How to unleash a new economy? Co-op Party prepares for annual conference

Issues under discussion range from Brexit to plans to double the UK’s co-op sector

The Co-op Party hosts its annual conference this weekend (12-14 October), to discuss ways to meet its goal of doubling the size of the co-operative economy.

Earlier this year, the Party commissioned a report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), Co-operatives Unleashed, which identified policy areas for achieving this target, and it will discuss these ideas further at the conference.

It will also present “a new generation of co-operatives who are expanding the co-operative movement into new and innovative areas of business and the economy”, alongside sessions on housing and energy, schools and social enterprise.

Related: Launch of NEF Co-operatives Unleashed report

On Brexit, members will be given a chance to vote on the Party’s policy. At a fringe breakfast event on Saturday, Andrew Adonis and Eloise Todd make the case for a people’s vote on the final deal, followed by a debate.

Party chair Gareth Thomas MP told the News: “Given the significance for the country it’s only right our members should have a vote to give them a say.”

He said the other the big issue on the agenda is the economy. “We’ll discuss the NEF report, plus our work on community wealth building.”

The Party had taken shadow chancellor John McDonnell to Preston to see some of the being done work there under the co-op council model of local service commissioning, said Mr Thomas. “We’ll update on this in the economy debate.”

He added: “The scale of inequality in the country is that something has got to change. The level of inequality is one of the contributory factors to the divisive politics we’ve got at the moment.

Labour MP and Co-operative party chair Gareth Thomas (Image: Co-op Party / Thomas Butler)
Labour MP and Co-operative Party chair Gareth Thomas (Image: Co-op Party / Thomas Butler)

“Part of the response, until we can get a Labour/ Co-operative government, is encouraging local councils to do what they can to make a difference: the community wealth building being done in Preston is impressive. In government we will want to make it easier for councils to keep their wealth local.”

Mr Thomas said the Party wanted to “democratise the utilities”, bringing mutual principles to the water and energy industries “reflecting what has happened in the US and Germany that would help keep more of the wealth that’s generated in local people’s  hands”.

He added: “We have dialogue within the shadow cabinet. John McDonnell said two weeks ago he would take on board our idea for companies with more than 250 employers to give an ownership stake to workers.

“The NEF report is our effort to get some input into how you do that. We are now taking that document out to the rest of the co-op movement to see how you would do that on a practical basis.

“That also involves talking to [shadow business secretary] Rebecca Long-Bailey, to Jeremy Corbyn, about getting those ideas into the next Labour manifesto. We’re also getting those ideas a proper airing in Parliament, and it would be nice to get broadcasters to give us party political broadcasts so we can bring those ideas forward.

“We’ve got good relations with the Labour Party to get those ideas adopted.”

Keynote speakers at the conference are:

Vaughan Gething AM, Welsh government cabinet secretary for health and social services

Rebecca Long-Bailey MP, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury

Marvin Rees, mayor of Bristol

Paddy Lillis, general secretary, Usdaw trade union

The main guest at the evening party will be:

Carolyn Harris,  deputy leader, Welsh Labour

Work to be done, but also huge opportunities – Claire McCarthy, general secretary of the Co-op Party

“We always thought it would be tough to top our centenary conference but with the Party continuing to grow in size, profile and influence we look ahead to this year’s conference – entitled ‘Unleashed’ – with ambition and purpose.

Claire McCarthy (Photograph: Andrew Wiard)

“The Party is unashamedly ambitious for the co-operative movement. We believe that a substantially larger co-operative sector in the UK is critical to building an economy where wealth and power are shared; and where the rewards for hard work are distributed more fairly. That is why, earlier in the year, we commissioned the New Economics Foundation think tank to do an independent report setting out a roadmap for doubling the size of the co-operative sector. Their report Co-operatives Unleashed sets out a radical but practical way forward.

“It has been exciting over the last few months to see the ideas in the NEF report being debated and adopted beyond the co-operative movement, including in the recent proposals from the Commission for Economic Justice. The power of collective ownership is coming into the mainstream – it is being unleashed.

“It is that sense of radical yet practical ambition that is our inspiration as a Party and is at the heart of this year’s conference. We want our delegates, visitors, speakers and other participants to come to the event ready to think big for our Party and our movement and to leave on Sunday inspired and equipped to make change happen.

“During the weekend, we will have an important discussion about Britain’s future relationship with our European neighbours. We will debate a detailed document that seeks to address the key issues for the movement, and for our communities, arising from some of Brexit scenarios.

Related: Time is ticking on Brexit – but can it bring a new co-op vision?

“In addition, the Party’s NEC want to hear the views of our members, on how we should deploy our campaigning resources going forward, including whether the Party should support a public vote on the decision to leave the EU on the final terms proposed by the government.

“So, as we approach our first conference of our second century there is a great deal of work to be done, but also huge opportunities ahead. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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