Last June, nearly 13 million people voted for a better Britain. Doubling the size of the UK co-operative sector was one of Labour’s election pledges which helped to make the Co-operative Party the third largest political party grouping.
This raises the important question—how do you transform, how do you actually double the size of the sector?
Public policy matters. We need the keys to Whitehall to build that better Britain and that means working with the Labour Party to win the next general election whenever it comes. A manifesto bubbling over with co-operative ideas and values, costed and thought-through, can help to secure that win. However, we can only secure a manifesto that is even more co-op-friendly than the last if we build on our excellent record of influencing Labour’s policy-making as well as our parliamentary representation.
We want to see Labour MPs walking through the doors of Whitehall Departments because of a popular co-operative manifesto, tasking their civil servants with the urgent delivery of our policies.
The answer to the ‘how’, partly lies through the ‘why’, then. Doubling the sector makes sense because our values are right for the British economy. Everyone is entitled to have a stake in the wealth we produce together. We have an economic model to scrap—old-style, trickle-down economics and the inequality that it’s responsible for is in a death rattle. And we’re at an economic crossroads.
There isn’t a problem to which there isn’t a co-operative solution in each economic area primed to grow and thrive. When we tell the story about why we want to double the sector through the lens of who we, what our long history is, and where we’re going, people will listen across the board.
We also need to look to the co-ops in our communities for examples of radical ideas that succeed in practice.
When something is working on a certain scale, it’s far easier to think about how that venture might be made to work on a larger scale.
But, some of the best co-operative successes are happening under the radar. At the last count, there were 6,815 co-operatives nationwide. This is the tip of the iceberg— hundreds if not thousands of co-ops are doing good, but hidden, work in isolation from each other.
It’s easy to understand why co-operators don’t always make themselves known—they’re too busy being co-operative in an economy which isn’t always geared to be supportive of co-operative approaches. But, when co-operators can see each other and how co-operative solutions are being put into practice, the sector is able to make connections, learn from each other, and kickstart conversations which you can’t put a KPI or measurable outcome against, but know will lead to something positive.
It’s a basic truth that two heads are better than one, that co-operation is better than none. One of the greatest services that a local Co-op Party, councillor, or council officer, could perform is to audit local co-ops in their community, make a list with contact details publicly available, and update it annually.
Bringing to the surface hidden co-ops and connecting them can lead to growth of the sector in other ways. Often co-operatives are being left out of the big discussions in their communities about growth, housing developments, or public spending.
As the conversations tend to be anchored by local councils and some councils, as well as some Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), can be ignorant about co-op models, that leaves local co-ops at a disadvantage.
But, this is where councillors can play a big role.
If you’re a councillor, are you satisfied that co-operatives, particularly local ones, are participating in your authority’s supply chain and business? How well do your officers understand the co-operative approach and talk to local co-ops? Might your officers benefit from exposure to co-operative approaches and introductions to local co-ops?
Councillors can influence their authorities to think about spending money in new ways which grow the local economy, create local jobs, and increase the local co-operative sector.
Skills are a huge factor in the development of a larger co-operative sector. Training for entrepreneurs to start up fledgling social-led businesses and managers to head up co-ops instead of for-profits can make a big difference. Where a social enterprise culture neither exists or happens to be strong enough, councils or one of the 38 LEPs nationwide could play an enabling role. Working with co-operators to spot skills gaps, these public bodes could offer training opportunities, just as they might convene meetings for local co-ops to join together and learn from each other.
As ever, funding is crucially important for co-ops to play on a level playing field with larger commercial operations. It’s too hard for innovators with socially valuable ideas to access development finance. We need Labour and Co-operative ministers pulling on public policy levers.
We need a credit guarantee facility and, in those areas of economic activity primed for growth and where co-ops are likely to thrive (such as community energy and platform co-ops to rival Air BnB and Uber), we need focused, long-term support in the form of public grants, interest-free loans, and meaningful tax incentives.
When co-ops know they will not turn a profit for the first three years of their life, but their long vision and opening of revenue streams will pay off, we need to find ways of financially sustaining take-off. Here Regional Development Banks of the kind proposed by John McDonnell would be crucially important, but councils too could be encouraged to offer privileged access to public assets to local co-ops as long as opens up revenue streams which pay back local people.
The Co-operative Party has moved to make its ambition of doubling the sector a reality (including identifying what it is you’ll be doubling). On Saturday the Party brought together members to tackle the question and others and an independent report has been commissioned to set out the steps necessary to realise that vision.
With everyone in permanent campaign mode for the next general election, the task of answering that question is crucial. Caught in the death spiral of Brexit and austerity, Britain is crying out for something new, something transformative. In short, Britain is crying out for something co-operative.