John Bird: Get trade on track and we can all share in the power of us

It's a simple idea, but if trade can boost local communities then we all stand to gain.

Hamilton Academical, Stenhousemuir, Queen of the South, Motherwell, Cowdenbeath and Partick Thistle are all Scottish football club names that, for some reason, were read out on the radio in the orphanage I was in as a child. Such rhyming-like sounds were electric to me.

Of course, I realised later that the football results were read out on the radio so that people could ‘do the pools’, a brilliant invention where you guessed the results of Saturday games before they were played. And if you actually managed to get enough right, you could win money. On rare occasions, you could win big time, turning into an instant millionaire. The pools simply involved pooling your few shillings with millions of others. This made multi-millionaires of the creators of such schemes. In the same way, when we all buy stuff from Amazon, each of the few pence we spend turns into billions for billionaires.

It’s the power of us that is lethal or lovable. We can collectively destroy every high street and reduce every age-old fortune – such as the House of Fraser or BHS – to bankruptcy. In the same way, we can inaugurate the political fortunes of a Corbyn or a May or tear up the European Union. All through collective action.

We are trying to ‘pool’ efforts. To create a revolutionary reinvention of the local economy.

We are the sensible (or insensible) force for the good, the bad and the indifferent. Why? Because we’re mostly involved in doing things en masse in our daily lives, and – in the process – we decide prosperity, justice, truth, fortune and misfortune. We are the consumer ants that build the palaces of today and sometimes tear down the same palace tomorrow.

All this floods into my mind on the train from Euston to Northampton last Tuesday. I was heading to Northampton with the small team who support my parliamentary work to try to effect a revolution in trade and prosperity. We want to do a conference there that leaves a lasting legacy. We are not going to Northampton to get everyone to sign up to being nicer to homeless people or fill in forms for human rights. We are not looking for hollow words about good intentions. Rather we are trying to ‘pool’ efforts. To create a revolutionary reinvention of the local economy.

What if 100 local businesses started buying services from each other locally to the profit of the community? For example, the housing association could offer the gardening services that they provide to their housing estates to the local insurance business or estate agent. Working together, the community could bulk-buy, share resources and grow businesses – with part of the profits from this trading allocated for social support for local people in poverty.

It’s what in some ways already happens. It’s simply a question of doing more of it. Of regularising it. And it involves little more than an understanding of how to socialise trade. This is about turning local consumers and local businesses into more conscious players in community prosperity and life. Why can’t the local deli, or the local sandwich shop, buy their vegetables from the gardening programme which creates work and purpose to people in need?

None of this is new. I’ve never come up with an original idea in my life. But what is new is the desire to turn this into a system. And to make it the norm within a community. Not just a bit here or there. Not a pilot, or a demo of good intentions. Rather a boringly everyday reality where each business and every individual realises that if they change their trading, they change the world around them.

Grow the local, social economy. It’s that dumb. Create an economic system that works for all of us

We chose Northampton for this first foray into a ‘local revolution through conscious trading’ because of our links with Northampton Hope, which is working to tackle homelessness. They are already doing a number of the types of trading that we’re advocating. For example, they sell the vegetables they grow to people stuck in poverty, and they are already using trade to create revenue and opportunities for the people they work with.

Our first stop was the library in the centre of town to look at what they are doing to encourage local prosperity, support start-ups and bringing services to the community. Libraries will play an essential role in driving this local trading network and in helping businesses work together to create social advantage.

Next, we visited Northamptonshire County Council, which has recently been declared bankrupt. Theresa Grant is the new pair of hands brought in as CEO a month ago to steer the county back into the black. Formidable, and deeply committed, she grasped what we wanted to do immediately; which was a conference based on demonstrating the power of this simple, dumb – but potentially game-changing – system for social good.

After that we visited Northampton Hope. What a deeply useful bunch they are, and how humbling it is to meet them – especially Jason, a local Big Issue vendor – and know of their good labours! And then off to the University of Northampton, who have a new state-of-the-art campus built on formerly disused land by the River Nene (once infamous for its dog fights). Northampton University has one of the best get-up-and-go social entrepreneurial programmes in the UK. And what we advocated, a conference to demonstrate the advantages of social trading locally, they could completely buy into.

But hey! Don’t get this wrong. As I keep emphasising, I’m not advocating anything new. This is what already is being done. I just want to make it bigger and more regular. A no-brainer. Every individual and every organisation is a bit like a 50-pence piece. Each edge represents an interaction through trade. We are always buying and, at times, trading. What if we put social justice at the very centre of this. You might even call it ‘trade not aid’.

Grow the local, social economy. It’s that dumb. Create an economic system that works for all of us. We’ll keep you informed about what we’re doing; and how we can all share in the power of trading socially.

Picture: Northampton’s Bridge Street in the early 1900s (Alamy)