problems are in running and developing institutions committed to democratic cooperation, and how they can be addressed to bring about greater benefits for all.
• What lessons can be learnt from experience around the world in advancing democratic cooperation in different sectors or institutional contexts.
Finally, when partnership structures, course contents/delivery, and funding agreement are in place, further investment support can be sought from relevant government agencies, social investors, CDFIs (community development finance institutions), and progressive foundations to help with the continuous improvement of the learning opportunities and the expansion of their access. Instead of short-term wheel-reinventing projects, the partners will be in a position to make a strong case for sustained investment in the provision of effective courses that will enhance the resilience, performance and growth of democratic institutions in all sectors.
Back in 1879, Professor James Stuart of the University of Cambridge, a leading proponent of adult education, remarked that the cooperative movement “is a democratic movement if there ever was one. It therefore cannot repose on the good sense of a few; its success will depend on the good sense of the masses.” And while the connections between education and democratic cooperation have in recent decades been weakened in Britain, the value of ensuring these two elements are properly integrated can be seen in areas where cooperative working has as a result been highly successful in securing stability, prosperity and social justice – e.g., Mondragon in Spain, and Emilia Romagna in Italy. In both these regions, a vast range of cooperative organisations joined forces through federated structures to ensure, amongst other things, education is provided to sustain the long-term health of democratic cooperation as a way of intra and inter institutional life.
It is time we accept that we cannot rely on goodwill funding or grants dispensed to those on the receiving end of a supplicant relationship. We must integrate the objectives of social justice, economic vibrancy, and political inclusion into a reciprocal partnership, and use that as the foundation to revitalise democratic education.