Shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, has called on the co-operative movement to help shape Labour’s policy agenda. Speaking at the Ways Forward 6 Conference in Manchester, Ms Long-Bailey highlighted some of the party’s key plans around doubling the co-operative economy, inviting delegates to engage in driving these.
In her speech at the event, she praised the sector’s strength but said more needed to be done to support it. The shadow business secretary talked about Britain’s low productivity rate (18%) and wage stagnation, arguing there were some “deep, structural problems” with the economy and the way in which it was run.
With the 1980s came a shift from common ownership and promotion of co-operative models to a culture of short termism in corporate governance, she said. Without a real, long-term interest in a company, shareholders are unlikely to make decisions for and long-term investments that would lead to growth.
Ms Long-Bailey explained how as well as needing more diversity within the business sector, the economy needed to address issues around income wealth and inequality, as well as insecure work and the growing gig economy.
Some of the measures announced by the Labour Party to support co-ops include introducing a right to own, offering employees first refusal on firms which are changing hands. The party, which pledged to double the size of the co-operative economy, says it would achieve this with support from a new National Investment Plan and regional development banks. It also advocates community wealth building programmes to promote local co-operatives and businesses. Labour is also examining the Preston council model of encouraging anchor institutions to procure services for local enterprises and co-operatives.
“Some of the hurdles that we identified were access to finance through conventional institutions, the ability of workers to buy out their company, and a lack of protection from potential buyouts by private companies,” said Ms Long-Bailey.
The Labour Party has also recently announced the commissioning of a new independent report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) to investigate the legislative changes needed to clear away these hurdles and allow the co-operative sector to flourish.
“We expect [the report] to be a real consultation with yourselves so that you can have an input, you can tell us what your real-life examples have been, what your hurdles have been, and what you would like to see in terms of support for the co-op sector in the future,” Ms Long-Bailey told delegates at the Ways Forward conference.
Labour will also work with the Co-operative Party to form an expert of group of activists and co-operators to form an implementation group to engage with the co-operative movement, road test ideas and provide feedback.
Asked whether the party was also looking at other countries’ legislation, the shadow business secretary said the organisation was examining examples from Spain and France, with the NEF report being just a start. She also confirmed that the Labour Party aimed to favour co-ops and local community organisations in terms of procurement and increase awareness about the business model. Regarding public ownership, she said a priority would be for employees to be protected and while some services could be brought back into public ownership, for bigger, infrastructure projects this would be more difficult.
“We are relying on big players to deliver infrastructure projects, but there are people who are self employed; should we be looking at co-ops to bring independent contractors together to give them the opportunity to collaborate? Co-ops can be major manufacturers, they can be banks, they can be anything they want to be. It’s about making sure people working in these organisations have a stake in them,” she concluded.