A guest blog by Gareth Thomas, MP for Harrow West and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Mutuals.
As long as I’ve been involved in politics I’ve had a profound interest in where business, when run in an efficient and fair way, can be harnessed to help ordinary working people. When you start to think about these questions it’s logical that you develop a strong interest in the co-operative and mutual sector and this is an area of the economy that I’ve championed ever since I was first elected in 1997. Becoming Chair of the Co-operative Party in 2000 allowed me a greater platform to advocate for co-operatives and member ownership more widely and over the years we’ve had some notable successes in helping to grow the sector and increasing support from Government.
I have also come to understand how the ideals of mutuality can cut across traditional party lines. In Parliament there are colleagues who have a very different philosophical approach to politics from myself but have come to a similar conclusion about the power that this way of doing business can have. I think that's part of the enduring appeal of mutuality, that it contains seeds from social democratic, liberal and conservative thought - be that economic solidarity, self help or community action.
I was very proud at the start of this Parliament to be elected Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group [APPG] for Mutuals. I was a member of the Group in the last Session and under its previous guise as the APPG for Building Societies and Financial Mutuals. Under the Chairmanship of Jonathan Evans we had some big successes most notably in helping to steer through Lord Naseby's Mutuals' Deferred Shares Act.
As Chair, I now want to take the Group in a new direction where we start to bring on board more Parliamentarians, perhaps some of my new colleagues who haven't been exposed to the sector before being elected. I'd like also like to demonstrate clearly the true scale and value of the co-operative and mutual businesses we already have in the UK and examine where we can press the government to help strengthen the sector further.
All of us with an interest in this also need to go out there and tell the mutual story, explaining the values of mutuality and how particularly in the financial space they can help to diversify the wider market. People will know building societies from their own experience - be it through a first savings account or a mortgage provider that has their interests at heart. We know that the building society sector is strong, with over 20 million customers across the UK and total assets above £330 billion. This is a huge platform on which to build.
I'm equally keen that we ensure that mutuals are fit for the future, building societies in particular were established to help the underserved - in the days when working people had no access to home ownership - we need to think about how this great sector can help those who are financially excluded in new ways. I hope to encourage these thoughts through the APPG. Not all ideas will stick but I think we are well placed to try.
For more information about Gareth Thomas MP, visit www.gareththomas.org, or find and follow him on Twitter @GarethThomasMP.