Co-op Party gears up for general election at its annual conference

‘We need a model of driving growth that builds in power and a stake for people in the community so they can make the economy work for them’

“The next general election could be the biggest opportunity for change in a generation,” said Jim McMahon, adding that after 13 years of Conservative government, “people are feeling vulnerable and on the edge”.

McMahon – MP for Oldham West and Royton and chair of the Co-op Party – was opening the 2023 Co-op Party Conference, held online on 23-24 September. He highlighted how the Co-op Party is “strong – and growing”, with 1,500 Labour/Co-op councillors, 17 parliamentary candidates, four metro mayors and seven police and crime commissioners (PCCs).

The conference took the theme Ambition for Change and, over the two days, explored the organisation’s priorities for the next Labour and Co-operative government “to deliver change created everywhere, by everyone, for everyone”.

Delegates discussed the opportunities and challenges around growing the co-operative economy – and Labour’s commitment to doubling the sector – and heard lessons from Welsh government as it implements its plan towards the same goal. And there were sessions around local community ownership of land and assets, community energy and the just transition, including Labour’s Local Power Plan, and examples of community energy projects that are already making a difference.

The upcoming elections are clearly on people’s minds, with Labour Party chair and Co-op MP Anneliese Dodds highlighting how the “speedy growth” of the Co-op Party in recent years will help Labour win the general election in May. “People’s hopes of change from the Tory government are being dashed,” she said. “Co-op solutions are more important than ever to give people a stake in the future election.”

Dodds said co-operatives are “absolutely fundamental” to Labour’s future offer – a statement echoed by Angela Rayner, shadow secretary for levelling up, housing and communities. “You have had a great growth in your campaigns and in the number of Co-operative councillors,” she told delegates in a recorded message. “In the period of time ahead, we are going to need you in the Co-op Party to be ready to put everything into the election.”

In terms of growing the co-op economy, politicians can learn from successes in Wales, said Vaughan Gething, Welsh minister for the economy, where plans to double co-ops are well under way – and ahead of schedule. He credited this to a “genuinely groundbreaking partnership” between the Welsh government and development organisations, including a £1.7m investment in practical support for businesses that want to transition to employee-ownership and a focus on the foundational economy “that keeps wealth within communities”.

“In other parts of the world this is entirely normal,” said Gething, a Labour/Co-op MS, “but here we need co-op learning in a new curriculum to normalise this.”

Related: Where has the Labour reshuffle left Co-op Party MPs?

Miatta Fahnbulleh, economist and Labour / Co-op candidate for Camberwell & Peckham, agreed. “We need a model of driving growth that builds in power and a stake for people in the community so they can make the economy work for them,” she said. “Even within the areas that have generated growth, what we’ve seen is that it hasn’t always lifted up living standards, it hasn’t always risen up the community.”

Co-ops help with this, Fahnbulleh added, by tapping into the resources and assets of a place, connecting different parts of the local economy, and offering people ownership. But there needs to be practical support for these processes to thrive, alongside a supportive policy environment at a national level and access to finance.

One sector that Labour says it will back with full legislative support is community energy. Ed Miliband, shadow secretary for energy security and net zero, described how the party’s Local Power Plan will support energy co-ops by providing £600m to local authorities and £400m to community groups per year to support communities that want to start their own community energy. 

“The Local Power Plan will ensure that community energy reaches disadvantaged rural and urban communities,” Miliband said, adding that one of the main barriers to more community energy is political will.

Sarah Boyack MSP, shadow cabinet member for net zero, energy and just transition, agreed. “There’s an extent to which we’re leading the way,” she said, “but it needs to happen all the time, and it needs to not be seen as innovative. It’s got to be what you do all the time.”

Emma Bridge, CEO of Community Energy England which held its own conference a week earlier – said the mood in the community energy sector is “pretty good”. 

“People are enthusiastic, and are ready to take opportunities,” she said. “But of course that is tempered by the frustrations around policy and regulation. 

“We want a focus on building capacity, not just handouts. We are social enterprises, we are businesses, it’s just that we’re doing it for a different reason.”

Related: Co-ops West Midlands in fight to save cash-strapped Birmingham’s community assets

Another focus of the conference was the Party’s campaigning activities, including in the area of social justice.

Emma Back from the Equal Care Co-op talked about the need for more co-operatives in the social sector “to deliver justice and dignity”, while Niall Cooper shared the story of Your Local Pantry, which aims to give “sustainable access to food in community settings that gives people choice and hope”.

“It’s giving people dignity and choice, and allowing them to participate in society,” he said. “Food in the right way can be part of building community and building a hopeful movement. Whether it’s pantries or otherwise, we need to move away from emergency food towards sustainable food access in a community setting.”

The Co-op Group’s Paul Gerrard agreed that social justice – and social mobility – has to be about more than individuals. “It has to be about communities,” he said,” and education is one of the best ways to drive social mobility.” 

Panellists also spoke on the importance of co-operative campaigning for a fairer economy – including corporate tax dodging. “We have still got a really long way to go to tackle this problem,” said Mary Patel of the Fair Tax Mark. Her organisation has been working on a campaign to encourage local councils to become Fair Tax Councils and pledge to lead the way on fighting tax avoidance. Patel praised Co-op Party members for their work in the area of fair tax. “You have been behind so much of its success,” she said, “from pioneering a unique anti-dirty money and tax pledge in Westminster to community wealth building in Sunderland and Edinburgh.”

Although the Co-op Party has lofty ambitions and some impressive campaigning under its belt, there was talk at the conference of a need for a massive transfer of power out of central government, and a recognition of the importance of community ownership and local power. 

Kim McGuinness, new Labour/Co-op candidate for North East mayor, said that devolution needs to benefit people. “Devolved power means that there’s much more opportunity for productive conversations,” she said. “There’s much more opportunity to explore innovative solutions, like co-operative models, that are not simply there to rescue something that failed, but are there to grow communities by design.”

McGuinness – current PCC for the region – added: “There’s much more opportunity to have that fed into the national conversation so that actually, rather than coming at it that somewhere is ‘left behind’ and needs to be rescued by central government, what we need to understand is that a lot of people have a real sense of pride in place.

“People want to be a part of the solution and be a part of their own future.”