The Co-operative party’s centenary is an opportunity to express a mutual alternative to Britain’s perennial work and social care problems, writes Claire McCarthy
When any organisation marks a significant milestone, like a centenary, the temptation is to spend a lot of time in nostalgia mode. The Co-operative party is not immune to this as we approach the anniversary of our founding 100 years ago this October. At its worst this risks being sentimental, but in reality it is our legitimate pride in our past that drives our want to remember, commemorate and honour.
Over the last few months we have been pulling together an exhibition on the history of the Co-operative party, which is being hosted by the People’s History Museum in Manchester. Going through our archives and talking to our members about their memories is a fantastic reminder of some of the achievements of the party and of cooperators in politics.
AV Alexander, one of the first Co-operative members of parliament and the son of a blacksmith, went on to lead the Royal Navy in Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet. Alf Morris, the son of a gassed soldier who lost an eye and a leg in the first world war, went on to pass the world’s first disability legislation. We worked on some of the earliest environmental legislation and the groundbreaking consumer legislation of the 1960s and 1970s that still forms the basis of many of our protections today.
More recently, the party ensured legislation to make it easier to set up and expand a co-operative business, supported the rapid growth of credit unions, enabled the creation of hundreds of cooperative schools, backed football supporters’ trusts, championed a new generation of energy coops, rallied thousands of people behind our campaign for a ‘people’s BBC’; and fought for reforms in banking, housing, tax and land ownership.
But being proud of your past is never enough. No organisation – however noble or longstaanding – has the god-given right to exist. The Co-operative party and the cooperative movement we exist to represent are only as important as our plan for the future and our ability to realise it.
The cooperative idea was born 200 years ago to provide a real alternative to the broken markets and vested interests which work against the interests of ordinary working people. Never has there been a more glaring example of the need for such an alternative as in some of the social care provision we see today.
Fifteen minute visits, a low paid and exploited workforce and faceless finance companies profiteering from the needs of older and disabled people. Co-operation offers a radical alternative vision to the existing social care market based on an ownership revolution in the social care sector in England.
We have long supported the election of employees on to company boards. Theresa May – you may remember – was in favour of this before she was not. Private sector social care providers would be the perfect place to start. That is why the Co-operative party believes part of the solution is a ‘right to run’ with carers, care recipients and their families having a guaranteed right to representation on the company boards of private sector care providers. Those who provide and rely on social care services have the knowledge and requisite desire necessary to deliver good quality, cost effective care.
The best way to align those interests, and that knowledge, is through the mutual ownership of care services, with care providers that are owned and run by care recipients and their families, care workers and the wider community. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government wanted to mutualise public sector services. It is now time to mutualise the private sector in social care.
Another very modern set of challenges that cooperation can help us meet are those arising from the changing world of work.
The emphasis in Matthew Taylor’s recent review on the goal of ‘good work’ for all is very welcome. Our labour and cooperative movements should be front and centre in shaping and achieving this. However, what too often gets ignored or underplayed in these debates is the power of people coming together and building solidarity from the bottom up.
Today, cooperation is providing a framework to reduce isolation and shift the balance of power in people’s working lives in really practical ways. Music teachers (supported by the Musicians’ Union), taxi drivers and childminders who want an alternative to working alone or relying on an expensive agency or a platform that skims off all the profit for a supply of work, are creating worker cooperatives. Examples from other countries include bread funds in Holland, where self-employed workers pay into a pot which provides them with sick pay if they cannot work. Or Indycube, a co-working space company which started in Wales, and is now expanding into England, that became a coop last year. Their latest initiative is to work with Community union to provide the growing army of self-employed workers with trade union services.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Which is why we have put these types of innovations front and centre of our centenary ‘Ideas to Change Britain’ conference, that takes place in London in mid-October. We will be debating and honing our proposals for building on the historic commitment made in Labour’s general election manifesto – to double the size of the cooperative sector. Arguably the most ambitious pledge the Labour party has ever given the cooperative movement. This will be absolutely key to creating a fairer economy that serves the interests of ordinary working people and rewards them with a proper share of the growth they help to create. We will promote our practical proposals for how local government can help drive sustainable local growth. We will champion our vision for how we build an education system in England which is based on the values of collaboration not competition: where no school or child is left behind. And we will consider what role our values can play in tackling the housing crisis – drawing on the brilliant work Carwyn Jones’ Welsh Labour and Co-operative government which is supporting the development of a new generation of housing cooperatives.
This period gives us a chance for us to celebrate our proud history. But, above all, it must be a moment to look forward.
Britain stands at a crossroads. It hardly feels an overstatement to say that our very social and economic future feels less certain than for a generation, maybe longer. The next few years will determine what kind of Britain we are and what values prevail. Just one more reason why 2017 must not only be the end of our first 100 years, but the start of our second.
Claire McCarthy is general secretary of the Co-operative party. She tweets at @CoopClaire
Pioneering the Future exhibition, marking the centenary of the Co-operative party, runs until 19 November 2017 at the People’s History Museum in Manchester
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