Last month saw the Co-op Party’s first AGM since its sister party Labour’s historic general election defeat; the week-long programme of online panels saw the Party looking for a way forward against the backdrop of the Covid-19 crisis.
Speakers at the conference – themed around ‘owning the future’ – included Labour leader Keir Starmer, who discussed ways that co-operative working could reshape the country for the better in the wake of the Brexit process and the pandemic crisis.
He said that now the UK has left the EU the Brexit debate is over but it was up to the government to deliver on its promise of a good deal. But so much has changed during the Covid-19 outbreak that “we can’t go back to normal”.
“The sense that power and influence seemed too remote” fed into referendum result, he added.
“I’m really glad owning the future is the theme of this conference …. The Labour Party only really wins elections when we glimpse the future and offer a better future. We’ve never won by offering the status quo.”
Sir Keir said the Covid-19 crisis had laid bare not just government incompetence but “the underlying lack of resilience” in public services and “underlying structural flaws in our economy”. The co-op business model can help with this because it deals with “the essential question of control and influence and power in the workplace” in an empowering way.
Questioned at the conference by Co-op News editor Rebecca Harvey, he said the current government was not supportive of the co-op movement whips is “a big failing”. He said a Labour government would correct this, adding that its devolved Labour administration had worked fruitfully with its co-op sector.
This was echoed in a keynote speech from the shadow chancellor, Labour/Co-op MP Anneliese Dodds, who accused the government of turning a blind eye to corporate malpractice while failing to support co-ops – which offer “wonderful examples of the economy of the future”.
To that end the Party commissioned its Owning the Future report which looks at ways to give communities more ownership of the wider economy. In a panel discussion of the report, Wanda Wyporska, executive director of the Equality Trust, said 40 years of ‘small financial shocks’ have had a cumulative effect on people earning low and middle incomes and countries like the UK with high levels of inequality suffer more problems with physical and mental health.
She said it would be hard to correct this without getting vested interests on board but in the meantime policymakers could apply measures in the Equality Act requiring them to take into account the effects of their actions on those at a socioeconomic disadvantage.
Looking art Covid, Andrés Velasco, dean of the School of Public Policy at the LSE, said: “Traditional remedies will not do the job because this is not a traditional crisis… the bottom line is that the longer the recovery takes the longer lasting the consequences will be.”
He warned that many businesses will fail – especially as government support is wound down – and that “some things are not going back to how they used to be”.
Problems of poverty and inequality will be much starker, he said – with new forms of inequality such as the gap between those who can and cannot do their jobs from home. And as low-paying city centre hospitality jobs are lost the demand for low-skilled labour will drop, depressing wages.
There will also be growing global inequality between countries like the UK which have been able to take “aggressive” spending steps to combat the pandemic and poorer countries which could not do the same.
Luke Murphy, head of the Environmental Justice Commission at the Institute of Public Policy Research, agreed the structural problems with economy predate the pandemic, with a centralised political system contributing to equality.
“We need to lock in a new economic model that is hardwired for social economic and climate justice,” he said, warning that the impact of the climate emergency will far outweigh that of Covid.
But the immediate problem of Covid-19 is not going away and the conference included a session on how to deal with a second wave.
Paul Gerrard, campaigns director at the Co-op Group, said co-ops are well placed to meet the crisis because “co-operative businesses and enterprises are uniquely placed to support communities because by definition co-ops put value into communities – they don’t take it out like plcs and other business models do”.
He said its was vital there is funding and resources to help co-ops and social enterprises grow and to ensure that the organic co-operation – such as the growth of mutual aid and the organising efforts of community businesses can be made “scalable and sustainable”.
Karen Creavin from the Active Wellbeing Society – a community benefit society set up by Birmingham City Council – had adapted its work during the pandemic to distribute food and combat social isolation. The lasting effect of this was to bring together more than 60 organisations and the city now has a food justice network.
Jo White, executive director of co-op development agency Co-operative Futures, warned there was a danger of Covid fatigue in a second wave.
“The first time we all felt like we were all in it together,” she said. “This time it feels like we’re being pitted against each other… some of the challenges we face will be quite different.
“Right up there is issues round wellbeing mental health and isolation. We are weary. And I think we as a movement should start to think about how can we help those communities and individuals deal with those challenges.”
But co-ops have an asset in the form of their members – they have joined the movement because they believe in it. Co-ops also have physical assets – buildings and spaces which can be used creatively to help communities, she added.
Principle 6 – co-operation among co-operatives – is the way forward because “we are at our best when we work together,” she said – giving the example fo community pubs sharing information and community shops enjoying support from the Plunkett Foundation and the co-op retail movement in getting supplies.
Stella Creasy, Labour/Co-op MP for Walthamstow, is also concerned at the possibility of Covid fatigue. “We need to look at how we continue to motivate people,” she said. Knowledge sharing can “champion the idea of cooperativism as the answer for how we get through these coming months”.
The conference also highlighted specific inequalities, with panel sessions on gender, the BAME community and LGBTQ+ issues.
Co-op models offer specific solutions here. For instance Cllr Sanchia Alasia – a Labour member win Barking and Dagenham Council – said the transition to mutual and community-owned models could be an option to save small BAME organisations – 90% of which are set to fail if the pandemic continues. Mentoring schemes could help these groups make the switch, she added.
And Cllr Rupinder Singh – who sits on Coventry Council – said BAME communities are vulnerable to loan sharks and bad housing; credit unions and housing co-ops offer solutions here.
Cheryl Barrott, from sustainable development organisation Change Agents, said: “We should look to the much malnourished Principle 7 – community; we tend to see co-operation as a collective of businesses – we’re like a lavender version of the local biz community.
“We should look at community and bring it together with principle 6 and be looking to build each other up. Nobody knows a community better than the community themselves.”