2012 has been officially named by the United Nations as the International Year of Cooperatives. They are widely recognised as being a force for good – with the impact of cooperatives extending from housing to community shops to football clubs.
Yet it appears this is an opportunity that the Government plans to let slip. By the end of this Parliament, their only commitment to a cooperative agenda will likely have been the conversion of public services from being state run to being cooperative led.
While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it is an indication that the Coalition views cooperatives and mutuals as mechanisms to disengage the state from the provision of public services, rather than because they genuinely believe in the development of a cooperative economy and society.
On the other hand, Labour has held a historic connection to the cooperative movement, with the Co-operative Party having been a sister organisation since 1927. In fact, there are 29 Co-operative Party MPs, with further representation in the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and in local government.
The MPs range from senior figures like Ed Balls and Stephen Twigg, to fast up and comers such as Stella Creasy and Luciana Berger. This is a Parliamentary coalition that should be utilised to promote a new consensus on the companies where people work, the shops and services that people use and the places where people live.
Earlier this year, the Government said that they intend to introduce a Cooperatives Bill in the upcoming Queens Speech on 9th May. This is to be cautiously welcomed, but undoubtedly the devil is in the detail.
Creating a genuinely cooperative society requires more than just a bill – it requires direction, policies and an end target. There are around 13 million cooperative members within the UK, all of varying degree, but the ambition should be to involve almost every person across the country in one way or another.
The left therefore need to start laying out what is required in law to make this a reality. A good start would undoubtedly be simplifying the rules around starting a cooperative or mutual and providing advice to do so. But there is a need to go a great deal further.
The first way to achieve this is to focus on the difficulties they may face – such as access to capital, competing in the procurement process and the tax they pay in comparison to privately owned businesses.
Introducing a British Investment Bank, with a significant funding stream, could allow resources to be diverted directly to socially responsible cooperatives and mutuals. Greater access and assistance in applying to provide goods and services to the state would be another. Providing tax breaks, perhaps through reduced corporation tax, might be a way to encourage an increase in numbers.
However, this is not enough to win the hearts and minds of people across the country. They need to see more than just the possible economic merits – it’s about making cooperatives and mutuals work for them.
At their workplace, people should start to genuinely reap the rewards of their production – a goal that the left has sought for decades. While the John Lewis model is to be applauded, their approach to all intents and purposes just provides workers with an annual bonus. A model of radical cooperatism would go much further.
When going about their everyday business, people should feel that cooperatives offer good quality goods and services at decent value for money. There are many instances of this – whether it be supermarkets, banks or credit unions, but again, they can go much further, for example into energy markets or providing childcare. Perhaps the example of community owned football clubs is one that can communicate the benefits more than any other.
AFC Wimbledon was created and rose through the leagues after Milton Keynes took over their old club. FC United of Manchester was founded after the Glazers plunged Man United into millions of pounds worth of debt. Swansea City, widely acclaimed for their passing game in their first Premier League season, are 20 per cent owned by their supporters society.
Housing cooperatives can also play a key role in delivering the housing that is so desperately needed. Whilst this is not the only approach to building more homes for those in need, models across the country have proven to make a difference. Substantial expansion of this should be a key part in tackling the housing shortage and ultimately improving the places in which people live.
Starting to create a dialogue around how cooperatives and mutuals are a force for good in workplaces, communities, shops and in the places people live is vital. Ultimately this is how an alternative vision for the future of the economy and society can be developed.
A society in which people have a greater stake will ultimately be one that becomes happier, more productive, more equitable and much fairer. Making cooperatives a centrepiece in the political agenda is the way to achieve this.