'Unleashed' was the tagline for the 2018 national conference, which saw many Co-operative MPs, AMs, Lords, delegates and visitors gather in the city of Bristol over the weekend of the 12th – 14th October 2018. Bristol is a city that is significant to the Co-operative movement for a number of reasons. 11,000 Bristolians belong to a credit union, and The Bristol Energy co-operative provides clean power to 2400 homes locally. Also, in his keynote speech, the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees, announced that Bristol City Council had joined the co-operative network of councils.
On the first full day of conference, there was a vote on six statements and the entire document of the Co-op Party’s Brexit policy. The entire document was voted through almost unanimously. The Party backs a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal, and they also state that the Prime Minister’s statement of ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ is dangerous and irresponsible. They also agree that leaving the customs union and single market would be detrimental to the country. The Co-operative Party chair, Gareth Thomas MP, said in his opening speech to conference: ‘The government’s approach has been a mess’. As Labour’s sister party, this vote gives huge credentials to their People’s Vote campaign.
We also had a Brexit breakfast fringe with Lord Andrew Adonis and Eloise Todd from Best for Britain. During his speech, Lord Adonis confirmed that he had joined the Co-operative Party. He spoke about the coincidence that since the creation of the European Union, there has been no war within its borders. He used the example of Russia and Ukraine to support his previous statement. He also made a statement saying that if Ukraine was part of the European Union, they would not have been invaded.
Rebecca Long-Bailey gave a keynote speech in her capacity as the Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy. She made excellent points about how doubling the size of the UK Co-operative sector could help create a fairer and democratic economy. One way in which this would happen would see that employees are given shares or dividends in the companies they work for. She was asked about Mike Ashley and his business practises. Her response set out her concerns about his business practises which was shared by myself as an ex-Sports Direct employee.
The Labour and Co-Operative candidate in the Welsh Labour leadership contest, Vaughan Gething AM, gave an inspiring speech. He set out his plans and visions should he end up succeeding Carwyn Jones as the new First Minister of Wales. One particular statement that he made in arguing for a People’s Vote was that he is ‘not prepared to stand aside and let the Tories destroy our future’. He also spoke about the Welsh government's record on implementing Co-operative values, and he stated that those values will continue to be implemented should he become First Minister.
Carolyn Harris, the MP for Swansea East, was the annual conference party keynote speaker. She gave a speech from the heart - light-hearted, and there was not a dry eye in the house. She stated that she got into politics because she wanted to make a change after son was killed. There are many MPs in the Co-op Party, or who belong to co-operatives, but they are not sponsored by the Co-operative Party. MPs who are sponsored by the Co-Operative party include Luciana Berger, Tracy Brabin, Gareth Thomas, Seema Malhotra, Mike Gapes, Jim McMahon, and many more.
Overall the weekend was such a huge success, and there was a major buzz from everyone from MPs, AMs, MSPs, ex-officios, the staff and visitors. As a first-time conference visitor myself, I am honoured to be in the Co-operative Party. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. I was shocked when I was allowed to give a speech against Mike Ashley and Sports Direct as a visitor. I look forward to the 2019 conference, which will take place in Glasgow.