Big Ben, London
Photo by James Newcombe on Unsplash

This week’s budget was a chance for the Chancellor to address the deep inequalities that Covid-19 has highlighted and exacerbated. From overcrowding to low pay to structural racism and more, the pandemic continues to reveal just how unfair the UK’s economy is, and the depth of our financial crash as a result shows just how unprepared and fragile our economy was.

As co-operators, we know that we can narrow the gap between the rich and poor by widening ownership. Co-operative businesses, by definition, share power and wealth, and give everyone – not just a small number of investors and shareholders at the top – a say and a stake in the economy. This is borne out around the world: economies characterised by a bigger co-operative sector have lower socio economic inequality.

And we also know, from studying previous crises, that an unequal economy with wealth and decision-making concentrated at the top too often means short-termism, low productivity and less resilience to shock.

Wednesday was a critical moment for our economy – a budget with fairness at its heart wouldn’t only be able to begin repairing the lives and livelihoods damaged by this crisis and a decade of austerity before that. It would also repair some of the structural problems with the way our economy operates, and in whose interests, helping the country to recover sustainably.

Some of the headlines leaked ahead of the Chancellor’s speech in Parliament looked promising. Community ownership and talk of levelling up and decentralisation. However, the devil is in the detail, and this budget fell short. As Keir Starmer pointed out, the budget “barely mentioned inequality, let alone tried to address it”.

Nor did the budget make direct mention of the co-operative sector, despite the £38.2 billion contribution that co-operatives make to the British economy. For a fairer and more productive and resilient economic settlement, the potential of the co-operative movement must be unleashed, with the support in place to enable our movement to thrive.

It’s a great tribute to those advocating for communities that new Community Ownership Fund was announced – they have worked hard to make the case. But while welcome, this funding needs to come with new community ownership powers, wider regulatory change and new political leadership if it is to have significant impact on the wider economy. Funding alone will not result in a community ownership revolution. Welcome too is the last-minute reversal to the plans to end SITR, an important mechanism which has to date helped to incentivise millions of pounds of investment in the co-operative sector, and which many in our movement rely on.

The budget also failed to mention financial inclusion, and the impact that the loss of banks and ATMs in town centres across the country is having on communities. The Government has long promised – and long failed to deliver – reform to ensure continued access to cash. Instead, the budget overlooked the 8 million adults who rely on notes and coins every day and focused instead on contactless payments, further widening the gap.

And finally, as two of our co-operative metro mayoral candidates, Tracy Brabin and Liam Byrne, set out in the debate yesterday, for all his talk of levelling up all regions of the UK, the Chancellor failed to understand that decentralisation doesn’t simply mean moving a couple of governmental departments to the North. After decades of economic and political power increasingly concentrated within the M25, genuine levelling up means sharing power and wealth. Taking decision-making out of Whitehall, and empowering local communities and ordinary people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives. From top-down ‘town deals’ and a levelling up fund that appears more driven by electoral gameplaying than genuine needs-based regeneration, the proposals in yesterdays budget pits regions against each other for funding rather than enabling communities to rebuild from the bottom up.

At the Co-operative Party, we will continue to assess how this budget, and how the wider Covid-19 crisis, has impacted the co-operative sector, and through our Co-operative Recovery Partnership we’re working with the Shadow Treasury team to explore how our movement can also help to shape our recovery. We know that our movement, and its values and principles, hold the key to a fairer, more sustainable recovery – and it is only once co-operation is truly hardwired into the DNA of our economy can we call time on inequality.