A VISION of a more co-operative Britain under would-be Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been spelled out by one of the Chancellor's closest allies, Labour/Co-op MP Ed Balls.
Mr Balls, Economic Secretary to the Treasury and MP for Normanton, who was in Manchester recently to meet leaders of Co-operatives UK, the Co-op Group, CFS and ABCUL, gave an exclusive interview to Co-op News in which he defended the Government's track record in updating co-operative legislation; promised a Gordon Brown-led administration would make social justice at home and abroad a top priority and spoke of his pride at being a Co-op MP.
The Minister ? understood to be the first Co-op MP to have been put in charge of co-operative issues at the Treasury ? said next year's change of leadership in Labour could be expected to deliver what he described as a strengthening of the co-operative agenda, whether in relation to economic matters, public services or the fight for social justice.
He emphasised that the contest for the leadership still had to be won, but said the Chancellor's actions over the past few years were a clue to how a Brown premiership would work. Said Mr Balls: "Gordon has been a long-standing member of the Co-operative Party and his speech at the recent Labour Party conference clearly set out his desire to devolve power and engage communities collectively and individually in both the economy and in public services.
"The Co-operative Movement has shown over the years it can engage people in collective endeavours and I think we are going to see more of that. Gordon's personal commitment to delivering social justice ? and trade justice ? around the world will be important to him and that's something the Co-op Party and Movement has been strongly backing in recent years.
"In terms of a ?big idea' for a prospective PM, the war on poverty will be a big deal ? and I believe he will also want to reform the way we make decisions in the same sort of way as the Bank of England was given its independence."
Turning to what has been achieved since Labour returned to power in 1997, Mr Balls said three Private Members' Bills supported by the Government had strengthened the legislation underpinning co-ops.
He added: "We've seen the co-operative and mutual input into financial services strengthened; Supporters Direct has made a big impact in sport and my colleague Ruth Kelly has said she wants to look at the role mutuals can play in housing associations.
"And in healthcare in my own constituency, a mutual organisation ? Local Care Direct ? is successfully providing tailored health services so, all across the piece, the Co-op has been playing a big role, but needs to take an even bigger part in the future because it's local, innovative, trusted and it stands for an ethic in public service that goes beyond public service employment.
"I'm very proud to be a Co-op MP. The Co-op Party has a very strong tradition in my local area in Yorkshire and, really, it acts as our political conscience so that when big issues arrive in the Labour Party or the council, it's the Co-op Party that asks: ?Are you sure this is consistent with the values that have underpinned everything we have done for decades?'
"The Co-op Party has a very important role to play as our conscience. The Labour/Co-op Group at Westminster is powerful and cohesive and it's our task to make sure the Co-op perspective is taken seriously across the Government's agenda. Being a Co-operative MP makes a real difference to the way I conduct myself and the decisions we take."