Co-ops respond to Theresa May’s Conservative Party Conference speech

Co-operative organisations have responded to some of the policies set out by prime minister Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference, held in Birmingham. In her keynote speech at the event, Ms May said she aimed to create “a country that works for everyone”.

“My vision is for Britain to be a great meritocracy,” she said, adding that her aim was to develop an economy “where everyone plays by the same rules”. She said the government should be prepared to intervene where markets were “dysfunctional”, mentioning the energy and housing sectors in particular.

To address this, she said the government would be using public sector land for more and faster house building, as well as encouraging new technologies to help build more houses faster and putting in more government investment.

Tax was another issue on the PM’s agenda which resonated with the work done by co-operatives, who have been pioneering the Fair Tax Mark. “Whoever you are – however rich or powerful – you have a duty to pay your tax. And we’re going to make sure you do,” she said. In addition, Ms May talked about having employees on companies’ boards and said that later this year the government would publish its plans to have consumers and workers represented on company boards. She added that the government would review laws on workers’ rights.

In terms of education, the PM confirmed that the government would go ahead with lifting the ban on establishing new grammar schools. She argued that the free school and academies programme had helped bring 1.4 million more children into schools that were rated ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’, compared with 2010. She also called on universities to set up or sponsor schools in the state sector.

Commenting on Ms May’s speech, Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, the umbrella body for co-ops, said: “In the prime minister’s speech we not only saw a canny political strategy to occupy the centre ground on the economy but also an approach that has been used by successive politicians – Tony Blair and David Cameron most obviously – of borrowing the language and aspirations of the mutual sector to chart a middle ground between capitalism and social democracy.

“May reiterated her aim to put workers and customers on corporate boards, asked for businesses to act as a force for good and offered a vision of a country in which people have control over things that matter to them.”

Mr Mayo added that supporting the growth of co-ops and mutuals could play a big role in realising May’s aspiration for an economy that works for all. “But,” he added, “we have heard this before from politicians of all stripes. The big question now is whether Theresa May’s government will take this historic opportunity to harness the benefits of co-operation to create a more inclusive Britain.”

Related … Ed Mayo on Brexit: taking back control the co-operative way

The Co-operative Party has also responded to the speech. Claire McCarthy, general secretary of the organisation, said: “The Co-operative Party has been consistently making the case for a society where power and wealth are more fairly shared, and we are glad that the message is getting through to the Prime Minister.”

“Our Agenda for Britain document sets out specific proposals for how this can be achieved and the Party and our elected representatives will work constructively with Government on practical measures to achieve real change.

“We know that building the co-operative economy is key to building a fairer economy and this will take more than good intentions. From tax changes which have hit community energy hard to the threatened academisation of co-operative schools, since 2010 government has not always nurtured the co-operative movement that already exists, let alone created an environment where it can fulfil its true potential. The Co-operative Party hopes this speech marks a sea change and we will do all we can to make that happen.”

Neil Cuthbert, director of Public Affairs Co-operative commented that while it was clear the new prime minister was looking to move the Conservative Party towards the centre, there was no clear commitment from the prime minister towards co-ops. The Public Affairs Committee ran a fringe event at the party conference in Birmingham to discuss the future of agriculture post Brexit. With the UK leaving the EU, farmers will cease to receive subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy. “The message was that [the government] wants a different system but wants support to continue. There were no details of what that support would look like,” he added.

He thinks that co-ops should seek to engage with the government and make the case for their model in order to obtain a firmer commitment from the prime minister. Another topic worth exploring is devolution, he said. “Co-ops need to look at that carefully and see what it means for us.”