Co-Operatives Can Help Britain Do Better Than This

04/10/2013 15:30 BST | Updated 04/12/2013 10:12 GMT

It is possible that you have been labouring under the misapprehension that the political party conference season drew to a close this week - it hasn't. This weekend hundreds of Co-operative Party members are meeting in Edinburgh to debate how co-operative values can tackle our national housing crisis, put passengers at the heart of transport policy, prevent a lost generation of young people and offer an alternative to the Tories ideologically driven fragmentation of our schools system. Most importantly, we will set out how we can build an economy that works for people.

For 150 years the co-operative movement has been on the side of ordinary people. Today, the co-operative sector is thriving, growing more than 20% since the recession started in 2008. Co-operative businesses in the UK together turnover more than £37bn a year, a £9bn increase since 2008. They set the pace when it comes to productivity, product innovation and consumer trust.

Statistics show that co-operatives generate an additional £40 for the local economy for every £100 spent by a customer. Co-operatives employ local people, are owned by local people and endeavor to use local suppliers, so rather than generating profits for outside investors or global companies, co-operatives generate £100 million for local economies.

Despite this story of success, the co-operative sector in Britain still has huge potential to expand. In Brazil, co-operatives are responsible for 40% of the agricultural GDP, 91% of all Japanese farmers are members of co-operatives with an output of $90billion, more than 30 co-operatives in the United States have an annual revenue in excess of $1billion and their naval credit union has assets of $55billion and four million members.

Labour leader Ed Miliband told the Labour conference last week that 'Britain can do better than this'. As Labour's sister party for the best part of the last century, the Co-operative Party agrees. We will have 'wasted' the crisis of the recession if we simply aim to turn the clocks back to 2007. Instead we need to forge a new future in which all people, not just the few, will be able to share in the rewards of economic progress.

The co-operative and mutual sector can step up to help meet this challenge. An expanded credit union sector - with the right financial support and strong backing from government - could expand its reach and range of services, including providing a real alternative to the scourge of pay day loan companies. When even Britain's soldiers and sailors are falling victim to the payday loan companies it's high time government action to boost credit unions was put in place. New mutual organisations could play a key role in building vital public infrastructure, financing investment over the lifetime of the asset at a lower cost than PFI and other private investment models. Co-operative and community energy offer an alternative to the dominance of the big six energy suppliers with the potential to offer cheaper, greener energy. Local mutuals and co-operatives have already proved they can be catalysts for regeneration; tackling unemployment and investing in local communities.

Co-operation can support our social recovery too. Trust in institutions from Parliament to our biggest companies is at rock bottom. People feel powerless, insecure and worried about their future. What better antidote to that than more companies owned and democratically controlled by their staff and customers? More public services accountable to the patient, passenger, pupil, parent, and community, they serve? More power in our civic and national institutions held by the people?

There is a risk that this sounds like an unattainable panacea but it isn't. There are already more than 6,000 co-operatives in the UK and rising. Co-operative schools - schools run by a governing body made of parents, teachers, the community and children - are a fast growing new model of schools. There are already more than 600, a number which far outstrips Michael Gove's favoured 'free schools'. Community co-operatives are now saving vital local services by stepping in to run co-operative pubs and shops in rural communities.

The Co-operative Party has a big vision, but we have 100 years experience of making co-operation work in good times and in bad. We will be working tirelessly to put co-operative politics at the heart of Labour's manifesto and to elect a government that can back this vision with action not just warm words.

Gareth Thomas is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Harrow West