How can co-ops keep their place on a political agenda so heavily dominated by Brexit?

A survey showed that 60% of people believe important domestic issues were being ignored by ministers who were preoccupied with Brexit

With Brexit dominating the political forum in the UK, getting co-operatives on the government’s agenda could prove to be a challenge.

A survey conducted for the Independent newspaper by BMG Research in December 2017 showed that 60% of people believe important domestic issues were being ignored by ministers who were preoccupied with Brexit. Key concerns highlighted in the survey included the UK’s housing crisis and the increasing demand faced by the NHS.

Similarly, at their annual conference earlier this year, members of the British Chamber of Commerce called on the government not to let Brexit overshadow domestic issues.

Claire McCarthy, general secretary of the Co-operative Party, says that while the UK’s exit from the EU continues to dictate national headlines, the day-to-day work of making the case for the co-op model continues.

“In the last 12 months, Labour & Co-op MPs and peers have questioned ministers, laid amendments to legislation and instigated debates on a wide range of topics,” she says. These topics have included support for community energy, the expansion of credit unions, support for employee ownership and employee share ownership, the contribution of the co-op sector to the British economy, the benefits of mutual guarantee societies, regulatory burdens on co-ops, the need to grow the co-operative sector and tackling modern day slavery.

Claire McCarthy [photo: Andrew Wiard]
Claire McCarthy [photo: Andrew Wiard]

“In Wales, Labour & Co-op Assembly Members serve as ministers in the Welsh government that is providing support for co-op businesses from the new Development Bank of Wales; new support for agricultural co-ops; and continued funding for the Wales Co-operative Centre. In Scotland, Labour & Co-op MSPs have championed the introduction of Scotland’s own version of the Marcora law, which enables Italian workers to buy out their companies.”

Ms McCarthy reveals that the Co-operative Party is consulting the sector on its priorities for the post-Brexit era to help the movement manage the challenges and uncertainties and maximise opportunities in the future. “We want to hear more views and insights from across the movement on this,” she adds.

Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, the national apex body for co-ops, thinks current politics is marked by more “uncertainty” and “division” than for a long time.

“For the co-operative sector, we experience that in terms of responding to some genuinely long-term visionary policy thinking by opposition parties, coupled with the week-to-week challenges of getting co-ops onto the agenda for the government of the day. Brexit rules, and so much of our focus has been on getting clearer terms for our members in the big negotiations under way,” he says.

As part of its work with the agricultural sector, Co-operatives UK recently held a roundtable in Parliament for its members, with the farming minister speaking and a presentation on European farmers co-ops by COGECA. In February the government announced a £10m collaboration fund, to support co-ops in the sector, a move Co-operatives UK had lobbied for.

The roundtable enabled the farming minister to meet with co-ops and discuss how the sector can help the food and farming industry face its challenges. Members of co-ops pointed out to government members that the emphasis should be on supporting exiting groups operating to enable them to grow rather than creating new co-ops.

“This was in Westminster, but in fact the more impressive policy around farmer co-operatives is arguably in Scotland, led by our federal member SAOS, working in partnership with the wider industry,” adds Mr Mayo.

Ed Mayo of Co-operatives UK

“Co-operatives ought to be a good option for all devolved government, and Scottish farming policy since 1997 is an excellent case study, bringing significant benefits in terms of the co-operative contribution to jobs and the economy.

“Similarly, in Wales, we are seeing a new generation of co-operatives emerge around housing and social care. In the North West and in the Midlands, there are active clusters of our members looking to champion the co-operative and wider social economy options with the new mayors. In East Anglia and Lincolnshire, co-operative business leaders are playing a key role in the Local Enterprise Partnerships.”

In Westminster, Co-operatives UK’s campaign to cut audit burdens for smaller co-ops has just finished, with legislation to make audit requirements fairer to co-ops coming into force on 6 April.

According to Mr Mayo, these are practical advances for the sector, which continues to face the challenge of being recognised by the political party in power as a conduit for an inclusive economy.

“It is an achievement to have cross-party support for co-ops, but we need to turn up the dial on the level of that support if we are to have the influence we need for the co-operative economy,” he says.

“If inspiration was needed, it could come from a setting far beyond Brexit – the United Nations. Having agreed 17 Sustainable Development Goals with member states as a powerful shared vision of a different economic trajectory, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, points to
co-ops as ‘uniquely placed’ and ‘natural vehicles’ to deliver on those ambitious goals.”

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