‘Party is in great shape despite poll defeat’

Just over 100 days since the Con/Lib Dem Coalition came to power, Gareth Thomas remains in optimistic mood.

The 43-year-old Chair of the Co-operative Party is very proud of what has been achieved in the ten years he has been at the helm. He also believes that, despite Labour’s general election defeat, the Co-operative Movement is the strongest it has been for many decades.

At the forthcoming Co-operative Party annual conference in Cardiff (September 10th–12th), the Harrow West Labour/Co-op MP will be outlining the key reasons why there is much to posiitve about.

Says Gareth: “In terms of its relationship with the Labour Party, the Co-op Movement is in a very strong position and has re-built its credibility in the movement. 

“Looking back at when Labour came to power in 1997, we did not have that level of credibility. There had been a decline in a sense that lots of co-ops were going to the wall or in trouble. But that has changed.”

As Party Chair, Gareth helped steer the Industrial and Provident Societies Bill through Parliament, despite strong opposition. As he now acknowledges, that piece of legislation created a much more secure legal framework for community, co-operative and mutual organisations.

It also brought about a change in perception — and recognition that mutually-run initiatives have a lot to offer.

“It is also highly significant that each of the five Labour leadership candidates recognises the importance of the Co-op Movement and its values,” says Gareth. “It shows that the ground has shifted and that the co-operative model is one that brings people together and protects them because it is more compassionate way of doing things.”

Gareth cites the growing popularity and success of credit unions and other initiatives like football supporters’ trusts and foundation hospitals as proof that people want to see a fairer way of doing business.

Before his promotion to the ministerial ranks, he chaired the All-Party Renewable Energy Group, where he campaigned for the introduction of emissions trading, a sustainable energy agency and greater help to boost the take-up of renewable energy. 

He introduced draft legislation to ban smoking in cafés and restaurants and has campaigned for the introduction of the alternative vote (AV) system in elections and for the introduction of compulsory voting (with a right to register an abstention).

He also worked on a number of standing committees to deliver the Pollution Prevention and Control Bill, the National Lottery Bill, NHS Reform, Terrorism Bill, Regulation of Investigation Powers Bill and the Football Disorder Bill.

In 1999 he became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Charles Clarke, Minister of State at the Home Office, and stayed with him on his promotion to the Cabinet as Party Chairman in 2001 and as Education Secretary in 2002.

But some of his proudest achievements came after 2003 when he became a junior minister for trade policy and divided his time between the Department for International Development (DFID) and the new Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. He was promoted to Minister of State rank with the same dual brief in October 2008, then re-appointed Minister of State in the Department for International Development in June 2009.

“During my time in government, I’m probably most proud of being able to help co-operatives in Africa, and granting £5 million to help them expand. We also were behind a big push to target HIV and AIDS, and in April 2010, just before the general election, the DFID gave 2.5 billion dollars to help build new infrastructure in Africa.”

Gareth was re-elected in Harrow West in May with an increased majority and now serves as a Shadow Minister in the Treasury and International Development teams. He is a member of the Fabian Society and has written extensively on social responsibility and a low-carbon economy.

Now he believes the Co-operative Party must do its utmost to help Labour begin a concerted fightback against the Coalition. He adds: “Ironically in the Co-op Party we had a good general election with a whole series of new people coming through. Our PLP was refreshed and the Co-op Party now has the biggest group it has ever had in Parliament. We have 28 MPs and there are also a number who stood down who are now in the House of Lords.

“Whoever the new Labour Party leader is, we need to help him or her think things through and come up with ideas for a new generation and develop policy ideas.”

Gareth hopes all avenues of post-election policy will be thoroughly explored in Cardiff: “There is going to be a big debate about all the issues. Issues like Trident come up periodically, but I think the biggest debate is about where we go from here politically.

“As far as the Co-op Party goes, we have had a bit of a surge in membership. It’s now about 7,500 and we are the fourth largest political party in terms of MPs — but obviously we need to build our membership base and bring in younger people and more women and ethnic minorities.

“One of my key messages at conference will be to have confidence in what we have achieved and recognise that we are in a stronger place than we have ever been

“Labour must renew itself and reach out to those who did not vote for them last time and we have got to be on their side. My own view is there must be a wholesale review of Party policy and we should bring in people from outside the Party, people from business and the trade unions. 

“Labour should also look to the Co-op Movement for advice and support. The Coalition is making cuts at a scale and pace which is far too fast, so we need to come up with an effective response to the cuts, build our membership, develop our range of policy proposals and make sure that we put our ideas forward.”

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