Cashing in on cow shares!

There are local alternatives to the excesses of global capitalism

I am so excited. An investment opportunity I have been anticipating for some time has finally opened up. Nick Rodway, a local farmer who along with his wife Pam has devoted his working life to the production and promotion of organic food and ethical farming, has just called to offer me a share in his dairy herd.

Nick and Pam launched the "Cow Shares" scheme some years ago as a way of raising capital so that they could expand their dairy herd. The herd of 18 head of Ayrshire cattle produces milk of the highest quality with which Pam and Nick make wonderful traditional Scottish cheeses.

Nick and Pam were disinclined to go to the bank. This was for both pragmatic and ideological reasons. On the one hand, there was a natural desire to escape punitive interest rates and bank changes. On the other, Nick and Pam are dedicated to supporting their local economy and to promoting resource flows locally rather than seeing the community’s wealth haemorrhaging out.

So, rather than applying for a bank loan and facing the prospect of watching their interest payments wander off across the globe to finance all kinds of destructive, industrial practices that they have dedicated their lives to replacing, they turned to their home community.

The idea is very simple. A £500 investment buys a share in the dairy herd. This is a five-year loan to the farm, with eight percent annual interest paid in the form of a combination of cheese and manure, according to the preference of the investor. This system creates bonds of affection between the farm and its neighbouring community, raises capital for the farmer and helps in the reconstruction of the local economy – keeping resource flows local and on a human scale. Perhaps even more important, this kind of scheme represents a playful alternative to the anonymity of global markets, providing a gentle reminder that people can still take a measure of economic power into their own hands.

Today, there are many such shares systems operating according to similar principles all over the world. The idea originated in the celebrated case of Deli Dollars in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. When a local delicatessen owner was refused a bank loan to finance an extension, he turned to his clientele. He issued "deli dollars" – refundable over the course of the following year – to the value of $5,000. In this way, his customers pre-financed the extension. In return, he was guaranteed $5,000 worth of custom and his delicatessen grew even more in the affection and esteem of its local community. What is more, the deli dollars started doing the rounds as an alternative currency, even turning up in the collection plate of a local cleric who was known to have a taste for the deli’s pizzas.

From Manhattan to the Moray Firth, local economic experimentation is alive and well. As the monster that is global capitalism gorges on the obscenity of its own excesses, small-scale, decentralised alternatives are already at work, re-weaving the web of community and ecology. Long live Cow Shares!

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.