As polling day shock fades, what’s next for the co-operative movement?

The dust is beginning to settle in the wake of a general election with a result almost no-one was expecting. Instead of the close fight down to the...

The dust is beginning to settle in the wake of a general election with a result almost no-one was expecting. Instead of the close fight down to the wire predicted by nearly all the opinion polls, the Conservatives defied all expectation and easily gained the seats they needed to form a government. 

Labour leader Ed Miliband immediately resigned in the aftermath. Some of the co-operative movement’s leading politicians in parliament, including shadow chancellor Ed Balls, lost their seats, dashing hopes of exciting new initiatives like Labour’s British Investment Bank.

Here, Co-operative News has spoken to some of the key lobbyists and co-op political advocates to look at the next five years of a Conservative government.

They believe there are positive prospects for the sector, built on a solid bedrock of decades of work with all political parties to promote co-operative values. They also include a Conservative Party manifesto offering support to “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”.

There is also specific government backing for credit unions and mutuals – and a year before the election David Cameron even used a keynote speech at  John Lewis in Cheadle to voice his strong support for the co-ownership model.

So, what lies ahead?


James Wright (Policy Officer, Co-operatives UK)

James Wright
James Wright

“It’s probably a different slant than we would have had if the outcome had been different, but there are things in the Conservative manifesto which provide real opportunities for co-operative growth.

“They are very supportive of the community ownership agenda which began with the coalition and has been one of our main growth areas in the last five years.

“The Conservatives have also made a number of commitments to strengthen community rights with the growing number of community buy-outs, and we need to ensure that the community shares agenda stays aligned to that.

“If Conservatives are supporting community rights, they need to ensure that policy for co-ops and mutuals around regulation is favourably aligned in terms of how it would work within a legal and regulatory framework regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority.

“In the last six to eight months there have been issues around aggressive over-regulation of the sector. What we would hope a Conservative government would do is to explain to the FCA and take seriously issues around how societies are being regulated. Ultimately there may be some leadership required by the government.

“There is definitely still opportunity there, though it is not being handed to us on a plate. But if we can appeal to core Conservative principles like self-help we can still do a lot.

“For example, Conservatives really like the idea of saving local pubs  and one of the things they have promised is a Pubs Loan Fund to work and support communities. They have definitely recognised the value of co-op and community ownership and made high-level commitment to support social enterprise and give people more power and support.

“We can also see some opportunities in agriculture promoting British food around the world which all parties supported. We would like the government to play more of a co-ordinating approach as a cheerleader for agricultural co-ops.

“Initiatives like Scottish Food and Drink have shown us this is a great way of bringing farmers’ efforts together so there are opportunities here for agricultural co-ops elsewhere in the UK.

“What we need to be clear on is to make sure that co-ops stay in that picture and our main objective will have to be positioning co-ops within the field of social enterprise.

“Labour had specific objectives like the British Investment Bank. The Conservative manifesto did not make that kind of specific commitment so we need to do a bit of extra work.”


Claire McCarthy (Head of External and Political Affairs for The Co-operative Party)

Claire McCarthy
Claire McCarthy

“Like everyone else in the political world we were surprised because the opinion polls and eventual result were quite different.

“It’s sad to lose MPs like Cathy Jamieson, who was a great supporter of mutual ideas in financial services, and Tom Greatrex, a passionate champion of community energy.

“But we still have some brilliant champions of the movement in place, including three new female MPs who will continue to make the case passionately for co-operative principles.

“We developed our agenda for Britain which we intend to pursue just as rigorously now the election is over. We will work with MPs to identify policy priorities and we have shown we are able to influence government agendas whoever is in power.

“Our work on military credit unions was announced before parliament rose in March and there have been tenders from three large credit unions to move that forward.

“There is still lots to take forward, like projects in community energy including the potential for direct supply. We will be looking at what more can be done to support and enable provision and continue to expand the potential, raising the awareness of children and the next generation.

“There is a great measure of consensus about the potential of  a greater number of co-operative and regional models to be more significant.

“We need to look at how we can build that up more so a larger percentage of business in this country are established on a co-operative basis. That is something all parties would like to see.

“We need to look at what the barriers are to growth and expansion and how legislation disfavours co-op models. But there is always an opportunity, whoever is in power, and we will be out there making the case for our values and doing everything we can to forward our agenda.

“Whoever is in power, we need to work hard to approach the policy agenda on behalf of the co-op movement and work to get the best deal we can. The work of co-operative schools is inspiring.

“I think the other thing to say is that, increasingly, decisions are being made and power is being devolved to local councils in Wales, Scotland and England, so we are still represented at all levels of government with increasing devolution to city regions and local administrations. So co-op values are operating at every level, not just central government.”


Peter Hunt (Chief Executive of the Mutuo think-tank and former General Secretary of the Co-operative Party)

Peter Hunt
Peter Hunt

“The situation may be different but not very different from what we have had for the last five years.

“What the Lib Dems brought to the table in the coalition was a strong interest in employee ownership which was gone along with, but not that enthusiastically. So the only thing that has changed is there are no Liberal Democrats so there will be less emphasis on employee ownership.

“What we are left with is a straightforward Conservative government with a fairly traditional view. On the upside, the Conservatives have been very supportive and helpful to mutual insurers and building societies and have also facilitated the consolidation of co-ops legislation and have responded to the reasoning put forward by our sector.

“There is no evidence of any real commitment to growing parts of the mutual sector, but the positive thing is they did respond to specific requests. So the job for all of us in the mutual sector is to make sure we are clear about what we are asking for from this new government.

“Instead of approaching them with philosophical arguments, it will be more about specific changes to legislation and policy. There is a good chance they will respond to those kind of thoughtful, evidence-based proposals.

“The difficulty is there are no natural enthusiasts within the Conservative government, so it’s not like we have a natural well of supporters like we do with Labour – so we are going to need to be very scientific in our approach. The experience of the past five years will be very similar to the next.

“We will be working with mutual insurers to implement the Mutual Shares Act which became law just before the end of the last parliament with secondary legislation offering an opportunity to establish new capital instruments for mutual insurers.

“We might have to take small steps and it’s going to be different but it does not diminish possibilities, it is just a different approach.”


Neil Cuthbert (Director of Public Affairs Co-operative)

Neil Cuthbert
Neil Cuthbert

“The first thing to say is although the polls did not match up to the result, here in Scotland they were showing that the SNP were going to do extremely well. Nicola Sturgeon ran a good campaign so what was always going to be a very good result became an excellent result for her and the SNP now has the same number of MPs the Lib Dems had.

“The Conservative campaign was planned to raise fears about the situation in Scotland but we must move away from that and work with the SNP because their influence now extends way beyond Scotland and they have plenty of talented men and women from all walks of life. They may not be experienced members of Parliament, but they have plenty to offer politics.

“This may not necessarily be as bad a result as people might think. I think the new government does see the value of co-ops.

“David Cameron has repeatedly talked about how they have an important part to play. Last year he used a speech at John Lewis in Cheadle to say that and there was a lot of supportive stuff in the Conservative manifesto.

“I think the new business secretary Sajid David will be quite a key person for the wider movement. He is very much seen as a rising star and I think he will be supportive.

“As far as the SNP is concerned they could not have hoped for a better result. They are now the third largest party and people across the UK and in the co-op movement have got to start taking them seriously and say how we work with them. My advice would be to engage and tailor any briefing documents to Scottish circumstances.

“The SNP has historically been very much against the Labour Party in Scotland and with the co-op movement being closely associated with Labour it could be complex but they should be sympathetic to our aims although it is not clear exactly what will happen.

“Smart operators and organisations will bear in mind how the changed situation might impact on certain issues and adopt a more nuanced position. We need to build links and get a strategic approach over the next five years.”


  • Correction: This article was amended on 20 May. A previous version quoted Claire McCarthy as saying the Co-op Party’s work with co-operative schools was inspiring, rather than the work of the schools themselves.
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