Will the new Welsh First Minister be good for co-operatives?

Derek Walker, chief executive of Wales Co-operative Centre, on what Mark Drakeford can do for the social economy

The Brexit chaos in Westminster has overshadowed the important news that Mark Drakeford is the new Welsh first minister.

Mark has been a key player in Cardiff Bay since devolution. He has served in the Welsh cabinet since 2013 and prior to that was a long-time advisor to Rhodri Morgan, first minister from 2000 to 2009. His track record, as well as a detailed leadership manifesto, provide us with a good sense of what a Drakeford government will mean for the social economy.

In the area of economic policy, he is likely to step up efforts to create a more socially just economy. His manifesto talks about “ redesigning the way in which government invests in economic growth so that public investment has a social purpose and a commitment to equality and so provides a return to the public purse”. This is music to the ears of those of us that promote a solidarity economy.

He has also placed an emphasis on supporting the foundational economy – that part of the economy that serves the everyday needs of people. Interestingly, the foundational economy merits its own chapter in the manifesto where it is good to see prominence given to promoting the continuity of ownership for SMEs, to keep them locally rooted. This is certain to include giving more serious attention to promoting employee buy outs and employee ownership as a succession route.

The new first minister has made a firm commitment to stepping up efforts to promote co-operative provision in social care. He wants to “re-energise efforts to create co-operative suppliers of social care services in Wales, rebalancing the sector and bringing such services back to the public realm”.

In 2012 Mark visited the Basque country to study co-operatives. He and I were part of a delegation co-ordinated by the Institute of Welsh Affairs. After that trip he wrote an article about the potential for co-operatives to deliver public services. For him the starting point should “not be with those services which are already publicly provided but with those which are already, very largely, in the private, profit making domain, but which also remain, very largely reliant on public funding”.

As a result of the visit he concluded that co-operatives were a means of taking personal profit out of the delivery of social care and of providing services in a co-operative alliance between workers and users. His recent manifesto pledges show he hasn’t changed his view.

Other commitments listed in the manifesto include:

  • Examining the case for a new Welsh energy mutual, using the mutual model of Dwr Cymru/Welsh Water
  • Building on work in community owned energy
  • Establishing trials to test different approaches to local wealth building
  • Continuing support for credit unions
  • Establishing a Community Bank of Wales to be owned by its members, on a one member one vote basis, offering current accounts and making funds available locally to small businesses.

There is plenty to get stuck in to there. It is reported that big business did not want Mark as first minister. Apparently they thought other candidates would have done more to protect their interests, which include an expensive M4 relief road.  However, in terms of the co-operative sector, all three of the candidates were (and are) supporters of co-operative approaches, with Vaughan Gething in particular giving strong backing to more co-operative housing during his campaign.

Both the other leadership contenders have subsequently been appointed to the cabinet, with Vaughan Gething retaining his job as health minister and Eluned Morgan gaining a new cabinet position as minister for international relations and the Welsh language. In other Drakeford appointments there is reason to be hopeful too. For example Lee Waters, as the new deputy economy minister, is a keen supporter of social enterprise and co-operation. He has been one of the most prominent advocates in the Senedd for policies to help the foundational economy.  

Next year Brexit looms large over everything. A Drakeford government is likely to listen to good ideas and be supportive of co-operative thinking and action at a time when we are going to need them most.