Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Turn the BBC into a co-op

Now is the time for the BBC to transform itself and lead the way in public service reform by becoming a cooperative, giving membership and a real say in its running to all who pay the licence fee

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The last 18 months have been a period of profound and unprecedented change for our economy, and as a consequence, our wider society. In the wake of the credit crunch and the near meltdown in the banking sector, people have made it very clear that economic recovery should bring with it different and stronger relationships between the public and organisations that exert influence in their lives.

In confronting the big challenges ahead of us, whether it’s rebuilding our economy, tackling climate change or protecting frontline public services – the need for collective action is greater than ever. This is a moment for mutualism, which offers us the opportunity to take collective action in step with individual aspiration, drawing on the values and practices of the cooperative movement and today’s Coop party.

Underpinned by principles of trust, reciprocity and common ownership – co-operative and mutual organisations exist solely to provide a service for their members, placing long-term social returns ahead of short-term private gain.

As democratic organisations they are accountable to all those with a stake in their success – giving users, employees and the wider community a real say in how they are run. At their best, they combine the virtues of the private and public sector – efficiency and values, delivering power into the hands of the many and not the few.

While we can rightly be proud of our record in government, such as the creation of more than 120 NHS Foundation Trusts and more than 50 co-operative trust schools – it is time for mutualism to take centre stage once again in Labour’s vision for the future.

I want to pay tribute to the work Tessa Jowell did in promoting these issues while we were in government – and I’m pleased this work is continuing through the commission on ownership, which she launched.

As the Labour and co-operative movement begins the process of mapping out a new agenda for reforming our economic, public and civic institutions I believe mutual and co-operative principles can play an important role. Two areas I’d highlight in particular are our financial and broadcasting sectors.

Our economy is still in a fragile state – with the recovery put at risk by the Tory-Lib Dem government’s reckless budget. If we are to rebalance our economy, we do not only need to reduce the deficit in a way that promotes jobs and growth, we must also learn the lessons of the past by reforming the private sector consistent with our values.

Cooperative banks, building societies and credit unions all embody the best of the mutual tradition – meeting the needs of consumers while also promoting a model of ethical, values-led businesses, behaving responsibly in an industry where too many have not. This is driven by a belief that people can achieve most when they work together, and that business should seek to serve wider social ends not short-run profitability.

This is why we believe that a strong and vibrant mutual sector must be a key feature of our banking system in the years to come. A starting point should be the future of Northern Rock. A return to mutual ownership would put the bank back in the hands of its customers and allow it to take a long-term view of its members’ interests.

As we collectively count the costs of short-termism in banking, this could provide some much needed stability to help ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. It would also help bring valuable diversity to the financial services sector.

We should also be looking at other major organisations that shape public life in Britain that could be candidates for a different relationship between organisations and their users.

The mutual principle could also play a role in strengthening the democratic accountability of the BBC, as one of most treasured and important public institutions. Owned by the British public and paid for directly through each household’s TV licence, it is only right that ordinary members of the public should have a real say in how it is run.

Under a mutual model, membership of the BBC could be open to everyone who pays the licence fee. Members could have the right to elect representatives to a members’ council that would elect a majority of members of the BBC Trust. This would give licence fee payers a way to democratic voice in the priorities of the BBC.

Greater public engagement with members could also take place via the website, to ensure the BBC was providing responsive services. With those running the BBC directly accountable to their members, they would have a clear mandate to canvas licence fee payers on all major policy decisions. Ideas like this should be considered as major questions about the future of media policy are confronted in the coming months and years.

These are just a couple of examples of how the principles of mutualism – in the best co-operative traditions of our movement – offer Labour a guide to reshape our institutions according to our values. The moment for mutualism has arrived, and it offers us an opportunity to fundamentally recast the way that both our economy and our society operate around the inherent human values of equity, solidarity and reciprocity.

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Tessa Jowell and David Miliband

are, respectively, shadow minister for the cabinet and shadow foreign secretary


  • An excellent & mature article by David & Tessa. Public say on the running of the BBC is long overdue, and politicians have spent years talking about the license fee, but not about people power of the BBC. David has some grand ideas for revolutionising this grand instituion, and I’m sure that by being open to proper all inclusive debates and ideas, the BBC will earn in it’s entirety the respect, audience levels, quality of input from staff & quality of program output it deserves.

  • Interesting and original proposals for reform of the BBC and I hope this points to a rise of localism in Labour politics over the statism which has defined much of Labour’s recent politics. I wish the article had spent more time on its arguments for a co-operative BBC and less on its critique of the government’s plans. This proposal for the BBC, whilst seemingly a good one, needs a lot more fleshing out and readers of this website are very aware of Labour’s opposition to the government’s spending cuts. Perhaps the authors could write another more detailed article in the future.

  • The problem with the Foundation Trust programme is that it did not define ownership in such a way as to prevent privatisation. Sadly, it appears the FT status is being used by the current Conservative government as a stepping stone to privatise our precious NHS hospitals. (Social Enterprises are private businesses, changing an FT into an SE is privatisation because a NHS employee and NHS assets are transferred to a private company.) So, my rule of thumb about your mutual model for the BBC is: will it make privatisation easier or more difficult?

  • This timely article conveys the essential message of how the mutual model for banks and the BBC would improve accountability, and crucially build engagement and trust between these organisations and their members. The time for mutuals is now.

  • Yes but when they say ‘We’ the public who pay for the BBC should be part-owners, share holders and have a say in the running of this national institution, do they mean this in its true context or in the same way that ‘We’ the public were pick-pocketed and stolen from to become part-owners, share holders in Lloyds, RBS et al? Because in spite of my bank account being raided to bolster up these private failed businesses and the Fat Cats housed within, and now these same ‘national institutions’ boasting billions of pounds worth of profit over the last day or two, I’m still waiting for my share holders certificate and my notification of profit, interest or repayment due to me for this compulsory loan and indeed my invitation to any of the AGM’s of all the banks that I am now a’share holder of and consequently have a say in the way they are run. The principal of this is of course very nice but the reality is that its just another way to screw the public.

  • Yes but why stop at the BBC. Workers’ Cooperatives would prevent and solve industrial disputes, like those in BA, Post Office etc. Why not make every social housing estate a cooperative so the tenants can manage their own affairs?milliel

  • So, this mutual BBC…membership and the licence fee are going to be voluntary arrangements, aren’t they? You know, like I can shop at the Coop, a customer owned mutual, I can shop at Waitrose, a worker owned coop or I can shop at Morrisons, a capitalist organisation. It will be the same with TV and radio will it? I can watch ITV, C4, the BBC, Sky etc and pay for what I choose to watch? You nkow, just as if I shop at Sainsbury’s I don’t have to pay hte mutually owned Coop, so if I watch Channel 5 I don’t have to pay the BBC? Yes? Oh, and Northern Rock. If that becomes a mutual, how much are the new owners, the depsoitors, going to pay the taxpayers for their shiny new possession?

  • It is alright for David Miliband to praise Tessa Jowell’s advocacy of co-ops when Minister for the Cabinet Office, but as Culture Secretary she set uo the BBC trust. It’s a pity that her conversion to the co-operative ideal came so late in the day! Likewise Miliband’s own conversion. The Labour government which he and Tessa Jowell served never cancelled the Thatcher legislation which allowed for the demutualisation of building societies. Had they done so, some societies, which at that point had not fallen to Thatcherite depredation (not least Northern Rock) would have been saved.

  • a link to Co-operatives UK the national trade association for co-ops would have improved this article no end!

  • I have long argued that the BBC remains undemocratic, paternalistic, secretive, practically unaccountable and financially extravagant. It is also inherently pro-Tory and anti-Labour in its output. The Trust, like its predecessor The Board of Governors, is a complete waste of space and money, is chosen in secret and is democratically unaccountable. The mechanisms employed by the BBC for responding to licence payers complaints is deceitful and a farce. Thanks to the weakness of past Labour Secretaries of State the BBC is awash with so much money it has to invent new platforms etc in a vain attempt to justify its funding (it also showers useless, revolting presenters with £millions to insult the Labour government). I would like to have a ‘Board of Inspectors’ that would be totally independent of BBC influence, would be democratically by all licence payers and would hold office for 4 years then seek re-election. Each Board member would be responsible for a particular aspect of BBC output and be required to produce an annual report open to public scrutiny. The Board would also be responsible for determining all salary arrangements and have to publish them. Let’s have a BBC that will be fair and unbiased (unlike the present set-up), invest in originallity – other than comedy programmes and be accountable to us, the public.

  • Here’s an idea that will really resonate with the population at large. Bin the licence fee and make the BBC live off it’s commercial operations. Sadly few people, like the authors of this article, seem to be aware that the BBC has commercial income but it does and it’s income dwarfs the amount it robs from each house in the land through the ‘licence fee’ aka TV Tax.

  • As one correspondent said – what stops privatisation? What stops the ‘share-holders’ saying: ‘we don’t want to pay any more or less in the licence fee’ (the fee isn’t that popular)? But – what’s wrong with the Corporation Structure? Can this not be further enhanced? The BBC’s structure was just recently reformed by Labour. Too much concentration on ‘structures not standards (quality in this case)’ is the problem with politicians!

  • We also have a great opportunity to promote local co-operative loan funds to meet the demands from small businesses. Some already exist but now is the time to ramp up their lending to fill the gap left by the banks

  • Just leave the BBC as it is but include in the fee a basic broadband for everyone ,this would press other providers to supply a better service,
    also the opportunities of other incomes for the BBC are enormous.

  • I’m not sure why the public should have any more say in the running of the BBC than they do in, say, the running of the economy or local government services. We appoint talented people with specialised skills to make decisions on our behalf in all areas of public life, and I don’t see why we should devolve ownership of the BBC to the people who use it any more than we should do the same with every public service.

    Personally, I’d rather be consulted about public spending on the big things, and let the BBC decide how to spend my measly £13 a month.

  • I think it’s a good idea. After all it is our money going to fund the BBC, and therefore we should really be getting some say in how it operates.

    I think by making the BBC co-operative and giving it the necessary protections as such, it should also alleviate concerns about spending as the co-operative should be able to have control over the BBC’s private investments.

    The more being done to engage the public with the running of public services (without making them feel forced to like with The Big Society) the more open politics will be, and the more power the average citizen will have.

  • An excellent piece. I just have a genuine worry about the idea of the BBC taking a lead from their online message boards. Have you read the “Have your say” discussions recently? I expect that there would be very little mention of climate change on the BBC for one example.

  • An idea worth considering but can Tessa Jowell tell us in her next article why, when Culture Secretary and she had the power to do something, she didn’t set up a co-op but the completely unrepresentative, same-old-faces-again BBC trust?

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