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If We Want A More Inclusive Economy Then ALL Political Parties Need To Embrace Co-ops

26/04/2017 12:44 BST | Updated 26/04/2017 12:44 BST
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It's time we established co-ops as a vital tool that all democratic political parties and movements should feel comfortable embracing. If we don't, the risk is that the UK co-op sector will continue to lag behind those in other developed countries and our ambitions for a more inclusive economy will be frustrated anew.

In this election all the parties are talking about how important it is to make the UK fairer, by sharing opportunity, wealth and power more efficiently.

Really, they should all be talking about co-ops. Why?

Co-operatives are businesses owned and run by ordinary people - workers, customers, local people, artists, farmers... Together these are the people who decide what the business does, how it does it, and where the profits go.

Vitally, evidence suggests that where there is a critical mass of worker ownership and community co-operation, it is possible to have Swedish levels of equality, but with UK levels of tax. And you get that because opportunity, wealth and power are more efficiently and effectively distributed at the level of firms and communities.

This is a point worth reiterating: If politicians want to create a more inclusive economy but also want to prioritise public spending on infrastructure and public services over wealth redistribution, they need to back genuinely inclusive businesses like co-ops.

The co-operative sector in the UK is a successful one. There are 7,000 independent co-ops, from high street retailers such as The Co-op and farmer owned businesses like Arla to worker owned enterprises such as Suma, the recipient of the Queens Enterprise Award for Innovation last weekend. Together the UK's co-ops employ 220,000 people and contribute £34 billion to the UK economy.

But the fact is, despite being the birthplace of co-operatives and a global leader in social enterprise, the UK lags behind most OECD countries in the scale and impact of our co-operative sector. Germany has a co-op economy four times size of ours, while in France it is six times larger. The UK needs to do better.

While there is no one thing that holds us back, it's undeniable that a lack of real depth in cross-party support for co-ops over many decades has not been helpful.

Theresa May's Secretary of State for Communities, Sajid Javid, recently said co-ops "should be proud of the work they do." Meanwhile David Cameron, who described co-ops as a "powerful business model", delivered on a 2010 manifesto commitment to improve co-op law. Tellingly, Margret Thatcher's 1979 Conservative manifesto called for more employee ownership.

Yet while many Conservatives may like what co-ops do and the way they do it, in UK politics the very word 'co-op' has at times carried unhelpful partisan connotations that get in the way of informed debate and sensible policymaking. This has left co-ops misunderstood and under-served by successive governments. It may even be one of the reasons why Thatcher's ambitions to democratise ownership were never realised.

If there was ever a time to put a stop to this, it is now.

When people as politically diverse as George Osborne and Paul Mason are talking about the need to democratise our economy, when the Conservatives talk about an 'inclusive' economy and Labour a 'new' economy, we know practical support for co-ops can sit comfortably in the centre-ground. This does not mean co-ops can't be part of proud political traditions on the left or the right. Rather it means that they are one of those precious tools that can be used in both.

In this election Theresa May could lead her party in embracing co-ops and with a conviction that they can be of any political persuasion or none. In fact she could take the brave step of joining her rivals in non-partisan support for the millions of Britons who are already members of a co-op, and the millions more who would benefit from choosing a co-op option.

We'll be testing every party's manifesto on the extent to which they contain practical steps for bringing the inclusive economy to life in post-Brexit Britain.

Read our Four Steps to an Inclusive Economy.

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