As part of our ongoing work to put co-operatives on a level playing field with other businesses, Co-operatives UK attended party conferences, including the Conservative Party conference last week. We ran a fringe event with the think tank ResPublica to launch Unfinished business, a new report setting out the case for wider ownership of the economy. And we have digested some of the main themes of the conference that offer opportunities for co-operatives and mutuals.
Deregulation, deregulation, deregulation
The deregulation agenda for business is a big issue for the Conservative government, as they try to make it easier to start and run businesses. All businesses experience red tape, with co-operatives often having added burdens because regulation - in areas like accounting or in investment - designed for conventional businesses has unintended consequences when applied to co-operatives. What business groups are hearing loud and clear from ministers is that we need to be clear and specific about the regulatory issues we experience.
Creating a level playing field has and continues to be the core area of campaigning for Co-operatives UK. We will be redoubling our work to highlight areas of unequal treatment for co-operatives and would welcome ideas and input from members. We continue to catalogue examples, so if your co-operative has experienced unequal treatment because of your co-operative model then please contact us with details.
Widening ownership is one of the key strengths of co-operatives and mutuals, and this theme was given particular emphasis in the Chancellor, George Osborne’s speech. He referred to the need to pursue the agenda for a ‘share owning democracy’, in which people have a financial and emotional stake.
Whilst there was no reference to co-operative ownership here, co-operatives can play a key role in extending ownership of the economy to the people closest to the businesses they use and work for. Community shares, through which local people own and control local assets and enterprises, offers an option that combines the Conservative interests of localism and ownership. Equally, employee ownership was discussed at the conference; whilst there is support, there is a need for pressure to ensure that government support for the model goes beyond employee share schemes and extends genuine control to employees.
A strong theme coming through the conference was support for the growing number of people in self-employment. With a large number of small business owners and sole traders in membership of the Conservative Party, they were a vocal constituency at the conference. What emerged, amongst other things, was a genuine interest among delegates in ideas like collaborative networks, co-operatives of freelancers and small businesses, and mutual guarantee societies, through which businesses can club together when applying for business loans. Freelancer co-operatives is an area on which we are working with others to develop policies and practical solutions and will become an area of heightened focus.