Westminster Hall – Thursday 14th July 2016
Contribution of cooperatives to the economy
It is a great honour and privilege to give my maiden speech as a Labour and Cooperative MP at today’s debate on the contribution of cooperatives to the economy, and I thank my Honorable Friend for Cardiff South and Penarth for convening it. It is a timely debate, and I am proud of what the cooperative movement has achieved in the UK and indeed Wales specifically.
The history of co-operatives in Wales is a rich one. Indeed, the father of the Co-operative movement, Mr. Robert Owen, was Welsh, as was William Hazell, a little-known but important figure to emerge from the South Wales coalfield. Quite typical of a man living in the Valleys during the period of Hazell’s lifetime, he was a miner and endured much hardship. Nevertheless, a modest and humble existence belies his great achievements, and it is in these deeds of collective wellbeing and solidarity that we must seek inspiration for a modern world riven with individualism and self-interest. He may not have been born in Wales, but his values are every bit Welsh – camaraderie, learning, success. I’d like to take this opportunity to applaud my good friend Alun Burge on his excellent biography and for bringing William Hazell to the attention of the 21st Century.
Because it is in the 21st Century where the need for co-operatives has never been greater. Only 8 years ago we witnessed the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and banking crisis that almost brought an end to the world as we know it. Capitalism has lived through a twenty-year victory crisis, where the accepted model of societal organisation continues to leave behind 20% of the population. Only three weeks ago, the UK voted to leave the Europe Union, an establishment which has been criticized for its contribution to globalization but one which offers a viable route to a united, socially-just continent with workers’ rights, structural funding and the values of internationalism. It is clear as we move through the early part of the new millennium that business as usual simply will not do.
Cooperation, consensus and community are notions that are not only the founding principles of cooperatives but also the Labour Party and it is on these shared values that figures from across the labour and cooperative movement have led the development of organisations which have anchored communities during difficult times and helped create a buffer against global economic shifts.
I only have to look towards my constituency of Neath for examples of such activism. If you would allow me to indulge myself for a moment, I would like to take you on a tour of cooperatives in Neath; past, present and future. I will resist the temptation to furnish you with the details of the many employee-owned businesses that have formed in Neath during the last century, and instead share with you the stories of a few key organisations that have emerged since the dawn of deindustrialization and which have provided us with jobs and services in places where they scarcely exist. Dove Workshop and Glynneath Training Centre are two such organisations, operating in the more remote villages towards the north of my constituency. These groups were established as community cooperatives, set up to provide education and opportunities in places where they wouldn’t otherwise happen. They run courses, from unaccredited entry levels classes to part-time degrees, provide nursery places, operate cafes and develop community activities. Crucially though, these organisations employ over 60 people and together turn over a million pound a year. This is a significant contribution to the local economy, and evidence tells us that this money, and these jobs, stay local.
Another example of the sophisticated simplicity of the concept is the humble food cooperative. We are well versed with the best known incarnation, and indeed I’m sure many of us will do our shopping there, but let’s remember the most basic version, where groups of people get together for the benefit of collective purchasing, making fresh fruit and vegetables both accessible and affordable. I commend those who continue to operate across Neath.
Most recently we have seen the rise of Neath Port Talbot Credit Union, a member-owned bank if you will, that provides affordable loans and savings accounts, and delivers financial inclusion in practical terms. We all know of the benefits of credit unions, but we must not underestimate their ability to help lift real people out of real poverty.
What is being demonstrated in cooperatives in Neath, Wales and further afield is the stakeholder economy in action. Whilst I have described organisations that have fought against hardship, co-operatives are not merely about progress in the face of adversity, but a pro-active substitute to the usual mode of business that is both unpredictable and exploitative. It is important to point out that William Hazell believed co-operation to be the alternative to capitalism. What we see in examples such as Tower Colliery, Welsh Water, and John Lewis are business that work differently, that put the customer, worker or stakeholder before any bottom line. Tower was bought out by workers and management, through the sheer will of combined effort, and made a success of a mine in a community which had so heavily relied upon it, and from which the private sector had retreated. Welsh Water, a members cooperative set up by people driven by their passion to provide the people of Wales with the best possible services and not compromised by the need to maximize a profit on an essential utility. And John Lewis, the company whose workers are all partners, where the chief executive’s pay is linked to that of the cleaner’s, and whose employees share equally in any surplus, regardless of their position in the organisation.
Cooperatives make a huge contribution to the economy, both financially and socially, and have done so for many years. Society is made up of stakeholders and partners, not shareholders and owners, and cooperatives offer an opportunity to build an economy on the values of collectivism, democracy and fairness.