With an election looming, co-ops fight for space on the political agenda

'We need to embrace ideas that ensure that more people have an opportunity to gain more of the capital of this country

With the prospect of a UK election drawing closer, lobbyists across the political spectrum are working hard to persuade parties to adopt their ideas. Advocates of co-operativism are no exception: last month saw a flurry of reports and organisational manifestos urging policymakers to back co-ops and other democratic business models, as a mean of tackling inequality and driving sustainable growth.

The Co-op Party has already published its Unleashing Community Ownership report, urging Labour – currently drawing up its manifesto – to pledge new rights allowing locals to take ownership of assets such as pubs, historic buildings and football clubs that come up for sale or fall into disrepair. 

And the Confederation of Co-operative Housing (CCH) has launched its Manifesto for Change, setting out recommendations to the next government to “enable communities to shape their own housing futures”.

And a group of social enterprises, co-operatives, mutuals, employee-owned businesses, social investors, community-led organisations, fundraisers and third sector experts – including Co-operatives UK and Plunkett Foundation – have formed the Future Economy Alliance to advocate “a vision of an economy where our entire society profits”.

Last August, Co-operatives UK. issued Everybody’s Business, a call – backed by leading sector businesses – for all political parties to commit to co-operative growth at the next general election. 

Now more political groups and sector bodies have put forward their own wishlists.

Related: Can co-ops bridge a divided UK political landscape?

Bright Blue

As with Labour, the Conservative Party has seen some lobbying on behalf of co-operative ideas. After 14 years in power, the party has been marked by internal divisions in recent years, with the populist right dominating the conversation. 

But last month, Bright Blue, an independent think tank which advocates liberal and one-nation conservative ideas and policies, released its report, Mind your business? Expanding democratic business in the UK.

Bartek Staniszewski, senior researcher at Bright Blue and lead author of the report, said: “A ‘property-owning democracy’ – the dream of many on the centre-right – comes into its own through democratic businesses.

“Democratic businesses are also often grounded in their local community, exemplifying levelling up at the most micro level. They are the middle ground between the ruthless individualism of right-wing laissez-faire libertarianism and the centrally mandated collectivism of left-wing economic policy.”

The report calls for the right for those working for companies with more than 2,000 employees to request a binding referendum on employee representation on boards. It also urges government to create a non-departmental public body for the accreditation and promotion of democratic business.

“It is crucial that democratic businesses are championed and distinguished apart from their non-democratic rivals,” says the report. “While some of this work is already achieved by organisations such as Co-operatives UK and the Employee Ownership Association, the presence of a governmental organisation that conducts this work and co-operates closely with central government could make said work more effective and give it more legitimacy in the eyes of the public.”

It also calls for a stronger Community Right to Bid, including a broader range of assets, preferential treatment for the bid for the seller of the asset and stamp duty exemption for the purchaser of the asset.

And it calls for a statutory definition of a co-operative in UK law, in line with the Rochdale Principles; a tax-incentivised ‘indivisible reserves’ scheme to promote mutual business stability and investment; and measures to ensure that a minimum of 28% of the assets of a co-operative are maintained under co-operative control in the event of the co-operative winding up.

It wants the Levelling Up Fund Assessment Framework to include a positive consideration for bids made by local authorities that privatise municipal services into public service mutuals.

The report has been backed by a number of Tory MPs, including John Penrose, co-chair of Bright Blue’s Economics and Employment Community, who said: “Bright Blue’s latest report offers some intriguing thoughts on how to get staff and citizens more engaged in the business of business, with a more powerful economic stake in their employer’s future”.

Social Enterprise UK 

In its latest report Ending the Monoculture, Social Enterprise UK says the country  suffers from “an economy dominated by firms that primarily exist to maximise profits, which encourages a short-term focus that can be damaging economically as well as socially and environmentally”.

The study looked at the five largest economies in Europe and found that “the UK is an outlier, with lower levels of investment and employment in the social economy. Social enterprises and co-operatives deliver 14% of GDP in the Netherlands, 12% in Germany and 10% in France, but our social economy is only worth around 3%.”

The research shows that growing the social economy in Spain’s Basque Country and the Emilia Romagna region of Italy has increased GDP per capita and reduced inequalities. “Overall, the data suggests that investment in people and capital tends to increase productivity, which, in turn, improves wages and living conditions,” adds the report.

It urges policymakers to grow the UK social economy to 12% of the GDP, arguing that this would: boost UK investment by £14bn; raise average wages by up to £2,640 per worker; secure the Living Wage for 400,000 more workers; enable 75,000 more employers to train their staff; give 4.2m workers a real say in how their employers operate; improve work quality by widening access to initiatives like four-day weeks and flexible working; and deliver knock-on boosts to the economy.

Community Energy England

Community Energy England has published an online analysis of the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem positions on the energy co-op sector.

For the Conservatives, it repeated its welcome for last year’s Community Energy Fund but said the government had yet to deliver on pledges to tackle barriers facing the sector. 

In terms of Labour, it said the party’s Local Power Plan would be “genuinely transformative.” But when it comes to funding available for climate action, CEE says “Labour has somewhat retreated from its initial ambitions” and “watered down” its £28bn pledge so that it “now represents total, not extra climate investment. It is no longer a pledge but an ‘ambition’ to be achieved by the end of the next Parliament if the economic conditions are right.”

And it notes that the Lib Dems’ For a Fair Deal policy paper includes a call “promote community energy” but says it wants to see more detail.

Oxfam

At global scale, Oxfam has released a briefing calling on governments around the world to adopt a range of measures, including support for co-ops and social enterprises, to tackle increasing inequality.

It warns that “a huge concentration of global corporate and monopoly power is exacerbating inequality economy-wide” and says policymakers should “reinvent and repurpose the private sector”.

The report, Inequality Inc. How corporate power divides our world and the need for a new era of public action, hits out at widening inequality around the world.

“Since 2020, the richest five men in the world have doubled their fortunes,” it says. “During the same period, almost five billion people globally have become poorer. Hardship and hunger are a daily reality for many people worldwide. At current rates, it will take 230 years to end poverty, but we could have our first trillionaire in 10 years.” 

It adds: “Seven out of 10 of the world’s biggest corporates have either a billionaire CEO or a billionaire as their principal shareholder. Through squeezing workers, dodging tax, privatising the state and spurring climate breakdown, corporations are driving inequality and acting in the service of delivering ever-greater wealth to their rich owners. To end extreme inequality, governments must radically redistribute the power of billionaires and corporations back to ordinary people. A more equal world is possible if governments effectively regulate and reimagine the private sector.”

The report urges governments to take steps to correct this – including using “all their power to create and promote a new generation of companies that do not put shareholders first – including worker and local co-operatives, social
enterprises, and fair-trade businesses – that are owned and governed in the interest of workers, local communities, and the environment.

“Competitive and profitable businesses don’t have to be shackled by shareholder greed.”

It says governments should also provide financial support to equitable businesses. “They can also use tax and other economic instruments such as public procurement to prioritise equitable business models. No economic aid or government contracts should be given to companies that are missing their net zero targets, paying below living wages, or dodging taxes.”

The report also calls for a revitalisation of state sectors, guaranteeing “inequality-busting public services including healthcare, education, care services and food security”, investing in public utilities and infrastructure and considering public options in areas that are prone to monopoly power.

And it urges tougher regulation “to rein in the runaway power of corporates and prevent injustices across their supply chains, nationally and internationally”. This would include anti-monopoly measures, laws mandating living wages, climate action and gender justice, and increased taxes on corporates and rich individuals, with a permanent wealth tax and permanent excess profit tax.

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