Brexit Response: Is Employee Ownership an answer?

Small Group Workers

I think its fair to say that we’ve been a nation in shock for the past 10 days.  But as the dust starts to settle on the immediate post-Brexit market crashes, credit ratings de-grades, currency de-valuations et al, its worth taking a moment to ponder why we got the result we did, and are bidding adieu (reluctantly in my case) to the EU.

Since the vote, Twitter has been peppered with demographic analysis of the referendum.  How interesting, we have noted, that it was in the Labour heartlands in the Midlands and North of England that the Out campaign really seems to have taken hold.

So, why did those in society that we might have expected to vote Remain, the very people that it is widely anticipated will now bear the brunt of the economic downturn that seems the inevitable outcome of a decision to leave the EU, opt for Brexit?

At the risk of over supposition, it feels that making this choice was less about leaving the EU than a rejection of the current economic order in the UK.  The Leave campaign was able to successfully play to job insecurities with their posters of queuing migrants.  Nigel Farage has declared Brexit a vote for “ordinary” and “decent” people.   There is widespread derision of the political elite (and that was before last week’s shenanigans).

A whole swathe of society seems to have voted from a place of disenfranchisement.  Disenchanted with the political and economic system, it’s a Britain that has fallen out of love with capitalism.  Or at least, the form of capitalism that has predominated in the UK for some years.  A form that is more about shareholder value than society.  That is perceived to favour big business and the corporate over entrepreneurialism.  Capitalism that prioritises profit over purpose and relies on “trickle down economics” to spread its benefits.

Will Hutton picked up on this societal trend in 2015’s How Good We Can Be.  We heard Will speak passionately at the annual Employee Ownership Association lecture about the short-termist and profit driven culture that has evolved in the UK.  Instead of the current divisive economic order, Will, and many other commentators, are calling for a move towards a broader based, long-term focused and fairer system of inclusive capitalism.

 The idea of inclusive capitalism is gaining momentum in the global effort to restore capitalism as an engine of broadly shared prosperity and to extend the opportunities and benefits of our economic system to everyone.

And this is a natural fit with employee ownership: I take the view that employee ownership, if done right, should create an organisation peopled by entrepreneurs: it can be a version of capitalism.  Sharing the ownership of enterprise with those who contribute to its success so that those same employees can share in the spoils that success, creating an ownership structure that is broad-based, longer term thinking and inclusive and in which very often employee owners have a genuine voice in shaping the direction of the business is the very epitome of inclusive capitalism.

Employee ownership is gathering momentum but it remains a small sector of the UK economy.  I have pondered if there were more employee-owned businesses, would we still have got the referendum result we did?  Who knows.

Pope Francis said last year his trip to the U.S last year: “Harnessing the spirit of enterprise is an essential element of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable… business is a noble vocation directed to producing the wealth and improving the world.”

I’m with the Pope on this.  And hopefully not alone in the view that employee ownership can play its part in the spread of inclusive capitalism and in doing so contribute to improving the world.

Emma Wise July 2016