Leftwing thinkers aren’t offering practical advice for a fourth Labour term. But an old ally can, and will, says Michael Stephenson

No one can say Labour has it easy. Not for more than a century has any government, with the exception of the Conservatives of 1979-1997, had a fourth consecutive election victory. But if the party is to win, at the heart of its appeal must be its ideas for the future.

Since 1927, when Labour signed an electoral pact with half a dozen Co-operative Party MPs, led by tennis legend Fred Perry‘s father Sam, the ideas of the Co-operative party and its MPs have shaped the legacy of Labour-led governments. It was the Co-operative party that first persuaded the Attlee government that nationalisation wasn’t always the best model for improving public services. It was Co-operative MPs who in the 1960s enacted the consumer rights legislation that is one of the legacies of the Wilson governments.

New Labour often looked to progressive thinktanks for ideas. But this time the thinktanks seem somewhat backward about coming forward. Moreover, those on the left that are saying something seem to focus primarily on the “must” and “should”, and all too little on the tougher issue of the “how”.

It is exactly that question of practicability on which our party has focused. It is why the real answer to David Cameron’s question about how you achieve real parent power in schools is not Michael Gove‘s pastiche of the “Swedish schools model” – which, lacking parts of the genuine article, is likely to be as effective as a Volvo without wheels.

The real answer is the Co-operative plan for co-operative trust schools, as advocated by the party MP and minister, Ed Balls. Last year Balls announced that his initial pilots would become 100 co-operative schools. Some have already begun, and many more are on the way. It is a model that provides the most effective way of involving parents, staff, students and local communities directly in the running of schools, to raise standards and ensure that decisions made by the school benefit the whole community.

This weekend the Co-operative party annual conference meets in Edinburgh to discuss policies for the general election manifesto. With almost 30 Co-operative MPs and a record number of ministers and select committee chairs among its number – including Gareth Thomas, Barry Sheerman, Louise Ellman and John McFall – the party is better placed to shape the government’s agenda than ever before.

The manifesto will set out a practical agenda for a government that wants public services to be better. It will set out a plan for how co-operative housing can provide affordable homes, even in the downturn, and free people from the grip of a precarious mortgage market.

It will set out a plan to enable local communities to buy their own energy collectively, saving them money and helping boost take-up of green energy.

Likewise, our party’s detailed plan to transform Network Rail into a fully fledged mutual would give public accountability to an organisation which is a “not-for-profit” company accountable only to itself.

It will also be a manifesto to change the culture of our financial institutions. It will urge returning the former building societies to the mutual sector. Remutualisation of the likes of Northern Rock will embed much-needed stability in our economy.

The public have become understandably jaded and cynical about the political process in recent months. The vision they are looking for and the reassurance in our system they seek is right in front of us. Co-operation and mutuality – “people power” – may be seen by some as retro, but unlike the party that Cameron shares with the likes of John Redwood, its time has definitely come back.

This article first appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free