In Our Interests: Co-operative Party economy conference

Following last week's economy conference in London, policy officer James Scott provides a summary of the day's activity.

James Scott


Last week’s economy conference took place against a backdrop that was impossible to ignore. With MPs debating Article 50 that week, and President Trump inaugurated days before, events put our discussions around the future of Britain’s economy took into sharp focus.

As Party Chair Gareth Thomas put it – we meet with our country at a crossroads.

On automation, responsible business, devolution, and financial sector reform, the threat as well as the opportunity, was clear in all our discussions. While some will attempt to use Brexit as a Trojan horse to build a low-tax, low-regulation economy, it will be up to co-operators to show that a fairer, more equal, and more economically productive path isn’t just a dream – but that through our movement, the models to achieve it already exist.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady tackled the challenge head on, calling for an inclusive politics to counter the growing threat of right wing populism. Whether in the workplace or the marketplace, the trade union and co-operative movements share common roots – and our shared belief in democracy and solidarity can democratise workplaces and drive a change towards more responsible ways of doing business.

O’Grady was followed by a panel of Stephen Kinnock MP, tax campaigner Paul Monaghan, Deb Oxley of the Employee Ownership Association, and Cllr Reema Patel from the RSA.

Kinnock posed the question of the Left’s relationship to business. He urged participants to see their mission as promoting a business model which serves people, planet and profit, and a wider sense of stakeholder, rather than just shareholder, value.

Monaghan updated the conference on the Fair Tax Mark, congratulating the co-operative movement for being early adopters of the mark which is designed to recognize companies who meet their full tax obligations. Tax avoidance was now the key issue concerning consumers, Monaghan argued, showing the potential for a campaign to celebrate those businesses who fulfil both the letter and spirit of the corporate tax law.

Finally, Patel outlined the research led by the RSA into deliberative democracy in the workplace. Working with research participants, they have been testing models for building mutuality and trust into the workplace and identifying how to overcome barriers to creating responsible businesses built on such lines.

The second session of the morning focused on how we reform financial services to serve people, and not just profit. Panelists – Damon Gibbons from the Responsible Credit Centre, the Co-operative Party’s very own Jonathan Reynolds MP, and Sian Williams from Toynbee Hall, discussed how financial alternatives such as regional and local banks, mutuals as well as credit unions, can provide alternatives.

Gibbons put forward a series of radical ideas for reforming people’s relationship to credit and debt – including flexible income tax payments and nationalisation of the Bank of England. Sian Williams described the difficulties facing Toynbee Hall’s local Whitechapel community in accessing appropriate banking services, and argued efforts at reform should be focused on the large high street banks.

Jonathan Reynolds, Shadow City Minister and a Labour & Co-operative MP, then announced a package of new measures which will support the Shadow Treasury’s existing commitment to doubling the size of the co-operative economy. This included support for new building societies, as he explained to conference:

In the coming weeks and months, I want to work to explore ways in which we can help stimulate a new generation of Building Societies. Is it right that our regulatory framework and capital requirements all but rule out the creation of new Building Societies? I want to explore whether we are currently doing enough to ensure that banks understand and are able to demonstrate their responsibility and role in society.

In the afternoon, attendees returned to the hall for two afternoon sessions; first on whether the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ was an opportunity for co-operative development or a path to greater economic insecurity. The session opened with a keynote speech from Tom Watson MP, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party.

Discussing the shift to automation across the economy, Watson said

We’re on the brink of a new industrial revolution and I honestly can’t wait to see it unfold. I can’t wait to see what we humans invent next.

But he warned that technological innovation was

opening up the way for exploitation of workers in ways not seen since the last industrial revolution. Enabling intrusions into privacy, losses of freedom that wouldn’t look out of place in 1984. They are changes that mean more enlightened uses of technology may never happen in the workplace, because we are making it cheaper to exploit people instead.

The following panelists each gave their own interpretation of the impact of new technology. Torsten Bell from the Resolution Foundation urged caution in our understanding of the impact of automation, instead focusing on the need to boost productivity across the UK economy. Constance Laisne from AltGen, and a member of London Freelancers Co-operative, described her experience as a member of what has been called the ‘precariat’, which motivated her to establish a co-operative for freelance workers.

The final session of the day focused on regional economic inequality across the UK, with Cllr Matt Kerr discussing efforts to bring in a Universal Basic Income in Glasgow, Anna Turley MP on how Westminster politics often forgets regional economies, such as in her constituency of Redcar, and Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK on the values that underpin responsible business and economic equality.

Drawing from voices across the labour, co-operative and trade union movements, it’s clear that the examples exist for us to build an economy based on community, reciprocity and trust. Our ideas must be match fit, relevant and strong if we are to influence the future direction of the British economy – and at times like these, those ideas are needed more than ever.