I had an interesting time yesterday, revealing myself at the conference of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies (of which I am an Executive member) as not being a member of the Labour Party. I was invited to address a political panel as the Green Party economics speaker. The other parties declined the invitation, which left me hitting it out with Co-operative Party researcher Robbie Erbmann.
The curious thing was how Robbie felt bound to defend The Labour Party, in fact New Labour, which should be even more troubling for a co-operator. The arcane relationship between The Co-operative Party and The Labour Party has been the best kept secret on the British Left since Mandelson was revealed as gay on Newsnight.
The Co-operative Party was set up by co-operators, whose aim was to take direct control of the productive forces of the economy and thus undermine the power of the capitalists to extract their labour as surplus value. The party, set up in 1917, was their political wing, to lobby for a supportive environment to build co-operatives. But in 1927 it made the fateful mistake of signing an agreement not to stand against Labour candidates. Although there are 29 MPs today who are officially Co-operative/Labour, nobody would tell the difference. They are probably more likely to raise questions about the killing of innocent civilians as a result of resource wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are still there at Westminster keeping the government who made the decision to launch those wars in power.
Why is it assumed that if you support co-operatives you must support Labour? Way back in the mists of the dawn of the last century the genuinely political working people of this country who were busy organising their own alternative economy (which made up some 30% of the economy during the 1930s) were utterly shafted by the Webbs and their ilk, who sold them out to a political party which took their power in return for a vote once every five years. But there is no reason why today's co-operators should support New Labour.
At a time when it is clear that the interests of working people in reclaiming control of the value of their labour, rather than merely their pay and terms and conditions, are coinciding with those of the planet, which cannot take the pressure from the extraction of surplus value, I find it bizarre that co-operators are still unquestioning about their commitment to Labour. Co-operatives are clearly a part of the future sustainable economy; the Labour Party is not. My proposal for the stranglehold that Labour has on the Co-operative Party was not favourably received, but may perhaps resurface during the bloodbath that will follow the next election.