The Co-operative Party Northern Ireland has produced its first ever local manifesto, despite this being the only UK nation where the Co-op Party is unable to support candidates as sister party, Labour, does not participate in elections. Instead, the Co-op Party seeks to influence those parties that do contest Northern Ireland elections. The manifesto was launched in Belfast’s Mac arts centre on Saturday 22nd June.
Northern Ireland is in many ways “a failed state”, claimed the manifesto which called for far-reaching economic, political and social development. Northern Ireland has the UK’s highest rate of economic inactivity, the longest NHS waiting lists, the highest suicide rates and the smallest university sector, per capita. The party’s manifesto argued that £1bn a year is wasted in Northern Ireland on service duplication caused by its segregated society – money that should instead be invested for economic growth through more spending on skills development, health and schools reform and infrastructure improvement.
“The Co-operative Party Northern Ireland believes there needs to be a broad strategic commitment to the ‘co-operatisation’ of the economy and society across Northern Ireland,” stated the manifesto. “To achieve this we call on the Executive and Assembly of Northern Ireland – when it is re-established – to create a Co-operative Commission to develop co-operative policies. In support of this, we believe that the role of the minister for the economy should contain the specific remit of promoting, supporting and expanding the co-operative economy.” The manifesto also called for investment in co-operative development support and the creation of a Northern Ireland Development Bank to invest in co-operatives and the regional economy.
Keynote speaker at the day conference was Jim McMahon MP – the newly elected chair of the Co-operative Party’s Parliamentary group, a shadow local government minister and the former leader of Oldham local authority, a co-operative council. McMahon praised the radicalism and extent of the manifesto, which he said he would personally hand to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
McMahon addressed concerns expressed at the conference about the potential impact of Brexit on the Northern Ireland economy, especially on cross-border agri-food co-operatives – which are some of the largest businesses in the regional economy. He defended the Labour Party position on Brexit, despite having himself campaigned for Brexit. McMahon explained that in focus group discussions with Labour supporters who had voted for Brexit, almost no one mentioned the EU. Instead they talked about power, their place in society and the decline of public services.
The policy response should be to focus on local decision-making, suggested McMahon, including through co-operatives. “Co-ops are part of the fabric of who we are in Oldham,” he explained. “They are still very much part of the community that I represent.” Amidst the challenge of populist politics, he called for politics to offer people solutions that are rooted in their own communities.
McMahon added that the top five co-operatives together pay more tax than Amazon, Facebook and Starbucks combined. Yet Amazon’s turnover is twice that of the combined corporation tax take of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The response to our political and economic challenges should be a Marshall Plan for the left-behind regions, proposed McMahon. “Where we are now is very dangerous.” He added that after the next election, “It has to be not just Labour, but Labour and Co-operative in power.”
Jim Lee – who represents both Scotland and Northern Ireland on the Co-operative Party national executive – spoke in his role as an employee of Energy4All renewable energy co-operative. He warned: “We have reached the end of subsidy for renewable energy.” The good news amidst the bad, Lee suggested, is that the climate emergency is driving some progress. Lee called on a future Labour government to put renewable energy co-ops at the heart of its drive to double the size of the co-op economy. He explained: “The energy sector is a growing sector, particularly renewable energy. We hope that we will look towards renewable energy as an easy hit, low hanging fruit. That is surely an easy area for Labour to put investment into, contributing to the doubling size of the co-op economy.”
Lee gave as an example of best practice a move by Edinburgh council, driven by Labour and Co-operative councillors, to enable a local co-operative to install solar panels on 20 school roofs. The result is cheap electricity being supplied to the council for many years ahead. He added that the response to the climate crisis needs to be an expansion of micro-electricity supply using renewable sources, but for this to happen on an effective basis the electricity distribution network needs to be adapted and requires its democratisation, as is happening in Germany. The community energy sector needs to be scaled up, he said.
Anna Birley – a Labour and Co-operative councillor in the London Borough of Lambeth as well as the Co-op Party’s policy officer – suggested the UK should consider copying practice in New Zealand, where consumers have a large ownership stake in the electricity network. She stressed that the use of solar panels to heat social housing – including in her own area of Brixton – demonstrates that these policies are as relevant for low income households, as far more wealthy consumers. But Birley warned the conference that this is “a time of growing crisis” in which political populism is choosing to ignore the climate crisis and refusing to use resources to address the crisis.
“Co-operatives and the co-operative movement are leading the way in this fight,” she said. “Co-operative councils are declaring climate emergencies, taking action on air quality locally, divesting their pensions from oil and gas, they are leading the fight for public transport with community bus schemes and in Oxford and Lambeth you have citizens’ assemblies looking at a wider set of policies to address climate change. And you have co-op societies, such as the Co-op Group, cutting single use plastic, leading the fight on food waste, looking at local sourcing of food, being the engines of change for consumer behaviour.”
But Birley conceded that the party’s policy on energy had not kept pace with the climate crisis. She added: “We don’t have an answer on how to take people with us.” She called on those attending the conference to provide the party with best practice examples, locally and internationally, to inform the party’s evolving energy policy.
Sid McDowell briefed the conference of the work of the Northern Ireland Co-ownership Association – an initiative unique to Northern Ireland. Co-ownership between the tenant and the association allows the tenant to pay £150 per month less than rental or purchase through a mortgage. “The private rental sector in Northern Ireland is largely accidental,” McDowell explained. “It is the product of people investing for their retirement on the back of the buy-to-let mortgage sector. The rents are often not affordable.” Most co-ownership tenants take up the option to purchase, over time and when they can afford. However, funding for co-ownership will soon be halted unless the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive is quickly reconstituted.
The conference was chaired by Tony McMahon, chair of the Northern Ireland Co-operative Party. He closed the event by saying the priority was to build the party, which is poised to work more closely with the Irish Labour Party.