Co-operative Party annual conference: the debates

A key part of the 2014 Co-operative Party annual conference was the culmination of the Party’s policy development process, which is in its second year. The purpose of...

A key part of the 2014 Co-operative Party annual conference was the culmination of the Party’s policy development process, which is in its second year.

The purpose of this process is to give all members the opportunity to input ideas and discuss the policies that will form the basis of the Party’s 2015 election manifesto.

Throughout the weekend, members debated Co-operative Party policy on: communities and local government; energy and environment; co-operative development and consumer affairs; women and equalities; international development; and health and social care.

Debate 1: Local government and communities

Co-ops should be “building communities that promote a sense of belonging,” said Alun Michael, Labour and Co-op Party police and crime commissioner for South Wales, in the opening debate of the Co-operative Party annual conference.

Discussions included how the Scottish referendum has brought the devolution debate to the centre, and how “co-ops should be at heart of this debate”.

Steve Reed MP discussed how “people’s trust in politics is broken,” while Labour’s Florence Nosegbe said “there is still a perception that [politicians] don’t trust people”.

Tanmanjeet Dhesi also raised concerns that county councils are “becoming commissioning bodies instead of delivering services”.


Debate 2: Energy and climate change

Energy was one of the main topics discussed at the Co-operative Party conference this year, with a strong emphasis on the role of community energy schemes.

The party’s policy paper highlights the potential for a movement towards communities collectively owning their own energy for meeting the challenges of fuel poverty, energy security and climate change. It also looks at the contribution of community shops to rural economies, the role of co-operatives in managing community waste, and the importance of local food and co-operative farming.

In his speech at the conference, Labour/Co-op MP and shadow minister for energy and climate change, Tom Greatrex, said that “the energy market doesn’t work for the people of Britain” because it “protects vested interests”. He added that the change required would be complex and challenging, but it would give the chance to open the energy market, diversify the energy mix and democratising the market.

According to Mr Greatrex, the shadow energy team is determined to “break up” the monopoly of the big six energy giants. As part of their strategy, they aim to freeze energy prices, replace Ofgen with a new regulator and set binding carbon targets.

He added: “A modern mutual model can and does work”. Referring to the government’s Energy Bill, Mr Greatrex said it “failed to tackle the lack of transparency, liquidity and way in which the market is structured”. He was one of the Labour/Co-op MPs championing an amendment to the Bill which increased the maximum specified capacity ceiling for eligible community energy projects under the feed in tariffs scheme from 5 to 10mw.

But change is also about tackling the “appalling levels of energy waste seen in communities across the UK”, he added.

Mr Greatrex has also criticised the government for its decision to abandon a scheme to help households make their homes more energy efficient, after funds were exhausted due to strong demand.

“The cheapest energy is the energy we don’t use,” he said, adding that a Labour government would provide assessments to the poorest households on how to improve energy efficiency. He also highlighted that community energy projects could play a role in helping that happen.

“The government is too timid to bring about changes,” said Mr Greatrex, “so it’s time to have a government that can bring about that change, reforming markets and ensuring regulation is fit for purpose.”

He added: “The prize is a greater framework for more inclusive, transparent and diverse energy system,” explaining that this was both a challenge and an opportunity to be seized.


Debate 3: Co-operative development and consumer affairs

“Co-operative development and consumer affairs is an important area for co-operative values” said Stella Creasy in an address to delegates at the Co-operative Party annual conference.

Ms Creasy, Labour and Co-operative MP for Walthamstow, emphasised how consumer rights were a “fundamental part of social justice”.

“Across every industry you should know what you’re getting for your money and where your money is going,” she said. “But too many people are afraid of complaining about public services.”

Barry Sheerman, shadow minister for social security, said the movement needed “more of a synthesis between worker co-ops and consumer co-ops”, suggesting a combination of the John Lewis model with the traditional co-operative model.

“We need to open our minds to innovation and experimentation,” said Mr Sheerman. “We now have access to social media and social innovation through phones, both locally and globally.” He cited crowdfunding and crowdsourcing as two ways co-operatives could engage with social impact investment.

“It’s an opportunity to be revolutionary,” he added.

Derek Walker, director of the Wales Cooperative Centre, agreed, saying that more research and development by co-operatives was needed so that the products and services being delivered were the ones that people wanted, and that the quality of jobs being created was maintained.

“Co-operative development is fundamental to the health of our movement,” he said. “Co-operative businesses are massively important to the local economy, not just because they retain wealth or put communities and services at their heart, but because they also invest in their staff.”

He added that small and medium businesses are proving the robustness of the model, but expressed concerned about the lack of awareness of co-operatives. “Education is at the heart of the co-op movement, but you can go through the whole education system and not learn about co-operatives or social enterprises,” he said.

One place that co-operatives are making a visible difference within the education sector is in schools is Plymouth.

“Here, the entire school food estate has been turned into a co-operative,” explained Luke Pollard, the prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport. This includes the provision of dinners at all schools – including free schools and academies – both in term time and during the holidays, providing hot meals year-round for children whose families struggle to afford it.

“It means that we kept jobs in plymouth,” said Mr Pollard, “and is an example of how co-operative development can provide a practical response to coalition policies”

In Plymouth, schools are also encouraged to get involved in community energy, with 21 primary schools already fitted with rooftop solar panels.

“We need to be bold in what we’re doing,” said Mr Pollard. “We need to move away from niche ideas, take our values and principles, and turn these into co-operatives.”


Debate 4: Women and equalities

“The Co-operative Party’s national executive committee is gender balanced for the first time,” said committee member Lis Telcs at the opening of the party’s debate on women and equalities.

At the fourth debate at the Co-operative Party annual conference, delegates heard from Seema Malhotra MP, who was recently appointed as shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls, a new role established by the Labour party as part of a wider strategy against violence.

“We need to not just tackle the system,” she said, “but we need an integrated approach to prevention – a more joined-up, co-operative, approach.

“The co-operative movement is best-placed to be part of these campaigns for women and girls.”

Louise Baldock, the Labour and Co-operative prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC) for Stockton South, highlighted how as a female politician she “stands on the shoulders of giants, of female co-operative pioneers who made a difference in a man’s world”.

“All policies are women’s policies, all documents discussed are women’s documents,” she said. “We could put everything we have discussed this weekend into this document.”

She also touched on LGBTQ discrimination, saying that even PPCs are afraid to come out before running for election. However Ms Baldock, who came out as bisexual in 2009, said that she is proud to be part of that battle against discrimination.

“Co-operative values can only be enshrined once we are all equal,” added Sanchia Alasia, a Labour party councillor and Co-op Party member. “Co-ops are leading this agenda, but until we reach full parity, our thoughts and policies cannot be taken fully into account. We also need greater parity in terms of disability and ethnicity.”

This view was echoed by Caroline Penn, the Labour and Co-operative PPC for Hollingdean and Stanmer, who was disappointed that there was no mention of mental health in the document. “Nine out of 10 people with mental health issues have suffered from stigma,” she said, adding that “this stigma also stops people getting help and support.”

“This conference has excluded disabled people,” added another delegate, who also highlighted that the policy document under discussion had no mention of disabilities.

Cllr Peter Walker believed the issue of disability warranted greater individual debate. “Women’s issues and issues of disabled people are completely different and should not have been lumped together – sometimes they converge, but most issues are completely different,” he said.

Mr Walker added that the venue hosting the conference was not as accessible as it could be, pointing out that, as a wheelchair user, he could not use the non-adjustable podium where other delegates spoke from.


Debate 5: International development

The Co-operative Party’s policy document on international development focused on tackling poverty, trade justice and how co-operative growth and resilience can be used to approach both of these.

“Poverty is political and the co-operative movement has a proud record of helping to tackle global poverty through support for international development and the establishment of self-help initiatives”, the document stated. This was echoed by shadow development minister Alison McGovern, who opened the debate by saying that some of the ideas that enable peace to thrive are ”financial stability and the ability to finance a better life”.

“At the moment there are still too many problems with our labour market. Gain is fixed against those who have least,” she said.

Delegates also heard from Tim Aldred, head of policy and research at the Fairtrade Foundation, who said 80% of those within the Fairtrade system are smallholders. “Individuals suffer,” he said, “but they are stronger together. Together they have more power in their relationship with buyers.”

He recognised that the co-operative movement has been a staunch ally of Fairtrade. “However,” he said, “we need poverty reduction back at the heart of trade policy. It’s time to raise the bar on commitments to buying Fairtrade […] Being Fairtrade-certified is no good for farmers if there isn’t a market for their products.”

Continuing the debate, one delegate noted that there was nothing in the paper about sustainability, while Linda Shaw from the Co-operative College called for better business support services for international co-operatives.

Delegates also discussed issue of development within the wide political climate. “Without peace, there is no development,” said Colin Bastin of the London Co-op Party.


Debate 6: Health and social care

At the conference debate on health, discussion focused on the NHS and social care provision.

One delegate said it was “imperative we put the emphasis on staff”, while Labour councillor Sanchia Alasia agreed the solution should be “a co-operative one”.

Luciana Berger, MP for Liverpool Wavertree, highlighted how the co-operative values of democracy and social solidarity are “needed by the NHS more than ever”.

In this article

Join the Conversation