The co-operative sector has a vital role to play as the UK and the EU attempt to improve their economic growth, Gareth Thomas, chair of the Co-operative Party and shadow minister for Europe, told a fringe event at the Labour Party Conference.
Speaking at the Co-operative Party event, Mr Thomas said co-ops and the social economy could address unemployment in Europe, and had a track record of employing those excluded from the labour market. “There’s an enormous potential for the co-op movement going forward and we need to promote that within EU Council, Commission and Parliament,” he added.
The Labour/Co-op MP argued that co-operatives can act as challengers in the market, increasing competition: in Germany, renewable energy co-ops have brought change to the sector, while in Nordic countries financial co-ops are forcing other companies to offer better services to customers.
“The co-operative tradition is about giving ordinary people more power and it is the role of co-ops to bring consumers together,” he said, calling on the EU to open up funding schemes to create more opportunities for co-operatives and the wider social economy.
The movement also needs intellectual support and research funding from Europe, he added, with member states learning from each other by celebrating successful co-op stories. “We need Europe to be an agent provocateur in the market”, he said.
Mr Thomas wants the European Commission to consider asking banks to publish what they lend, giving them a responsibility to lend to community organisations, credit unions and co-operatives.
“The EU can also bring people with ideas about co-ops and social economy together at individual country level, regional and European level to move the social economy forward,” he said.
Labour MEP Richard Howitt told the session: “Labour and Co-operative parties need to make sure they are leading the debate. The time has come to say not just that co-ops are better and fairer – but also, if we take that into the economy as a whole, we can have a fair and just economy.”
One barrier faced by co-ops in Europe is that they are seen as old fashioned. Ernest Stetter, secretary general of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), thinks the co-operative enterprise model is one that can be sustainable in the long run, but national think tanks and governments need to be convinced that co-ops can be successful enterprises.
Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, added: “The shock news is that co-ops are businesses and businesses sometimes fail. When you look at the failure rate of co-ops as compared to other businesses, the failure rate is lower.”
Research had found that young people think co-ops “are cool”, he added, while some older people tend to perceive them as old fashioned.
“Across Europe the good news is that there are real innovations that we can bring to answer problems that we see here in the UK,” he told delegates. For instance, the new social economy law in France gives employees more power to take over a company going bankrupt, stopping firms from closing down, while in Belgium and Italy unemployed people can claim benefits to form co-ops.
“Europe’s not just a source of innovation for the co-op sector, it is a source of inspiration,” he said.