The Co-operative Movement should have a voice in politics

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.

3 thoughts on “The Co-operative Movement should have a voice in politics

  1. Although I can understand a reluctance for Co-op party members to want to recalibrate their relationship to the Labour Party at a time when the Union and Labour Party link is also being redefined; I fail to understand why Co-op party members would be opposed to a questionnaire of Co-op members and users into how they feel about that relationship. I say this as I am doubtful about the concept of the Co-op as a going concern as a political party. I suspect none of its 32 sitting MPs and a good many of its councillors it sponsors would get elected if the candidates stood on purely a Co-op party platform – they get elected because they are known as the ‘Labour’ candidates. Long gone are the days when Labour party affiliated groups like the ‘Co-op’ could act as a recruiting sergeant for the Labour party itself. I think what happens now is that people who happen to want to develop their influence or careers in the Labour party also sign up to affiliated organisations like the Co-op, Fabians or Trade Unions (or all three) as a means of widening their personal support base in the Labour party itself. By having multiple memberships of various affiliated organisations they also garner more votes in Labour party leadership elections, votes not just from other Labour party affiliated members of the Co-op, but also personally. For example lots of Labour party members exercised multiple numbers of votes in Ed Miliband’s leadership election – they got votes to shore up the block vote in the Labour party’s electoral college of other affiliated organisations and as individual members of the Labour party got a personal vote also.

    To their credit the present Labour party leadership wish to discontinue this type of multiple voting by individuals in favour of one member one vote. This is much more transparent and also fair. I fail to see why some Labour party members who happen to take a out subscriptions to affiliated organisations should get extra votes in Labour party business matters over and above the likes of me who simply hold an individual membership of the Labour party. If there are people in any affiliated organisations (who presently don’t hold membership of the Labour party – not many I should imagine) and who want to have votes and influence over the Labour party itself; they should just do the decent thing and join the Labour party – it’s not that expensive!

    • I totally agree with what Ed Miliband is trying to do in terms of addressing the problems you describe and having a much more honest system which really is one supporter one vote and is about encouraging the involvement of lots more people rather than assuming that those people are involved because they are members of organisations which are involved.

      There is a wider purpose to the Co-operative Party than the one you describe – which is the pursuit of co-operative ideals in politics – something that the Labour Party is not always on top of. Yes there is room for improvement and I recognise the phenomenon you describe. But does this mean the Co-op Party should cease to exist, or move from being a sister party to Labour to a pressure group within the Labour Party? I think the more important question is how does the Co-op Party change to achieve a more meaningful relationship between ordinary members (of Co-ops, not just the Co-op Party) and political representatives. I would support such an exercise – but that’s not what this questionnaire does. It merely encourages Co-op supporters to express the opinions that big business shouldn’t be involved in politics and that “community” is more important than “politics” – meaningless sentiments that don’t help, but instead pander to the sentiment that all politicians are the same and ordinary people should have nothing to do with politics.

  2. I take your point about how the You Gov questionnaire tends to hold an underlying assumption that ‘politics’ is not for ‘normal people’. However, I would like to see the Co-op movement concentrate on being a business with progressive social and ethical objectives and get out of this vaguely grubby world of donating resources used to service politicians (even ones I like and vote for). After all a good many of the people who use co-op facilities I’m sure would be shocked to learn that the profits they help generate go to fund a politicians constituency office (someone they probably didn’t or wouldn’t vote for). It would help us make transparent and confront the business links that the Conservative party enjoys if we can separate our own relationship from our own Co-op businesses. I can and do appreciate that the decision to make such donations that the Co-op movement does from time to time is taken according to its democratic and accountable processes (although recent issues with its Bank that I continue to be a customer of, raises concerns as to just how robust and accountable those structures are). However, it is the nature of those internal democratic processes I have a problem with. I suppose my issue is that I want to see the Labour party stand on its own two feet as a (potential) mass movement. To do this we will need to reform the relationship the party has to it’s affiliated organisations. The Co-op movement too would benefit I think by placing a bit more distance between itself and the Labour party.

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