Co-operatives Fortnight is an opportunity each year to showcase the contribution that co-operatives make to the UK’s economy and local communities. This year, Labour & Co-operative MPs are celebrating by making the case in Parliament in today's debate for the support that the co-operative sector needs to grow.

The Co-operative Party is unashamedly ambitious for the co-operative movement, and believes that a strong and growing co-operative sector is key to creating an economy where wealth and power are shared. Labour, as set out in their 2017 manifesto, shares this ambition and have pledged to double the cooperative economy.

This morning, Co-operative MPs called a debate on the contribution of co-operative and mutual businesses to the UK economy, sharing their ideas on how to make the pledge to double the co-operative economy a reality.

Here are our top five takeaways from the debate:

1. Co-operatives make a huge contribution to the UK

A £36.1 billion contribution in fact! There are over seven thousand independent co-operatives operating across the UK – in every sector from food to farming to funerals. Almost 235,000 people make a living in the co-operative sector, which has a £36.1 billion turnover and an impressive 13.1 million members. That’s the equivalent of a fifth of the UK’s population!

Their contribution isn’t just about the size of the sector – it’s also about the way they do business. Co-operatives are underpinned by shared values and principles, including care for the community. This comes across in the way they do business. For example, Britain’s top five co-operatives pay more UK tax than Amazon, Facebook, Apple, eBay and Starbucks combined. Co-operatives are also leading important campaigns on tackling modern slavery, cutting single use plastics, protecting shopworkers from violence, financial inclusion and Fairtrade.

In tackling financial exclusion, for example, “Credit unions… are making a difference to my constituents every day through the way that they operate and their business model which is sustainable, ethical and fundamentally about trying to improve the lives of individuals” – Gareth Snell, Labour & Co-operative MP for Stoke on Trent Central

2. An economy which supports co-operatives to thrive is a fairer economy

By existing to provide a service for their members rather than generate profits for external shareholders, co-operative and mutual enterprises are the key to creating an economy that puts people before profit. Therefore, a larger co-operative sector is a sign and measure of a different kind of economy emerging, where purpose and participation are valued above profit maximisation.

This has been shown to reduce inequality – in Emilia Romagna in Italy, for example, co-operative enterprises generate close to 40% of GDP in the province and which has the lowest socio-economic inequality of any region in Europe.

“Our party’s boiler plate is sharing power and wealth, and that points to why I don’t believe that the radical growth of the co-operative sector is an end in itself, but is actually the beginning of a different kind of economy… that puts people at the heart of driving it” – Anna Turley, Labour & Co-operative MP for Redcar and Chair of the Co-operative Party

3. Our laws and regulations are skewed towards private business – and this is bad for consumers, workers and the wider economy

Co-operative growth and expansion are hindered by a legislative and regulatory framework that is designed for privately-owned businesses. This unequal playing field places the sector at a competitive disadvantage and makes it easier for new enterprises to adopt conventional business models.

The debate highlighted that Company Law is regularly reviewed and updated to ensure there are no unnecessary barriers or burdens to doing business – but that co-operative law doesn’t benefit from the same support. This means they’re held back by a legislative framework that isn’t tooled to support them to grow.

“One of the obstacles is our legal framework. There seems to be a disparity between the way the government approaches this… and the way in which company law and legislation is continuously looked at and revised” – Adrian Bailey, Labour & Co-operative MP for West Bromwich West

4. New ways of raising finance would help co-operatives to grow

Member finance and community share offers have been very successful in financing community energy, co‑operative pubs and other projects and enterprises but given their unique structure, co‑operatives are often excluded from traditional investment methods. The anachronistic restrictions that co-operative face sit in stark contrast to the flexibility that PLCs enjoy.

MPs in todays debate shared ideas to help finance co-operative growth – including new capital instruments, grant and loan funding, financial support for workers wanting to buyout their business and support for co-operatives from Labour’s proposed National Investment Bank.

New ways of financing the movement would, “would allow co-ops and mutuals to compete against other big businesses without one hand tied behind their back” – Gareth Thomas MP, Labour & Co-operative MP for Harrow West

5. Wales, Scotland and overseas examples show that a well-funded co-operative development agency is key to co-operative growth

A study by the Co-operative College in 2016 found that “where co-operative support and development bodies are well funded… significant innovation in terms of resourcing cooperative projects and new initiatives is evident”

Today, MPs suggested that we need a champion for the co-operative movement – a national voice to develop expertise, influence policy makers, champion the movement in Whitehall and raise the profile of co-operative. This co-operative development agency could work within every region and community, providing bottom-up practical support and funding to co-operatives to start up and grow.

“We all recognise that although co-operation is a strong bottom up movement, it can only truly thrive in a supportive regulatory and legislative framework, backed by practical support from both local and national government – and make no mistake, if we were in government that support would not be lacking” – Jonathan Reynolds, Labour & Co-operative MP for Stalybridge and Hyde and Shadow Treasury Minister