In discussion with Co-op News journalist Anca Voinea, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn shares his fond memories of co-ops; how he has used the model to strengthen people’s skills and what a co-operative future for the UK looks like …
My first co-op memory … My mum was a member of the co-op all of her life and instilled in me the co-op [dividend] number – 11811. She said to me whenever I went to buy anything from the Co-op – which I obviously did on her behalf – don’t forget the co-op number. And so they would say – “What’s your number?”
Setting up co-ops … I’ve been involved in a number of co-op ideas particularly as a councillor where we promoted the idea of a co-operative running a building works department in Haringey in the 1970s, which I was very involved in. We set up a workers group to run a building maintenance department, the idea being that it would be a self-managing group that would bring together the skill of electricians, carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, surveyors and engineers and they would form a management group among themselves, which they would elect. They would work for the council as it was an internal co-op but it was using those co-op principles. I was saying in my speech that what the co-op [model] does is unleashes and harnesses the energy of everybody into how you run an enterprise rather than hierarchical management.
Finding out that people need to be involved … I’ve never forgotten during the 1970s I was involved in trade union work with the AUEW [Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers] in the car industry. I worked in a factory that made diesel engines and you look at the incompetence of the management who were not looking at product development; not looking at innovation. They were just going on with the same out-dated production and everyone I spoke to on the floor was saying this place is finished, they are not listening to us and you heard that time and time again. The co-op principle of involving people’s skills and how you promote an enterprise is something I feel very strongly about.
Why I like the co-op model… As a councillor, before I became an MP, I was involved in establishing housing co-ops, some of which are still going and I like the housing co-op model because it means that all the residents and co-operators must meet together, must work together and it means that neighbourhood issues are resolved. It means they are more likely to ensure there are good play facilities for children and more likely to be well run. I have a number of co-ops in my constituency, which I am very happy to work with. Co-operative housing is something we could promote, as well as the co-op principles. Co-operation is a natural thing to do.
The problems co-ops face … Usually the difficulty is access to capital. For housing co-ops, the difficulty is being able to access capital to expand so they are often heavily reliant on a local authority to essentially gift them a property or do a very long lease on a property to them. Banks are often quite reluctant to lend to a co-operative, rather than they’d prefer to lend to an individual. But all the evidence is that co-ops are more likely to succeed than many small business start-ups. Hence, we want to not just have an effective co-op development agency in government; we also want to use our regional and national investment bank promoting co-ops.
The future of co-ops … I want the public ownership of water, Royal Mail and energy, but I don’t want it to be necessarily a huge state model, I’d rather there was a co-op principle in the way it is run. If you think of the way the Royal Mail and the Post Office were separated, the Post Office remains in public ownership and spends most of its time selling off every asset it’s got, franchising out every business it’s supposed to operate. Royal Mail has sucked out massive profits, gone after the pension fund in the way that they are and are now taking the union to court over industrial action. All those people that are part of the community could be working together. And so again, I want to see Royal Mail using those co-op principles for when it comes back into public ownership.
• Anca Voinea interviewed Jeremy Corbyn at the Co-operative Party annual conference on 14 October.