Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves pledged to double the size of the UK’s co-operative economy at the Co-op Party conference, and set out plans for a national wealth fund to give the public a stake in investment.
Reeves, who has been a key player in Labour’s attack on the government over Kwasi Kwarteng’s failed mini budget, said co-ops would be part of her plans for “an industrial strategy in for all sectors of our economy” – which will include retail “because this important sector has been neglected for far too long”.
Noting that theme of the conference, held in Leeds on 8-9 October, was “from crisis to co-operation”, she said: “After 12 years of Conservative governments, we certainly have plenty of crises facing our country. A climate crisis, an energy crisis, an economic crisis, and a cost of living crisis – and the NHS no longer experiencing just a winter crisis.
“The Conservatives aren’t responding to these crises. Their choices are actively making them worse.”
Accusing the government of seeking to “help the richest in society to become even richer” and ignoring the needs of the rest of the country, Reeves said a Labour government would work to stabilise the economy and create more equitable and sustainable systems for housing, energy and employment.
“Businesses with all models of ownership should play their full role in this national endeavour,” she said. “Labour will create a national wealth fund so that the public has a stake and gets the return on those investments.“
Tailoring her message to Labour’s sister party, she said: “Co-ops are important to our national economy, contributing £40bn every year, from retail and finance to home care and supporting cultural industries.
“They are a source of resilience too, among five times less likely to cease trading in 2021 than other businesses – with the gender pay gap in co-operatives narrower too Co-operatives are a great example of how businesses can work to the benefit of the company, the workers and our communities.
“That is why the Labour Party and the Co-op party has agreed an important ambition for government. Our aim is to double the size of the co-operative sector in the UK. It won’t be easy, it won’t happen overnight.
“It is two different visions for our economy and for our society. The trickle down economics with the Tories and a stronger and a fairer economy with Labour.”
The co-op movement has been playing a high-profile role in the campaign for a fairer tax system, and Reeves vowed to take action to ensure multinationals and global tech businesses paid their taxes, to scrap the non dom tax status, and to reform business rates to reduce the burden on struggling high street firms.
“We want to help ensure the communities have more say over their high streets,” she added, “giving real power to people over the places that they call home.“
This echoes calls by Co-operatives UK, Locality and other social economy organisations to give local people more say when it comes to levelling up the country and avoid top-down decision making. This theme was also explored at the conference by Reeves’ frontbench colleague Lisa Nandy, shadow secretary for levelling up, housing and communities.
In her speech Nandy hit out at the “endless spiral of decline” under the Conservatives, marked by low growth and high taxation.
“I believe that the great untapped asset that we have in this country is people,” she said. “That’s what the Tories will never understand. That is what those of us in this room, what the Co-op Party has always known.”
The denial of human potential under the current system is “a social crime”, added Nandy. “You in this room have always known that that one person alone is never enough change. Real change comes from all of us bubbling up from the ground up, pulling together to build and create it for the long haul.”
Related: Co-ops respond to government’s levelling-up plans
“That’s why I’ve come here today to tell you that people are going to be at the heart of Labour’s plan to build the country that I’ve believed in all of my life, but never quite yet seen. A country where everybody has the right to contribute and has a stake in the future and shares in the proceeds of our growth.”
Nandy said Labour ensure that people investing in their communities would “feel the whole system pulling right in behind them”, citing the Carbon Co-op and its work to retrofit homes, and Repowering London with its support for community energy projects, as the sort of initiative she wants to support and see replicated, working in sectors from social housing to zero-carbon transport.
Related: New projects from the Carbon Co-op
“There’s so much amazing work going on across this country,” she added. “Imagine what we could do to match the level of ambition that’s found in every community across this country. Well, that is what we’re going to do.”
Reiterating Labour’s pledge to give communities first refusal when it comes to the purchase of local assets such as venues and football clubs – and “the means to bargain as well”.
Community ownership and control are key to levelling up, she told the conference. “I want to say to you that co-operation isn’t just a route out of this crisis. It is the only route out of this crisis.”
In a fringe session later that day, Labour / Co-op MP Alex Norris welcomed the speeches.
“We should recognise the really significant progress we’ve made – it is not by accident that we have the shadow secretary of state come and say to us what she said today, and that’s not always been the case … Actually, it’s taken a lot to get community power and community voice into the mainstream within the Labour Party. We shouldn’t take that for granted.”
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