There is a palpable sense that 2016 was a wakeup call, underscoring deep-seated discontent with how our economy and society has evolved over a generation. People as politically diverse as George Osborne and Paul Mason are talking about the need for a more democratic economy. The Prime Minister says she wants to create an inclusive economy where people have more ownership and greater control over their lives, while Labour has ambitions to double the size of the co-op sector.
Surely this is a golden opportunity to progress the co-op cause politically. Co-operatives UK is raring to go. But the challenges are huge. Co-ops remain poorly understood and undervalued by politicians and the public. Our business environment contains numerous systemic biases that hinder the development and growth of co-ops. And a whole host of pubic, private and civil institutions pay too little attention to values like solidarity and self-help, while failing to recognise the central importance of ownership and control in shaping a better future.
In light of both the opportunities and the challenges we face, our policy work in 2017 will be shaped by four priorities:
- Improving the business environment for co-ops
- Marking government’s homework on the inclusive economy
- Safeguarding our interests during Brexit
- Offering the country a more positive, hopeful way to ‘take back control’
In the first months of this year we will complete a review of the corporate frameworks our members operate in. We have a substantial list of issues with the corporate framework provided for co-operative and community benefit societies, which is too often overlooked and poorly maintained by government. Meanwhile we need to get a better understanding of how well company and partnership frameworks accommodate co-ops. We’ll make the case to government that if it wants to create a more inclusive economy, it at least needs to get these basics right.
We are currently making good progress with HM Treasury on possible updates to the legal requirements imposed on small co-operative and community benefit societies. Hopefully we will see plans for legislation by the end of the year, though things will be tight as the Brexit workload mounts in Whitehall. Download our briefing
We also know our calls for an overhaul of policy for co-ops in Whitehall has started cutting through. We’d like responsibility for societies to move to the Department for Business. It’s an issue well understood in HM Treasury and also now by the Inclusive Economy Unit. In October we were invited to brief government formally on this. There may be opportunities to progress this in 2017, though we shouldn’t get too excited just yet.
Meanwhile we’ll keep pressing government to remove regulatory barriers that prevent the operation of mutual guarantee platforms. We have HM Treasury and the FCA looking at this right now. Mutual guarantees could be a great way for co-ops to use Principle 6 to improve their access to finance, while supporting better lending to SMEs in general.
We’ll also be active in other areas including tax policy, social investment and business support.
The Prime Minister has made a strategic political commitment to create a more inclusive economy. As co-ops we have a bold and pragmatic vision for what a genuinely inclusive economy would actually look like. It’s one where people share ownership, decision-making and wealth through businesses built on the powerful combination of pragmatism and solidarity. It’s an inclusivity powered by co-operation.
Throughout 2017 we will be vocal in marking the government’s homework on its inclusive economy agenda, with a particular focus on issues like corporate governance reform, precarious work, business succession and local economic development.
We’ve spent a lot of time analysing what leaving the EU could mean for our members, for our policy work, and for the prospects of a more co-operative UK. We’re approaching Brexit guided by three broad principles:
- Despite the Brexit workload for government, our basic policy needs must still be met
- Co-ops should not be put in a disproportionately worse position by the Brexit process
- The potential for co-ops to give people control and build a better economy should be harnessed
We’ve started working with our agricultural co-op members and government to ensure farmer co-operation is properly positioned in an emergent UK agricultural policy. We’re also taking a close look at the EU directives co-ops will need transposed into UK law through the Great Repeal Act. And we’ll bring a co-op perspective to debates about how the UK should approach things like local economic development outside the EU.
Time to co-operate
We’ll work hard to position co-ops in the national debate as a positive and hopeful force for people to get to grips with the challenges they face. We have identified key issues political economic issues for 2017 where Co-operatives UK has something important to say. Aside from those already discussed in relation to the inclusive economy these are:
- social care
- global warming
We aim to be both front-footed and quick to react to developments, with clear positions backed up by information, insight and policy. For a quick overview of the key issues we’ve identified and our headline positions see here. We would love to understand members’ views on this.
This has to be about more than politics. Governments can’t make a more co-operative economy; at most they can play a smart facilitating role. Local action will be as important as national policy. While it is essential that co-ops capture some of the debate, this means reaching out to communities and social movements as much as to politicians. If we’re going to start winning arguments about the benefits of co-ops, we need evidence and a practical cohesive strategy for co-operative development. This is all in train, but we can’t do it alone.