Traditional politics is struggling to keep up with today’s challenges, but a co-operative approach can provide the answers needed, according to Labour and Co-operative MP, Stella Creasy. In her keynote speech at the Co-operative Party’s annual conference, she encouraged delegates to join the party’s new Action Network to help develop co-operative campaigns.
“The lack of access to decision making is the new inequality,” she said, adding that co-operatives empowered people by giving them that access. “The real change will not come from holding more meetings, but from all holding more power for ourselves,” she said.
Stella Creasy came second in the Labour Party’s recent deputy leadership election, having secured 19% of the votes. The only Labour and Co-operative MP to join the leadership race, she says she wants to put co-operative values at the heart of the Labour Party as a “collective energy for change”.
The modern co-operative movement has its roots in the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, founded in 1844 by a group of 28 workers who wanted to sell food at affordable prices.
“The Rochdale Pioneers recognised that in times of uncertainty and change, we are each other’s best hope. The principles they set up are more relevant than ever: self-help, responsibility, democracy, equity, equality and solidarity.
“They used their collective might to take the means of production into their own hands and make markets work on their terms,” she said.
Ms Creasy believes the digital age has brought a “Marxist revolution” with the means of production being in the hands of the producers. In a few years Britain will have more self-employed than people working in the public sector. And while markets can drive insecurities for many, co-ops can offer an exciting alternative, according to the politician. She gave examples of freelancer co-ops for music tuition and career advice that are helping workers regain control over their careers.
“In the disruptive new sharing economy of Uber, kickstarter and Air B’nb, social enterprises like Room for Tea and Startsomegood offer contrasting models of how all involved in commerce get a better deal,” she said.
Ms Creasy also thinks that credit unions could be a lesson for Private Finance Initiative (PFI) debt management. Her campaign against loan sharks has helped bring the issue of payday loans to the public’s attention. The FCA has introduced a cap on the cost of payday loans and credit unions are becoming more mainstream. But, according to Stella Creasy, “the problem has evolved, not gone away”. She explained that high cost lenders were lending over longer periods of time to avoid the cap, therefore legislation on its own will not solve the problem. To address this people will need to spend money in a way that is much more sustainable for them, she says, arguing that credit unions could play an important role by shifting the emphasis from making profit to serving members.
When it comes to infrastructure, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund could be an example of how to give citizens more direct influence over investments, she argued. Switzerland can offer some lessons too, she said. “We need to look to at the Swiss Health Bank where members have direct control of their own valuable personal data, and manage how it is used for medical research,” rather than it being sold for private profit to third parties.
Another area where she thinks co-operatives can make a difference is housing. Co-ops can offer a better deal for tenants, buyers and landlords, she argued. Housing is a real problem in her constituency in Walthamstow, as it is in the rest of the UK. Ms Creasy is working with the local authorities to help set up a landlord co-operative to avoid tenant agencies ripping off landlords and tenants.
Mutualisation is an option that could empower the public, giving it the direct ability to shape services, such as railways, the NHS or utilities, she added.
Co-operative principles could also help promote equality in the business world. “We call out those companies whose women are only in their boardrooms as non-execs, there to make up numbers not make decisions. We seek equality and equity for all,” she said, calling for the introduction of quotas for representation across all sectors.
The Co-operative Women’s Guild could de disbanded next month, but Stella Creasy thinks the values and issues the organisation has stood for have never been more important. The MP, who was selected from an all-women shortlist (Labour practices all-women shortlists in particular constituencies, including Walthamstow, to improve the representation of women), has called for more women members within the Labour Party.
“We have a challenge in this country about how women are treated, employed and portrayed. Never more have we needed an organisation to help bring women together with men to campaign for change. The fate of the Women’s Guild is very important. I’d like to work with them on how we can save what they stand for. I understand it might need a new way of working in the 21st century but I’m passionate about the idea of what they stand for and the work they do.”
Before getting elected in 2010, Stella Creasy was a co-operative councillor in Waltham Forest. Later she became the borough’s deputy mayor and served as mayor for four months prior to her election to the House of Commons.
She sees co-operative councils as the “real, radical future of devolution”. In Plymouth a co-operative council has helped drive down electricity costs while in Edinburgh another co-operative council is promoting social enterprises.
“Local co-op councillors are doing things to show the co-operative difference. We’ve always been part of Labour, but a distinctive part. We bring a different perspective and local government is how you see that practiced”.
With 150,000 new members joining the Labour Party since the May general election, the Co-operative Party has the chance to reach out to the new members, thinks Ms Creasy. This is where the Party’s new Co-operative Action Network could play an important role, by involving people on the ground in different co-operative campaigns.
Referring to the disagreements and differences within the Labour Party she said that was what made it a political party. “If there were no disagreements, it wouldn’t be a political party but a cult.” The left is losing territory across Europe, but Stella Creasy thinks progressive politics remains the answer to current challenges including climate change, terrorism and the global economy.
“We’ve got a job to do to work with those people who want a better society but distrust politicians. There’s so much power within the co-operative movement – what we have to do is unlock it,” she said.
In this article
- Co-operative councillor
- Co-operative Party
- Co-operative Women’s Guild
- collective energy
- General Election
- House of Commons
- Labour Party
- Labour/Co-op MP
- Rochdale Principles
- Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers
- Stella Creasy
- United Kingdom
- Waltham Forest
- Womens Guild
- United Kingdom
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