One hundred years from the creation of the Co-operative Party, the movement has the opportunity to shape the UK’s economy and drive profound economic change, said TUC secretary general Frances O’Grady.
At the Co-operative Economy conference in London, she paid tribute to the Party for “putting mutual values at the heart of policy”, adding: “Just as in 1917, we need profound economic change, a completely new model, that is stronger, fairer and greener.”
And, in the light of current upheavals, she argued that workers “should not pay the price of Brexit, whichever way they voted”.
“It will become increasingly clear that if Brexit is to be a success for working people, we will need sweeping economic reform,” she said. “If the government fails to deliver, there will be no more excuses, the so-called ‘EU bureaucrats’ to hide behind.”
For its own part, said Ms O’Grady, the TUC was investing time and energy in preparing new ways to organise a new generation of workers. She argued that unions should be involved alongside businesses in shaping the government’s new industrial strategy.
She criticised a failure to invest in training, research and development which, she said, had caused a lack of productivity in Britain compared to other European countries.
Meanwhile the growth of self-employment was squeezing the money available to the Exchequer, making it harder to fund the NHS, and workers on zero-hour contracts were being “treated like disposable labour,” said Ms O’Grady.
“We need an economy that puts people and the planet before profit. That’s the vision that inspired co-op pioneers to set up their own party and a vision that can inspire millions of voters, too.
“We are principled pragmatists – as trade unionists, and can’t afford to sit it out and wait for better times,” she said, calling on Party members to unite with trade unions in promoting shared values.
“We have a massive responsibility as a movement to champion people who want to take back power in their lives. That has profound implications for how we draw up this vision.”
Making the case for employee ownership
Deb Oxley, chief executive of the Employee Ownership Association (EOA), told the conference that having a personal stake in the business and a say over how it is run can lead to better productivity, with employees “going the extra mile”.
The employee-owned sector, which includes some worker co-ops, contributes 4% to the UK’s GDP, the same as agriculture, she said.
Success stories include Union Industries, a manufacturer in Leeds which made the transition to employee ownership two years ago. A year later its turnover rose 30% to £7m, while pre-tax profit went up by 133%.
According to research by the EOA, around 53% of UK’s public services mutuals reported fewer sick days claimed.
“These businesses operate for the long-term interest – they are able to invest, grow and prosper,” said Ms Oxley, adding that being a responsible business doesn’t mean sacrificing commercial aims.
“The ownership effect is a powerful aphrodisiac for more responsible businesses.”
Businesses paying a fair share of tax
Another aspect to creating a fair economy is having businesses pay the right amount of tax in the right place, at the right time. Paul Monaghan, director of the Fair Tax Mark, told the conference about the ethical certification scheme, which is administered by a co-op.
He praised the Co-operative Party for acquiring the Mark and having its councillors promote it.
Ten co-operative organisations have the Mark, including its pioneers, the Midcounties Co-operative and the Phone Co-op.
Following a campaign by the Fair Tax Mark and Christian Aid, the government requires all councils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to question potential suppliers on any recent history of tax evasion and avoidance.
Mr Monaghan said the Fair Tax team had developed a Fair Tax pledge for accountants to take to clients. “What we’re trying to do is change rules of the game or at very least have the rules respected,” he said.
He warned that lowering taxes to attract business after Brexit would be “dangerous territory,” and called for country-by-country reporting to tackle tax avoidance by big corporate businesses.