The Co-operative Party held its annual conference with a range of online events spanning 5 to 16 October.
The main conference took place over 9 and 10 October, with over 1,000 delegates tuning in to hear from speakers and take part in interactive sessions and discussions.
The conference also heard directly from a range of co-operative case studies, including student-led zero waste project SHRUB Coop, LGBT+ housing and care co-op Tonic Housing, and neighbourhood-level food buying group network Cooperation Town.
Stories from co-ops such as these were peppered throughout the weekend, bringing to life the conference theme of Building Community Power.
In his welcoming address, Party chair Jim McMahon referred to members of the co-operative movement as “the makers and the doers.” He drew particular attention to the local communities that have been involved in organising the mutual aid response to the pandemic over the past 18 months, of which co-ops have been a key part, and also thanked the frontline staff of the country’s co-operative societies for their work over what was “a very testing period for our nation”.
Recent growth in the Co-operative Party’s supporters, members and elected representatives was also highlighted by both Mr McMahon and Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds, who addressed the conference on Saturday morning. Ms Dodds described the Co-operative and Labour parties as “working together in lockstep”, referencing the 1,000 elected representatives that are members of the Labour Party and Co-operative Party and the eight Labour/Co-op members of the shadow cabinet, including Ms Dodds and Mr McMahon.
She stressed that while Labour is not in government in Westminster, the collaborative work of Labour and Co-operative councillors, members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), members of the Senedd (MSs), police and crime commissioners and metro mayors is having an “enormous impact” on the lives of people across the country.
Similar themes were covered in the keynote address from Sarah Longlands, recently appointed CEO of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), who said that despite a challenging political and economic context, the co-op movement offers an opportunity to push for change without having to wait for Westminster.
Ms Longlands, whose charity describes itself as the “national organisation for local economies” and has played a leading role in developing the Preston model, identified ownership as a key pillar of community wealth building. “For us, inclusive ownership is fundamental,” she said. “Who owns the economy in this country and who benefits from it is really the starting block for any discussion about a better economic approach in the future.”
She went on to highlight devolution as a fertile ground for the growth of community power and inclusive ownership: “A recognition of the power of ownership is particularly strong in the devolved nations and regions – I’m not saying it’s perfect, but the appetite is certainly much stronger.”
This sentiment was echoed by Greater Manchester’s metro mayor Andy Burnham, who took part in an in-conversation session on Saturday. Speaking alongside West Yorkshire’s metro mayor Tracy Brabin, he said that devolution “creates the conditions for co-operation”.
A key talking point in this discussion was the government’s upcoming spending review, which many participants said will reveal the true commitment that the conservative government has toward their ‘levelling up’ agenda.
“If the government doesn’t come out with significant plans to support the metro mayors, then levelling up in the north will not happen in this parliament,” said Mr Burnham.
He went on to stress the importance of decarbonisation in local economies, saying that he sees a big opportunity for co-ops in this area and referencing the work of the Carbon Co-op on Greater Manchester’s retrofit task force.
Also advocating for devolved solutions to the global challenges of climate change was the Scottish Labour Party leader Anas Sarwar MSP, who spoke at the conference on Sunday about the need for a “jobs transition” as well as a “just transition” in Scotland. In his speech he also announced that the Scottish Labour Energy Transition Commission will include a co-operator in the team and will look at the role of co-ops in Scotland’s energy transition.
Welsh minister for the economy, Vaughan Gething MS, said in his keynote to the conference that devolution should be “a real strength” to a next UK labour government because it offers models of success that have been delivered in practice locally.
Mr Gething spoke about how the Senedd is working to deliver a more co-operative economy in Wales, having recently committed to doubling the number of employee-owned businesses over their next term. Taking this commitment forward, Gething said he wants to work with the co-operative community to explore how the government can help employee buyouts to become a more common option when it comes to succession planning, going on to say that he favours “leadership and money” over legislation as levers in bringing this change about.
Throughout the conference, the Co-operative Party offered high levels of interaction for delegates, including digital Q&A features made available during the keynote speeches, and interactive debates and workshops held via Zoom. Attendees discussed the Co-operative Party’s campaigns and policies, debated policy papers (on social care and high streets), participated in campaign workshops (on climate action and public broadcasting).
The online format of the event didn’t come without its challenges, however, with one session becoming the target of a suspected “zoombombing bot” which caused some disruption at the start of the meeting. Whilst briefly distracting, the disruption was dealt with calmly by the event organisers and ultimately highlighted the otherwise smooth delivery of the event as a whole.
There had clearly been a conscious effort to make the conference as participatory as possible and the use of digital tools offered opportunities for people to contribute questions and comments to speakers and other delegates in a way that would have been difficult to match in a face to face setting.