What role can co-operatives play in the Labour Party’s new politics?

This week’s Labour Party conference was an opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn and his team to present their policy proposals. Under the slogan “straight talking, honest politics”, the newly...

This week’s Labour Party conference was an opportunity for Jeremy Corbyn and his team to present their policy proposals. Under the slogan “straight talking, honest politics”, the newly elected Labour leader, set out the agenda for a new approach to politics, which includes placing a strong emphasis on community energy co-operatives and mutual forms of ownership.

Mr Corbyn called for a change in the way politics was done not only in the Labour Party, but across the UK. He said he favoured a bottom-up, rather than a top-down approach “in every community and workforce, not just in Westminster”.

The Party would also establish a National Investment Bank to support investment in infrastructure, he said, and would provide finance to small and medium-sized firms. Pledging to “put people’s interest before profit”, Mr Corbyn committed to a Green New Deal investing in renewable energy and energy conservation to tackle the threat of climate change. On the housing crisis, he argued the answer should start with a new council house-building programme.

The conference also agreed to a new plan to bring private franchises into public ownership as they expire. “Labour’s policy now is to deliver the fully integrated, publicly owned railway the British people want and need,” he said.

The Labour leader was echoed by shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who said the party would “promote modern, alternative public, co-operative, worker-controlled and genuinely mutual forms of ownership”.

“Austerity is not an economic necessity, it’s a political choice,” added Mr McDonnell, who said he would aim to tackle the deficit fairly by growing the economy and investing in key industries, rather than on the backs of “low earners” and “the poorest in the society”. Labour would introduce a “real living wage” and force a number of companies “to pay a fair share of taxes”, he said. The shadow chancellor promised cuts to what he called a “corporate welfare system” and fairer, more progressive taxation.

He added: “A successful and fair economy cannot be created without the full involvement of its workforce. That’s why restoring trade union rights and extending them to ensure workers are involved in determining the future of their companies is critical to securing the skills development and innovation to compete in a globalised economy.”

And while he said Labour would guarantee the independence of the Bank of England, the institution would have a new mandate, “not just focused on inflation”.

Explaining the shadow cabinet’s approach to developing a green, sustainable and prosperous economy for all, shadow energy and climate change secretary, Lisa Nandy, said Labour wanted to “democratise rather than nationalise” the UK’s energy market. Co-operatives would play a key role in this process. She argued that every community in the country should be able to own their clean energy power station.

Ms Nandy said decarbonising the UK’s economy was “one of the biggest challenges that the country has ever faced”. She explained: “Jeremy and I don’t want to nationalise energy. We want to do something far more radical than that. We want to democratise it. There should be nothing to stop every community in this country owning its own clean energy power station.”

The shadow secretary gave the example of Nottingham Council, which created its own energy company to cut bills and go green, and Oldham Council, where collective switching schemes are spreading. Cardiff is also rolling out cutting-edge smart technologies to cut demand because the cheapest power is the power that is not used.

“With the right support, community-based energy companies and co-operatives could be a new powerhouse, and a path to a more secure energy future,” she added. Ms Nandy also paid tribute to the work of John Prescott for the successful negotiations led by the UK, which resulted in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the world’s fist legally binding climate treaty. The Paris Summit in December could be historic, she said, and could build on Labour’s Climate Change Act.

Also speaking at the conference was Labour and Co-operative MP Stella Creasy, who greeted the conference on behalf of the Co-operative Party. “In working towards a Labour government once again, let me pledge that the Co-operative Party will be with you all at every step,” said Ms Creasy. She highlighted the role played by credit unions in offering an alternative to loan sharks and the importance of freelancer co-operatives in helping professionals shape their own careers.

“It’s why we join with the Communication Workers Union to champion more employee ownership at the Royal Mail. Because the pioneers were both trade unionists and entrepreneurs. And it’s why we must work now to protect our people from personal debt – because one in three of us last year faced a financial crisis.”

Referring to public services, she said that only mutualism could protect them against privatisation. “That is why in the months ahead we will campaign for the people who pay for public broadcasting – the License Fee payers – to get a vote for who runs the BBC. And Channel 4 too.”

Ms Creasy added she was “delighted” that Mr Corbyn had pledged to support co-operative policies during the leadership contest.

“We want to work with you because we are always Labour, always family – and always true to bringing our distinctive co-operative principles to rebuilding Britain’s future. We have a different and modern way of working that puts people, not profit, first,” she said.

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