Editorial: Winning the co-operative vote

With less than 100 days to go until the general election, Ed Miliband has pledged his allegiance to the co-operative model. In a time where there is little...

With less than 100 days to go until the general election, Ed Miliband has pledged his allegiance to the co-operative model.

In a time where there is little confidence in big business, caused in part by the role banks played in the financial crisis and the avoidance of tax payment from companies such as Amazon, the art of co-operation is a tool to bring together people.

Co-operation and collaboration is a mainstay of the modern world. From crowdfunding through to crowdsourcing; collaborative working to freelancer networks; the sharing economy to social media, today’s technologies and innovation has given individuals the opportunity to feel empowered.

It is this sense of empowerment that Labour is tapping into. The success of communities taking ownership of their local shop or pub has been evident over the past few years. But employee buy-outs have never truly taken off.

Ed Miliband proposes the idea of giving workers the right to buy their company if it faces closure or is being sold on. And in completing a loop of sustainability, Labour has also said that its idea for a business investment bank will help support co-operatives with long-term funding.

This is an idea that deserves widespread attention – but it is not a new one. In 2003, the Green Party said: “We will grant employees the legal right to buy out their companies and turn them into workers co-operatives. Buy outs would be funded by a Green National Investment Bank and contingent on the co-ops following green and ethical policies. These  co-ops would localise economic decision-making and give employees incentives for greater productivity.”

Today the Labour leader says that despite the difficulties at the Co-operative Group, the movement’s better years are ahead of it. And he underlined the importance of the Co-operative Party to Labour at a time when it is facing criticism over the financial support the party receives from retail co-operatives.

But, as our movement has made clear through many debates, the co-operative movement is not just about Labour. It has the strongest links with the Labour movement, but the mutual agenda has also been promoted by the coalition government.

The Conservative-led government has supported the creation of public service mutuals and increased the withdrawable share capital limit from £20,000 to £100,000 – an instrument to allow co-operatives to raise greater sums of finance from members. A Co-operatives Act was also pulled together that consolidated many pieces of legislation.

At the last general election, all major parties supported the sector in some way. Conservatives promoted the early idea of public sector mutuals, while the Liberal Democrats said Royal Mail would be handed to the workers and mentioned a bill to strengthen the support for co-ops and mutuals. The previous Labour manifesto promised to mutualise Northern Rock, British Waterways and English Heritage. The Green Party advocated co-op housing and a local food co-op supply chain.

How will co-operatives feature in the general election debate this year? And how many of those promises will actually carry over into government policy?

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