IT remains to be seen whether David Cameron’s recent embrace of the co-op model as the way forward for responsible capitalists will reap real dividends for the Movement – but Labour/Co-op MPs are giving a cautious welcome to the news that the Coalition is backing a new Co-operatives Act to consolidate existing legislation.
The 29-strong Parliamentary group will be keeping a close eye on the Government to ensure it keeps its promises — among them the House of Commons’ newest member, Seema Malhotra. The 39-year-old became an MP just before Christmas, when she won the Feltham and Heston by-election, following the death of MP Alan Keen.
A former management consultant, co-founder and Director of the Fabian Women’s Network and a former National Chair of the Fabian Society, Seema is a Labour high-flyer — but she has strong roots in the area: her family owned a shop there and she went to a local comprehensive.
It’s now 10 years since she joined the Co-operative Party and she was on the Parliamentary panel for several years before being selected as a candidate.
“I have been involved for some time in my local party branch and also on the youth side of things,” she said. “I liked the fact our activists had real ownership and control of their political philosophy.
“This is one of the reasons why increasingly, at a time of great economic hardship, people are finding co-operative solutions to the political problems we are facing.”
Seema is not particularly surprised that the Coalition is now saying the co-operative model has a lot in its favour.
“Cameron and Clegg say the John Lewis and other mutual models work because you feel like you are shopping in a place which has more ethics,” she said.
“But those of us who have been involved with the Co-op Movement for longer have always known that the mutual model is not only sustainable, but preferable.
“If you look at the history of the Movement, it began with the setting up of institutions which offered people real hope as well as the values of fairness.”
This is one of many reasons for the current success of the Co-op Group, she argues, adding: “That ethical attitude goes right across everything we do, from the retail sector through to the Co-operative Bank and Funeralcare.”
Seema served as a former adviser to Harriet Harman during her brief stint as Leader of the Opposition last year.While Labour was in Government, she worked as an adviser for Liam Byrne and Ian Austin when they were regional ministers for the West Midlands.
She is also a former candidate for the London Assembly and in 2007 she was shortlisted for the Asian Women of Achievement awards. But her arrival at Westminster on the crest of an 8.6 per cent swing to Labour is undoubtedly the pinnacle of her career so far.
“It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind, but I absolutely love being here,” she says. “People told me I would win but you can never take anything for granted and I felt quite humbled by our increase in the percentage of the vote.”
As one of Labour’s most highly-rated female politicians, Seema remains committed to furthering gender equality.
“Women have so much to contribute to public life, but too many women can still become invisible because they don’t have enough opportunities to progress,” she adds.
“However, it’s fantastic there are seven Fabian women in the Shadow Cabinet. That really shows Labour’s commitment to taking things forward.”
Her election means the number of Labour/Co-op MPs remains constant at 29 and, in the months ahead, she will be keeping a close eye on Cameron and Clegg to see just how much they really back co-op values.
Like her colleagues in the Labour/Co-op Parliamentary Group, she believes the Government needs to go an awful lot further — and give the Co-op Party some credit – for the legislative work already done in Parliament.
Another key priority will be trying to ensure support for another Bill being put forward by fellow Labour/Co-op MP Jonathan Reynolds, which would for the first time establish co-operative housing tenure in law.
“It’s great to be part of the Co-op Group in Parliament,” says Seema. “We are going to be working hard to challenge the Government when we need to and take a close look at the issues we should be raising.
“But if the Prime Minister is serious about creating a co-operative economy in this country, he needs to understand the breadth and depth of the Co-operative Movement and the contribution we can make to solving our political and economic problems.”