In the run-up to the general election, the main political parties have released their manifestos. What does this mean for co-operatives and are there any commitments
to the sector?
The Conservatives are talking about the Big Society “involving the people, neighbourhoods, villages, towns and cities of Britain” to improve the country.
The manifesto says: “The Big Society is a vision of a more engaged nation, one in which we take more responsibility for ourselves and our neighbours; communities working together, not depending on remote and impersonal bureaucracies.”
It goes on to discuss how volunteering is at a ten-year high and that charitable donations have increased, as an example of people working together. Also mentioned is parents’ groups and charities running free schools and social enterprises helping people into jobs through the Work Programme.
The Conservative pledge to communities is that its government will “give more people the power and support to run a school, start their own social enterprise, and take over their own local parks, landmarks and pubs”.
It adds: “We will encourage the 1,400 communities engaged in neighbourhood planning to complete the process and assist others to draw up their own plans. And we will take new steps to encourage volunteering, enabling more people to join the unsung heroes who are the backbone of communities across Britain.”
The party also talks about how it will “deliver better public services and more open government” through public service mutuals. It says: “We want more of them, so we will guarantee a ‘right to mutualise’ within the public sector. This will free up the entrepreneurial spirit of public servants and yield better value for money for taxpayers.”
Support for credit unions has been pledged to make “financial services more accessible”.
The Greens manifesto is “for the common good”, which looks at creating a “more equal, more democratic society”.
Co-operatives are part of the party’s energy policy. It says: “We have to build a secure and affordable energy system that meets our basic needs while protecting our environment.”
Part of this will include supporting energy supplies from community, co-operative and locally owned renewable energy projects. The manifesto adds: “We will end the dominance of the Big Six energy companies. We will stabilise the ‘policy landscape’ for renewable energy to provide certainty for investment decisions, including long-term targets and stable feed-in tariffs.”
Co-ops also feature in the housing policy, where the Greens pledge to “break up the big builder cartels and diversify the house-building industry so that more homes are built by small and medium-sized builders and by community-led and co-operative initiatives”.
Part of this strategy will see the transfer of public land into community land trusts.
The Greens say that most economic activity takes place in limited companies where workers, customers and suppliers have little say. It believes the economy would improve if there was a greater diversity of economic models and more control by those most directly involved in the organisation.
It will do this by supporting social enterprise and by granting employees the legal right in certain circumstances to buy out their companies (funded by the Green Investment Bank) and turn them into workers’ co-operatives.
A co-operative development fund will finance new and expanding co-operatives, alongside a much more comprehensive nationwide network of co-operative development bodies providing the necessary education, training and legal support.
Co-operative education will also be expanded by teaching young people the history of co-operatives, as well as how to set them up in practice. It said business qualifications will give the same emphasis to co-operative and mutual business models as to other private enterprises.
Labour’s manifesto is “a plan to reward hard work, share prosperity and build a better Britain”.
Party leader Ed Miliband opens the document by talking about people sharing power in communities, which links in with Labour’s strategy to improve productivity.
The manifesto looks to an economy based on “mutual obligations, encouraging employers and employees to build partnerships for improving both business performance and job quality”.
It adds: “Our charities, mutuals, co-ops and social enterprises are pioneering new models of production that enhance social value, promote financial inclusion, and give individuals and communities control.
“We will continue to support and help develop the social economy by improving access for co-operative and mutual organisations to growth finance through the new British Investment Bank. And we will consider how to support employee buy-outs when businesses are being sold.”
The Royal Mail will also see a staff-led trust where employees will own 70% of the business, with the remaining 30% in public ownership.
Labour also pledges to provide more public control over the railways. “A new National Rail body will oversee and plan for the railways and give rail users a greater say in how trains operate,” says the manifesto. “We will legislate so that a public sector operator is allowed to take on lines and challenge the private train operating companies on a level playing field.”
A levy on payday lenders will help to fund credit unions – as a low-cost alternative to dealing with household debt.
The Lib Dems discuss giving power to the people through devolution, democracy and citizenship.
Their manifesto says: “For freedom to be meaningful, people need the power not just to make decisions about their own lives, but about the way their country, their community, their workplace and more are run.”
The manifesto adds that it has supported employee democracy and the mutuals movement.
In building on this, the party says it will “spread democracy in everyday life by encouraging mutuals, co-operatives and employee participation and by increasing the opportunities for people to take democratic control over the services on which they rely”.
It will do this by encouraging employers to promote employee participation and employee ownership and will change company law to permit a German-style two-tier board structure to include employees.
Football fans will be given a greater say in how their clubs are run by encouraging the reform of football governance rules to promote engagement between clubs and supporters.
Local libraries which come under the threat of closure will first be offered for transfer to the local community, and mutual structures and employee participation will also be spread through the public sector.
In helping to protect consumers, the Lib Dems say they will help people to form energy co-operatives so they can benefit from group discounts and cut their bills.
It said Scotland’s future should be decided by the people who live in the country, and this includes the decisions that affect local communities. The SNP will support the Community Empowerment Bill, which was introduced to Parliament earlier this year. The bill improves civic and community engagement and empowerment, including on the use of public assets.
If successful, it said SNP MPs will seek ways of extending the community asset transfer provisions of the legislation to include property in Scotland owned by UK government departments.
An Empowering Communities Fund will have an additional £10 million to allocate in this coming year – enabling the support of over 200 community projects.
It is also looking to increase support for the community ownership of local energy projects through its £20 million local energy challenge fund. This fund provides support for projects from community groups, local councils and housing associations, among others, with the aim of delivering 500MW of locally-owned renewable generation by 2020.
One of its aims is to grow and strengthen local economies, both urban and rural. Part of this will be through the Social Entrepreneurs Fund, which will encourage and support community social enterprises.
The manifesto focuses on a grassroots approach, advocating a stronger level of local government to “ensure that local government and public services in Wales are democratically accountable to the people and communities they serve.”
It says it will make use of existing third sector structures to develop a Connected Communities programme aimed at “promoting and supporting community and neighbourhood level action across Wales” and also wants to “establish a Social Innovation Hub to explore pressing social issues”.
Outlining plans to create a Welsh Development Bank, whose primary role would be to ensure adequate credit for Welsh businesses, Plaid Cymru also specifically talks about encouraging “alternative company models to the limited company/plc model” and says it will “consider the benefits of establishing a Welsh Institute of Employee Ownership to encourage the creation of companies which are owned or controlled by employees”.
On the ownership of established assets, it says it will give communities “stronger powers to protect their local assets, including land and buildings” and help keep their their local parks, pubs, shops and post offices.
Plaid Cymru supports public ownership of railways and the Severn Bridges, so profits can be reinvested into Welsh transport infrastructure, and also believes communities “should benefit more from energy generation”.
“We want to see local people owning and investing in energy projects,” says the manifesto. “We will increase the advice and support available to local communities on how they can best benefit from energy generation projects.”
It also says Plaid Cymru will work towards improving facilities and qualifications for childcare and older persons’ care, “including social enterprises and co-operatives”.
- This article was amended on 22 April 2015, to include manifesto summaries of the the SNP (published 20 April) and Plaid Cymru