This article also appears on LabourList
Had it not been for this article in the Guardian I don’t know whether we would have bothered to complete a questionnaire from the Co-op despite receiving a letter about it this week. We are longstanding members of the Co-op and of the Co-op Party. Our local store is fairly small so we don’t do all our shopping there, but we like the ethical stance and we use the group for a range of other services as well. Yes we were concerned at the media coverage of the problems at the Co-op Bank but those problems clearly weren’t as serious as for many other banks and we are satisfied that action is being taken to address the problems and to improve the governance – without moving away from the ethical stance which has kept us with them. The reason for not necessarily prioritising a questionnaire is that we are generally happy for the Co-op Group to continue – and for the Co-op Party to continue as part of the wider movement and therefore might not have prioritised the time to fill in the questionnaire.
According to the Guardian, Euan Sutherland (Chief Executive of the Co-op Group) says “the Co-operative has lost touch with its customers and members and with the communities in which it operates – we haven’t been listening.” Fair enough, I agree there is a problem – but with this type of survey, the way that you ask the question has a significant bearing on the response.
The general public don’t have a high opinion of politics or of political parties. So if you ask “To what extent do you think it is appropriate or inappropriate for big businesses to donate money to political parties?” and whether politics is more or less important than local community, I think we can guess what most people would answer.
The perception is that people involved in politics are mostly in it for themselves and/or spend far too much time listening to wealthy donors and that building a brighter future is all but impossible. We can speculate as to the events which have brought us to this sorry state of affairs, but for me it is more important to think about how we change it. The last thing we need to do to renew faith in politics is for anyone with principles to withdraw. Politics isn’t a spectator sport – despite that being how it is usually depicted on TV. Whether our rugby or football team wins or loses may determine whether we are happy or sad, but who wins in politics makes a real difference to people’s lives. Often it makes the most difference to those who pay it little heed – those who are struggling to provide for their families and for whom the minimum wage, tax credits and affordable childcare made a big difference.
I am proud to be a member of the Co-op Party and what it stands for – that people will achieve more by working together than they can by working alone. The manifesto at the last General Election made a lot of sense in terms of the long term solutions needed to improve our economy and restore faith in public services. It is undoubtedly a positive influence on its sister party, the Labour Party which has sometimes been rather too keen on imposing statist solutions rather than co-operative or mutual solutions (i.e. doing things to people instead of involving the people affected in designing the solution for themselves). Ed Miliband himself highlighted the importance of co-operative values before he was elected Leader of the Labour Party and last week wrote about people-centred public services.
There is a deeper contribution made by the Co-operative Party – which is to provide a link between the broader co-operative movement and politics. So no I don’t particularly want “big business” to be involved in politics – but I do want to see far more involvement from membership organisations, whether that is in terms of direct support for political candidates or more generally engaging in a debate about how improve our local communities, Wales or the United Kingdom. Could the Co-op movement engage more effectively with its members and supporters and help get them more involved in community initiatives? Yes undoubtedly and politics should be seen as part of that. The Co-operative Party itself needs to change and to get far more people involved – with fewer committees and more opportunity for real engagement. That is a huge but important task which the new General Secretary, Karin Christiansen, has already started working on. I hope the wider Co-operative movement will support her in this, rather than pulling the rug from beneath her.