Jim McMahon on co-ops and resilient community

The Labour/Co-op MP for Oldham West, shadow transport secretary and Co-op Party chair says change is driven by the grassroots

How did you get involved in co-operation?

All of the local improvements I tried to make as a councillor were rooted in the community. It was about improving the park, it was about trying to get new school and health centre … And so by the time I was council leader, I brought along that idea of action being rooted in the local community. When Labour lost control of the Oldham Council in 2008, we learned that we’d become disconnected from the people we represent. And so there’s a huge effort made to rebuild that trust. We framed it as a co-operative council project  – how can you instil the values and the ethos of a co-operative into how it makes decisions?

How do co-operative ideas make communities and businesses more resilient?

It’s about the power of community to achieve change. It’s important that you have an empowering state, but nobody wants to have things done to them, even if it’s for the right reasons. We all want to know that we have agency.

We have seen a hollowing out of our economy where the value that we collectively produce has been extracted, often into tax havens abroad, or certainly into companies with no grounding in the local community, where people are seen simply as a means to an end. 

Co-ops are a different kind of enterprise that doesn’t extract value. And what the evidence says is the survival rates of co-operatives are stronger than any other form of business.

How do you communicate this benefit in a way that cuts through – when the most successful narratives with voters have been Brexit and Boris Johnson’s election campaign?

You could argue that the Tories have offered our narrative without the values – think of the Big Society, of levelling up, or even taking back control. People want to know that if you make a contribution to society, then their family, their community will get the dividend that comes from that. People work hard but they’re still not able to get on in life. And so people naturally look back to a past that doesn’t exist any more. So the question for co-operators in politics is how do you create an alternative model based on our values, but very much grounded in the future?

How is the Co-op Party working with other organisations in the movement?  

We have sister relationships – with the Labour Party. We want to mainstream co-operative values, collective action and collective enterprise. The only way we do that is by being in the mainstream of politics. Then we’re working with Co-operatives UK to expand the sector.

But how do you land that narrative when so many people don’t really know what a co-op is? I would say a lot of people in government don’t know what a co-operative is – they think it’s like charity but it’s not, it’s business – but the way they direct their profits is different.

What have been the most successful Co-op Party campaigns to overcome this problem?

The Party and the movement really came into their own during the pandemic – whether it’s our campaign around free school meals, or our efforts to make sure food retail workers were considered key workers. For an industry that is largely supported by female employees, if we had not achieved that they would not have the support to send their children to school during the pandemic.

I’ve been having meetings with Treasury ministers to make sure that co-operatives are a factor for the government – you’ve got to work across politics and make sure co-ops are supported. And there were very practical things – like changing the emergency legislation around co-op AGMs during the pandemic. We have been making sure that the movement has a voice in politics and in Parliament.

In terms of food justice, what’s the long term plan?

Our plan has got to be that people don’t require a state meal voucher. What type of society are we where we put people in that position? I want people to earn a decent living through the work they put in. And for those who can’t work for no fault of their own, a safety net that supports them when they need it.

How do we plan for future crises – the next pandemic, for climate change?

For the co-op model to work in that way it needs to be at scale – which is difficult unless you have a government that understands the need for some foundational changes to legislation, to create a level playing field. It strikes me that you can never really achieve that kind of change, if you are having parts of the UK that just are falling behind their potential. You’ve got to invest in the structural foundation of the economy. If you did that with co-operatives in mind, then you would deliver a quicker return – and in a way that means wealth is not extracted from local communities. 

How do we lock financial resilience into our economy?

While the foundational elements of the economy have been weakened, co-ops look more likely to survive. If you look at British Home Stores, and the way Philip Green extracted money from that company, it became a shadow of itself. At Debenhams there was massive underinvestment during the good times in online and digital. But with co-operatives, which aren’t about short-term shareholder gain, you’re able to take the medium and long term view about investment.

How should the co-op movement put its support for the UN Sustainable Development Goals into practice?

You’ve got to hardwire climate change into your plans. The green economy is a massive opportunity. If you invest in new generation of local public transport, in electrification, a new generation of supply chain improvements, you’ll have the benefit of realising our climate change objectives, you’d have the benefit of retaining wealth created in the community, you’d have long-term decision making. 

These issues will be a huge challenge for Generation Z. How do we engage with youth? 

It’s our job to educate people to understand that this is a viable route for people to set up their own enterprise. We work very closely with the Co-operative Academies.

We ran a campaign that led to the establishment of the All-Party Parliamentary group on votes at 16. Now Wales is having votes for 16 and 17 year olds in May. That’s a bit that really does make us stand out from the Tories, who I think are narrowing down democracy. 

There are a lot of grassroots protest movements around the world – Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter and the demonstration for women’s safety from male violence on the streets. Is that something the co-op movement can work with?

If people aren’t happy, they’ve got a right to protest; it’s a fundamental part of our democracy. That’s why we’re opposed to the Police Bill. I suppose the question for all of us in politics, is how do you harness the power of a movement that’s developing outside of mainstream politics? It strikes me that we don’t always listen, and we’re not very good at leading. For decades, women have been saying that this is their lived experience. And after the Police Bill passes you’re going to get twice the fine for taking down a statue than you will for sexually harassing a woman. And so when women say our voices aren’t being heard, well, frankly, the evidence says that’s true.