Co-op Party braces for battle on two fronts

With only a couple of weeks to go till the general election, Labour/Co-op candidates face a battle on two fronts.   More than 40 prospective parliamentary candidates are...

With only a couple of weeks to go till the general election, Labour/Co-op candidates face a battle on two fronts.  

More than 40 prospective parliamentary candidates are standing this time, with 14 new candidates and 28 former MPs standing for re-election against the backdrop of a serious funding crisis with the Co-operative Group. The fate of the Co-operative Party’s relationship with the Group will be decided at an AGM in Manchester on 16 May.

For now, Labour/Co-op candidates are focusing on winning a majority large enough for Ed Miliband to form a government. The Co-op Party’s 2015 Manifesto sets out a detailed agenda for a social economy through which co-op and mutual organisations can work together for change.

Radical plans include building up to 20,000 co-operative homes a year and increasing the number of co-op schools to 3,000 by 2020. The document makes the case for a “John Lewis economy” where employees can share the ownership, decision-making and profits of Britain’s businesses.

Describing lack of access to external capital as a ‘serious limiting factor’ on growth, it says the government should legislate to allow co-operatives and other mutuals to issue redeemable shares that may be offered to members who wish to invest in the business.

There are also calls for a dramatic increase in community energy, as well as the right for communities to invest in new energy generation projects and take over ownership of their local electricity grid supply. Co-operative principles would also be applied to enable a not-for-profit operator to be established on the railway.

The manifesto calls for the establishment of an Armed Forces credit union with a levy on payday lenders, which would be used to build the capacity of credit unions.

Sport is also included in the policy agenda, which argues fans should have the right to appoint a minimum of two board directors for all football clubs, giving Supporter Trusts the option to buy up to 10% of the shares of a club at the point of transfer of ownership.

David Drew
David Drew

Parliamentary hopeful David Drew   takes a keen interest in community-based football as vice-chair of Forest Green Rovers in Gloucestershire.

He is also aiming to return to Westminster as Labour/Co-op MP for Stroud, the constituency he served for 13 years from 1997 to 2010, when he narrowly lost to Conservative Neil Carmichael.

Since losing his seat, David has been active in local politics. He was elected back onto the Stroud District Council in 2011. A founder member  of the Stroud Credit Union, he has helped many co-operative initiatives get off the ground, including the Care And Repair home improvements agency, as well as working with a local printing co-op. He is also a supporter of a community land trust, which is building 50 affordable homes in the middle of the constituency.

“This is a very marginal seat and it’s going to be very close,” he says. “It will go a few thousand votes either way and the more parties there are standing, the more uncertain the situation.”

He is hopeful that his long track record working with the co-operative sector in Stroud will give him the extra edge he needs to win.

“There is something about the Co-op Party that interests people,” he adds. “I think it’s more difficult in this election because the Co-op brand has been tainted in the past couple of years but people often ask about why I am standing as a Labour/Co-op MP. It’s my job to persuade them there is something different and positive about that.

“As a movement, we have had a couple of bad years psychologically. It’s done a lot of damage in the way people think but we have learnt a lot of lessons. We need to get back to our local roots as a community-based organisation and re-stress our ethical standpoint.

“Despite the problems, when you see a Co-op store you know it is serving the local community and doing the best it can – whether that is retail, Funeralcare or other sectors of the movement.”

If re-elected, David hopes his fellow Labour/Co-op MPs will put more emphasis on working together. “We need to make sure Labour/Co-op MPs are in touch with all co-operative agencies in their constituencies to build at a local level,” he argues.

“Here in Gloucestershire, we have a very active Co-operative Futures and we should make sure the co-operative way forward is always one of the options when start-ups are taking place.”

Over the years, David has won a lot of respect for his independent stance on issues from Trident to the EU. A committed Christian socialist, he has just published his own ‘personal manifesto’ outlining his priorities.

“A fifth of people in this district earn too little to live on,” he says. “About 3,000 people are waiting for a council house. Young people can’t get on the housing ladder till later in life. We need the best start for our young people, support to stay on post-16, lower tuition fees and good vocational courses as well as good universities.”

His list of preferred policies includes an end to fracking and support for renewable energy, as well as rail re-nationalisation. “I would rather people knew where I stood. A lot of the votes I get are from people who trust my politics even if they are not necessarily natural Labour supporters.

“As a Labour/Co-op candidate, I am trying to find ways to make more organisations accountable to the people who use them and work for them. That’s a core part of my beliefs.”

The 2015 cohort of Labour/Co-op candidates comprises the largest number ever of women. These include Louise Baldock in Stockton South, Rachael Maskell in York Central and Kate Osamor for Edmonton.

Sarah Owen
Sarah Owen

Sarah Owen is standing in the highly marginal seat of Hastings and Rye – one of the target seats Labour must win to stand a chance of forming a government. She has a 2,000 majority to overturn.

Born and raised in the seaside town, she is part of a new political generation putting co-operative principles at the heart of their campaigns. Sarah has been closely involved in the local campaign to save Hastings Pier and run it as a community enterprise.

“I joined the Labour Party about 11 years ago and started getting involved with the co-op quite early on,” she says. “A couple of members were working very strongly on the Fairtrade side of things in our local branches and my interest really grew from there.

“Hastings Pier is a brilliant example of what the co-operative movement can do and how community ownership can work. We were very clear we wanted it to be community-owned once it was rebuilt – and hopefully in the summer we will see it open through a mixture of community shares and Heritage Lottery Funding. The pier encapsulates what’s good about the town and its sense of community. ”

She adds: “When you look at Hastings, what’s happening for many people is low-income jobs and zero hours contracts, with nearly 30% of people struggling with debt. We are working closely with credit unions and organisations like Christians Against Poverty.

“In terms of wages in rural parts of the community, we have seen an 11.9% drop and there are food banks in Rye. I never thought it would happen.”

Since 2011, Sarah has worked as a right-hand woman for Lord Sugar in the House of Lords, dealing with everything from research to helping with preparation for speeches.

“I put in my CV and was surprised when I got an interview,” she says. “It was surreal. I was more than scared but I enjoyed every minute of it. I liked his bluntness and honesty. I have huge respect for him – he has high standards and is very fair.”

Sarah says her interest in running for Parliament was sparked by several years working as a carer, as well as countless shifts caring for patients at the town’s Conquest Hospital.

“I was going into old people’s homes and they used to give us a 15-minute time limit for each one.  One day I went to this lady’s house and she was in a pretty awful state so I stayed. The boss kept ringing and ringing asking what I was doing and I thought this was no way to do things as a society.

“I felt I needed to get more involved in politics – and eventually, when there was a chance to stand, I went for it.”

Sarah is particularly interested in sports, where she would like to see more employee-shared ownership for football clubs. “Fan ownership is a really good way to have a level playing field, in a similar vein to Hastings Pier,” she says. “There is a real need for regeneration and it does take intervention.

“There should be more support for co-operatives. For example, it would be fantastic for buses, where Ed Miliband has come back to say, let’s repair some of the damage caused by deregulation  and have some control back, in the same way  as Transport For London.”

Like David Drew and many other Labour/Co-op candidates, Sarah Owen gives her full backing to the Keep It Co-op campaign, which is aiming to save the financial link between the Co-operative Group and the Co-operative Party.

Last year, the Group’s subscription to the Co-operative Party was £625,600.  Without that funding, the Co-operative Party faces a serious financial struggle.

David’s local society is the Midcounties Co-operative, which last year ended its automatic annual subscription to the Co-op Party of around £47,000 – although it continues to donate.

But David remains optimistic about the future of the Co-operative Party, founded in 1917 by more than 100 retail societies to defend themselves from discriminatory laws and other obstacles put in their way by the Lloyd George government.

“I think we will survive whatever happens – however, I think we can win the vote,” he says. “Let’s face it, if you ask any group, does it want to support politicians, they will  probably say no – but it needs a proper case put across over time.

“The Keep It Co-op Campaign has massive support and what we have to do is make the Co-operative Group see the error of their ways.

Sarah adds: “As a member of the Co-operative Party, I am 100% behind the campaign. We have a long-standing relationship with the Co-operative Group and we want to see that stay.”

The current debate around Co-op Party funding arguably comes at a time when links between the Labour Party and the co-op movement are particularly close.

Ed Miliband recently described the Co-operative Group and wider movement’s relationship with Labour – through the Co-operative Party – as a ‘vital partnership’ for Britain’s future.

He said: “Whether standing up to the vested interests in our economy or devolving power in the public services we rely on, these values are part of the fundamental change we need in the way that Britain is run and governed.

“Co-op Party ideas for promoting credit unions, reforming our energy market, empowering consumers, increasing the voice of passengers and employees in how transport services are run, putting football fans back at the heart of their clubs, are already shaping our thinking.

“I am determined to ensure the election of the next Labour and Co-operative government marks the beginning of a new culture of co-operative entrepreneurship in the UK, with a growing co-operative, mutual and employee-owned sector.”

Ahead of the vote, a robust campaign on social media is urging the 2.8 million members of the Co-operative Group to lend support to the Keep It Co-op Campaign.

The Co-operative Party is also calling on the Co-operative Group to maintain its commitment to co-operative values and principles in letters to CEO Richard Pennycook.

Karin Christiansen (Image: Co-op Party)
Karin Christiansen (Image: Co-op Party)

Co-operative Party general secretary Karin Christiansen said: “Members support the Co-op Group’s vital role as a campaigning organisation and as a business that is fundamentally different. Ultimately, to be serious about a better society means engaging in politics and changing legislation.

“If the Group wants to play a leading role in the future growth of the co-operative movement, then it can’t afford not to stay politically engaged.”

She added: “Today, the debate within the Group over whether it turns its back on co-operative politics comes at a time when the public are growing increasingly interested in alternatives to profit-driven private business.

“With a history of achieving social and economic progress, the Co-op Group and the wider movement are uniquely positioned to ride this wave of public sentiment. The Party is ready to support this resurgence.

“We want to start an exciting and constructive debate in which we will talk about everything the co-operative movement has achieved through direct political action and representation. Looking ahead, we believe the Co-op should be supporting the radical reform of Britain’s economy so that more employees are able to share in the ownership, decision-making and profits of Britain’s businesses.

“We are calling on the Co-op Group board to work with us to get the most out of the relationship.”

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