Leader candidate hustings: Labour and the role of co-operatives

Labour leadership candidates met at Amnesty UK on Tuesday, 21 July, to discuss the role co-operatives could play in the country’s economy. Hosted by the Co-operative Party, the...

Labour leadership candidates met at Amnesty UK on Tuesday, 21 July, to discuss the role co-operatives could play in the country’s economy. Hosted by the Co-operative Party, the debate also looked at issues such as electoral reform, the future of the BBC, education and housing.

“The Co-operative Party isn’t just a pro-business party – we are in fact a party of businesses that are profoundly socialist. Our view of profits and the distribution of profits and who gets the power of that organisation is what makes us different,” said Karin Christiansen, secretary general of the party. Ms Christiansen, who chaired the leadership debate, will be stepping down after the Co-operative Party’s annual conference in September.

“There is an enormous role that co-operatives and mutuals have to play,” agreed Jeremy Corbyn. He criticised the last government for privatising building societies and said he regretted that the Co-operative Bank had “got itself in trouble”. He called for an environment in which co-ops and mutuals could thrive.

Another leadership contender, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, said co-operatives had a “huge role to play” as part of a growing and changing economy. In particular, she believes co-operatives could help provide more affordable and social housing. Other areas in which she thinks co-ops could be crucial are the energy sector and the digital economy, with huge opportunities around crowdfunding and the sharing economy.

In an age where people feel a lack of trust in organisations, co-operatives could help build confidence, said Andy Burnham. Current shadow secretary of state for health, Mr Burnham set up Supporters Direct, the umbrella body for fan owned clubs. “We pioneered a movement. Mutual ownership gave people a feeling that it was their game again – in that example you really feel the power of co-ops,” he said, adding that the model could help put organisations back into the hands of communities.

Joining the debate, Liz Kendall said the future of both the economy and society and public services was co-operative. She talked about Brixton Energy in Lambeth, which she described as a great example of how people can share energy. “We need to look at how to make our economy more mutual,” she said.

Asked what their views were on electoral reform, candidates had different opinions. “The party needs to be careful about losing an election and proposing electoral reform,” said Ms Cooper, adding that failure to reform the House of Lords had resulted in the need to dissolve far more power. She also called for a new written constitution of Britain, of which human rights would be part. This needs to be done not by the Labour Party, but by an independent body, she said.

Liz Kendall agreed that Labour needed to champion reform of the House of Lords, but added that she was also a “passionate advocate” of the alternative vote. “I campaigned for ‘Yes’ for the AV referendum and I was deeply disappointed that we lost,” she said. Ms Kendall called for more co-operation with other parties in areas of common interest and added that she supported the idea of a more federal union.

Andy Burnham also backed the idea of electoral reform, saying he favoured Billy Bragg’s plan to create a more proportional parliament. Presented for the first time in 2004 by the singer and activist, the proposal suggests a secondary mandate system of elections to the upper house as part of the reform process.

Jeremy Corbyn referred to the House of Lords as a “dining lobbying club”. “I want to see an elected House of Lords coming from regions,” he said, adding he would like to maintain the constituency link. “It’s important that every constituency knows they have an MP.” But he criticised the House of Commons for “almost looking like an extension of the government” and said the royal prerogative was a fundamentally undemocratic process.

The relationship with the media was another topic debated by candidates. Mr Burnham said the BBC was under attack with the review announced by the Tory government. “We need to call that out and we need to make a stand,” he said. Ms Kendall argued the proposal around the BBC’s mutualisation could be a way to ensure it was more accountable to the public. She also argued the Labour Party needed to look at how to make the most of non-traditional media channels such as social media.

A member of the National Union of Journalists, Mr Corbyn talked about the overwhelming power of some media organisations. He warned that going after the BBC could result in having a weak public broadcaster, with private channels, such as Fox News in the USA, dominating. Ms Cooper also favoured the co-op proposals for a BBC trust.

Asked how they planned to involve co-operative schools into their mission on education, candidates said they supported the model. “What’s inspiring about co-operative schools is how they engage the wider community to make sure children are not just fully educated, but survive in the modern world,” said Liz Kendall. She stated that this model helped children get a rounded education for the future.

Jeremy Corbyn added: “We need a family of local schools – co-op school are a good idea involving parents, and all that work in schools, but we need to ensure there is a local education structure.”

Yvette Cooper also said involving everyone was crucial for the success of a school. She argued the government agenda around academies and free schools was too centralised. “There’s nobody locally to go to in terms of concern of standards,” she said. Co-operative schools were not just about the whole community, but all aspects of a child’s life.

Andy Burnham challenged the view that there are winners and losers in education. “Co-operation has two things to tell us. We will achieve more if we collaborate and not compete, and those schools should be as locally accountable and local as possible.”

With housing shortage being one of the key issues facing the country, candidates also presented their plans of how to deal with the problem. Mr Corbyn suggested building more social housing, regulating the private renting sector and assisting people with public mortgages if they wanted to buy off the open market, not social housing. He added that co-operative housing worked well, even with few resources, and promoted higher community engagement.

Ms Cooper thinks the housing crisis is going to get worse because the scale of the response is “nowhere near enough”.

“Build more homes, more housing associations, social housing and co-op housing. We got it up to over 200,000 a year before the financial crisis; it can be done, we should be bold and ambitious,” she said, while also calling for more eco housing and roof gardens.

Mr Burnham believes Labour should oppose extending Right to Buy to housing associations. “We need to trust councils with power to borrow to build the houses we need,” he said, adding that landlords receiving public money should reinvest some of it.

Ms Kendall said the focus should shift “from benefit to bricks” by allocating more to building new houses than housing benefits. “We need new models to convince people that the extra levels of housing can be achieved,” she said.

In their closing remarks, candidates tried to highlight why they would be the most suitable leader for the Labour Party. Yvette Cooper said she felt she had let down people affected by the bedroom tax who had voted Labour. “We lost and bedroom tax is still in place”.

“Make sure it’s not just someone that makes you feel good about the party, but someone who can be a prime minister,” she said. “Too often we are being asked to choose because heads and hearts, we have to do both. [..] We know that David Cameron has a women’s problem so let’s give him even bigger one and vote for the first Labour leader and prime minister.”

Andy Burnham said he would “put the heart and soul back into Labour” and added that the party would regain is sense of direction under his leadership.

Liz Kendall warned “more of the same with a different face won’t be enough”. The party needed to appeal not only to those on the minimum wage, but also to those who ran a small business, she argued. “I want to win power in order to give it away, out of Whitehall down to communities, lead a modern confident country that engages with the rest of the world. We won’t help the weak and vulnerable simply by railing against the strong,” she said.

Jeremy Corbyn said co-operation was about people taking matters into their own hands. “If we win the next election we’re going to be faced with a lot of industries that need change – housing, energy, employee ownership,” he said. We can build on the success of credit unions. We can no longer go into election offering austerity. We have to offer a different alternative, that is the way forward.”

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