Across party lines: Co-ops at the Labour and Conservative conference

Rose Marley, CEO of Co-operatives UK, discusses the apex body's efforts to join the conversation at the two events

“For those of you who have never been to a Labour Party Conference before… We are always this united; we are always this positive; and we are always on the cusp of forming a new government. And for those who have been many times before, isn’t this just wonderful!” 

The opening gambit from mayor of London Sadiq Khan, in a session for London councils (speaking alongside Leader of Manchester City Council Bev Craig) drew a lot of laughs. That was the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. The difference in atmosphere, at the Conservative conference in Birmingham, was palpable. That was the second stage in my conference journey before completing the circuit at the Co-operative Party Conference in Leeds.   

You might ask why… Why attend? What do we, Co-operatives UK, get out of these events event – and by this I mean how do our members and the wider co-operative economy benefit? Let’s look at party conferences overall. It’s where MPs, delegates and other people interested in politics look to shape policy, to network and both listen and feed into important discussions. We need to be part of the conversation, to learn, to listen and to influence. And we’re pleased to say we had direct and immediate impact – as well as ‘softer’ influence and impact, which we’ll develop and cultivate.   

Related: Report from the Co-op Party conference

But back to Liverpool. I was delighted to speak at a packed-out fringe event (standing room only) on a panel alongside Jonathan Reynolds (shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy), Miatta Fahnbulleh (CEO of the New Economics Foundation), Joe Fortune (general secretary of the Co-operative Party) and Emma Hoddinott (assistant general secretary of the Co-operative Party). We launched our new report and were delighted with the response.  

In Co-operatives for a stronger, fairer, greener everyday economy we highlighted the fact that 97% of all jobs in the UK co-operative sector are in the ‘everyday economy’. And we revealed new evidence demonstrating that co-operatives in the UK are more resilient than businesses generally; and five times less likely to cease trading in 2021. We also revealed that worker co-operatives create more jobs, on average, than other businesses. They’re the messages that politicians and policy-makers need to hear and we had demonstrable impact. 

It was a really worthwhile conference with the co-operative panel event a key highlight. I was also blown away by the dedication of Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, in a Co-op and Mind reception hosted by Co-op Group’s Paul Gerrard. And it’s also worth noting that Labour published its Industrial Strategy. The strategy included explicit reference to supporting co-operatives – demonstrating how persistent and consistent lobbying, evidenced by strong and compelling facts and figures (and real-life examples from our membership) can and does have an impact.

A few days later we were down the M6 in Birmingham to take in the Conservative Party Conference. It was interesting hearing Damian Collins MP say ‘there is a job to be done in empowering people and their data’. We’ll ensure we’re an integral part of helping achieve that aim. And financial secretary to the Treasury, Andrew Griffiths, agreed to look at what can be done to unlock co-operative potential. Those conversations and commitments demonstrate why it’s important to engage all parties – those in opposition and those in government – especially with a constantly evolving political landscape. Just look at the events which have unfolded over recent weeks. At time of writing, the financial secretary to the Treasury is deciding whether or not to adopt any elements of Sir Mark Hendrick’s Private Members Bill for co-operatives, and having a good relationship with the minister and his officials could prove invaluable.

Back in the conference the Musician Union’s campaign for free music in schools – something I’m an ardent supporter of – was actually quite beautiful, while Nadhim Zahawi gave clear backing for Andy Street and Ben Houchen, the mayors of West Midlands and Tees Valley respectively. Andy opened our Co-op Congress in Birmingham earlier this year and the former John Lewis boss remains a huge supporter of employee-owned businesses and worker co-ops.

 We received a warm reception and participated in numerous meetings. And, despite some confusion across the Conservative Party about what was going on, it was clear that support remained for ‘levelling up’ with co-operatives and social enterprise a strong and prevalent element of that. It’s something we’ve lobbied for. We made sure our new evidence on co-operative business resilience found its way into the hands of civil society minister, Lord Kamal. The new prime minister has since confirmed that levelling up is a key government policy. 

With Emma Hoddinott at the Co-operative Party Conference in Leeds

Over to Leeds for my first Co-operative Party conference and I was in very good company – Jeevan Jones, Kate Brown, Denise Scott-McDonald, Kate Brown, Cheryl Barrott, Paul Gerrard, Vivian Woodell, Gareth Wright, Eileen Driver, Harry Cairney, Eddie Thorn, Scott Darraugh and many, more. It was a good way to end the conference season full of big conversations.

There was a firm commitment from shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves to doubling the size of the co-operative sector as a Labour government target. Our report stats were directly referenced to add weight to this significant commitment – not just what we’ll do, but crucially why we should do it. 

Many more thought-provoking moments alongside takeaway actions came out of the conference. So well done to Joe Fortune and Emma Hoddinott for an excellent conference.

Just like from our own events, it’s so important to take those learnings, those take-aways; to follow-up on conversations and turn those conversations into action and impact. As an example, what began as a preliminary conversation with green entrepreneur Dale Vince and mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, at the Labour Conference, turned into a more developed conversation at the Conservative Party Conference – enhanced by a chance meeting with Dr Amiera Sawas of Climate Outreach. And now we have a taskforce looking at mapping out the green potential for the Manchester and Liverpool city regions – and how co-operatives can be used as a vehicle for giving people ownership of renewable energy. It’s exciting stuff.

After the UK conferences, I headed to Brazil and into a world of fractious politics. The divisions and incredulous behaviour – from left to right – are perhaps too familiar on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether it is drivers, hotel receptionists or the leaders of the co-operative movement in Brazil, the disillusionment with politics is clear. But whatever the political hue, themes of resilience through co-operatives continue to chime the bells of hope. From the circular economy to devolved regional powers, we have to continue lobbying governments and opposition parties for legislation that enables co-operatives if we are going to create a fairer world. 

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