It’s time members of co-ops got a say in how their money was spent in politics, says Dave Boyle
Writing in this section a few months back on the Co-operative Party, Greg Rosen wrote that “the co-operative tortoise is winning the race to find Ed Miliband a ‘big idea'”. The recent publication of a collection of essays edited by Jon Cruddas on the direction for Labour and its future manifesto suggests the tortoise is actually trailing by some distance, with “co-operatives” receiving just one mention (and that from Philip Blond the high Tory moral philosopher).
The Co-operative Party was formed in 1917 in the face of discrimination towards co-operative retail societies at the hands of the wartime coalition government. It was another five years before Labour emerged as a genuine party of government, but its rise forced a recognition from the Co-operative Party that candidates for co-operation and for socialism were for all intents and purposes fighting over the same voters, with the only beneficiaries being the enemies of both. As Labour grew, falling in with them made good political sense; the alliance cemented between the two parties in 1928 remains in place.
That alliance is nominally between two sovereign parties, but it’s perhaps more akin to the longstanding alliance between the Liberal and National parties in Australia. People in both will make much of the differences but, in reality, they are less important to people on the outside as the fact that the two are in lockstep.
The Co-operative Party considers itself a sister to Labour, but one often gets the feeling that for a great many of the latter’s members and MPs, co-operatives are regarded more as a once-vibrant but now doddery old aunt to be humoured; you’ll hear lots of praise, but rarely get an invitation to an important family dinner.
That’s a feeling underlined by the record of 13 years of Labour government. It’s clear that times were better for the co-operative movement under Labour than the previous 18 under the Conservatives, but that’s a very low bar. Like much discussion of Labour’s record across the board, a list of successes does little to assuage the heavy sense of disappointment at what could have been done.
Some co-operative initiatives were promoted, such as Supporters Direct but, unlike government legislation to reform the charity and company sector, changes advantageous to the co-operative sector were legislated in piecemeal fashion, through the lottery of private members bills. The co-operative movement never benefited from the symbolism (and weight) that formal government business brings, nor did it achieve a long-advocated actual legal entity called a co-operative, with legal rights and responsibilities that work for the realities of modern and future co-operatives (although the government did find time to create a new legal form for social enterprise – the community interest company).
That’s understandable, perhaps, because, instead of being the party of the co-operative movement, the Co-operative Party has always been a creature of the retail co-ops that created it. The party’s several thousand members provide just 10% of its £1m income, and it exists at its current scale because of the money provided by the Co-operative Group, which contributed nearly £800,000 in the accounting year to 2011. The rest comes from the smaller retail societies, although some – most notably Southern, Lincolnshire and Heart of England – don’t provide any.
No other country’s retail co-operative movement has a direct political wing, and none is exclusively allied with the main centre-left party. Yet a great many of those other countries have, in varying degrees, more beneficial legal and policy frameworks, and many have bigger and more diverse co-operative sectors, from worker-owned enterprises of serious scale, to mutually owned public utilities and services.
By contrast, the UK retail movement’s enlightened support of the wider sector via the Co-operative Group’s Enterprise Hub (which has led to more than 1,000 new co-ops being created) is a very modern phenomenon; for much of the last 100 years, dismissive condescension or active hostility was a more common attitude to non-retail co-ops.
Ultimately, the real issue isn’t whether the link with Labour is effective for the movement, or even for the Co-operative Group, but whether it’s the only way in which the co-operative movement can be politically active and effective.
That’s a question one doesn’t often hear when the party’s funding is up for renewal. This may be because many of the people who make the decisions are unable to conceive of doing anything else, since they’re often Labour Party activists, for whom the link is sacrosanct. As long as they’re Labour, so will the Co-op be.
They’re upholding a long tradition of political retail co-operation, something stressed by correspondents to the letters page of the movement’s trade paper, the Co-op News, who frame the debate as being between abandoning political engagement entirely, or funding Labour via the Co-operative Party in recognition of the fact that both were hewn from the same rock.
But the five million members of the Co-operative Group, and the hundreds of thousands of members of other retail societies – let alone activists from the wider movement – would be unlikely to see the choice in such restrictive and unimaginative terms. They vote SNP, Green, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrat and Conservative, in devolved assemblies with forms of PR, and a good many may not even vote at all, being part of the growing numbers who are rejecting organised party politics for engagement in campaign groups looking to save local schools or cancel developing countries’ debt.
The overwhelming majority of these members are blissfully unaware that the Co-operative Party even exists, or that it – and thus the Labour Party – are funded via profits from their purchases in the shops. It’s an arrangement that has much in common with the way trade unions funded the Labour Party, until legislation required them to secure the direct consent of their members.
Those members should be given something the co-operative movement has always placed at the heart of its promise – democratic control – by allowing members to choose where they wish to allocate their funds.
Members could be provided with an assessment of how co-operative-friendly each party is, and whether its platform and operations are in keeping with the movement’s traditions of respect and equality.
At a stroke, all parties and other groups looking for support would have a reason to think about co-operative principles seriously and how they will seek to further them in the future. The movement would act politically, based on what its members think will help co-operation in the future, not on what a small section of its members think it should do, based on what happened in the distant past.
This would better reflect the world in which members actually live and better drive the changes to that world they would wish to see, using the power of their trade through democratic choice. A co-operative approach indeed.
Dave Boyle is a researcher and co-operative business consultant. He was previously chief executive of Supporters Direct, and is a member of the Co-operative Group’s Sussex Area Committee and the Green Party, and writes in a personal capacity.
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