people near Big Ben in London
Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash

This week, we will be debating the contribution of co-operatives to our economy and public life. The vast contribution that our movement has made to the UK wouldn’t fit in a single article – spanning centuries, our movement has shaped hundreds of thousands of communities and demonstrates day in, day out a better way to do business.

And, despite its historic roots, the co-operative movement, and our values and principles, couldn’t be more relevant to the challenges we face today.

So rather than looking back at our movement’s past successes, I want to look forwards. I’m ambitious for the co-operative sector and, in this moment of uncertainty, entrenched inequality and economic and social challenges, this ambition is critical if we are to build back better from the Covid-19 crisis.

So, I am proud that, in standing to be Labour & Co-operative MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, I stood on a platform which committed to at least doubling the size of the co-operative sector. This commitment sits at the heart of our two parties’ shared commitment to creating a fairer economy, where wealth and power are shared.

Because we know that economies characterised by a larger co‑operative sector are more equitable, productive, and accountable, with a narrower gap between the rich and poor. Instead of wealth being concentrated in the hands of a small percentage at the top, co-operative economies have a wider ownership base. In communities like Emilia Romagna in Italy, 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 movement is powerful – just last week co-operators came together to block the takeover of the historic mutual LV= by American private equity giant Bain Capital. But despite the impact we can have when we work together, our economy remains skewed to the interests of private business. Co-operative growth is hindered by a legislative and regulatory framework that promotes private companies, shareholders and company bosses rather than equitable models of business, communities and workers.

It is testament, therefore, to the resilience and tenacity of co-operatives that the sector contributes £40 billion to the economy each year, despite a sometimes hostile economic environment which can create barriers to further co-operation.

We need a Government that actively champions and promotes the co-operative movement. We cannot let co-operative growth opportunities be unnecessarily stifled. Community energy, for example, went from being the fastest growing sector of the co-operative economy to a trickle when the rug was pulled from under its feet by the removal of feed-in tariffs. Labour & Co-operative MPs have brought forward proposals on supporting worker buyouts to save businesses at risk, to support the growth of agricultural and fishing co-operatives, to hardwire fan ownership into football, and to provide the support that the co-operative sector needs to expand – to name but a few.

Through the Covid-19 crisis we have seen the best of the co-operative movement, a movement that puts people before profit. Whether it was co-operative pubs delivering food to local elderly people, credit unions helping families avoid loan sharks, or co-op supermarkets campaigning to end holiday hunger; people have been able to count on the support of our movement when they needed it most.

This week’s debate is an opportunity not just to reflect on how our movement has responded to crisis, but how we can be ambitious. As we rebuild, and as we face new challenges and uncertainties – whether it’s yet another variant of this virus, the economic fallout from austerity and the pandemic, or work to level up all our communities – I know that the key is co-operation. The Government should commit to creating a level playing field for co-operative growth, we must be able to realise the full potential of our movement to transform lives for the better. Our movement, and the communities it serves, deserve nothing less.