5 September 2009

Labour or Ownership

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.


  1. Molly - I think the reason that I gave in the debate was very clear - the Co-operative and Labour have more than ninety years of shared values, ideas and history.

    I would also like to contrast the ideas that I put forward (the future of co-operatives in public policy which was the actual title) with your rather shallow and skin deep exercise in political point scoring. As usual, a member of your party rather shouts nonsense from the sidelines rather than engage in constructive debate.

    While I may not agree with everything that this Labour (or any) Government has done over an extended period in office - I accept that when you are in power you have to make difficult decisions, something the Green Party is unlikely to engage in from its position as the screaming banshees on the sidelines.

    I do however feel that the achievements of this Government will stand the test of time - and I wouldn't place the Green Party very high even on my list of alternative propositions.

    Ours and Labour's shared vision and values have resulted in more than a million new members of mutuals during this term of government, a complete overhaul of the legislative environment that co-operatives work in, as well as massive support for social enterprise.

    Do you think we should swap this for the Green Party who you said (I quote) 'don't have very many policies on co-operatives but I think they should have more.' As the principle economic speaker you then asked me (and the others)if I had any ideas that you could take back across.

    It seems that your devotion to co-operatives hasn't actually gone as far as understanding how we can help them reclaim their rightful role in our economy and society.

    Although looking at your other policies I guess we can't complain that we're any more or less neglected than any sector or movement that can realistically achieve anything...

  2. I find this comment very interesting and it exemplifies why Greens are so different from other politicians. I went to listen and to genuinely ask for suggestions for policies to include in our manifesto that would be supportive of co-operatives. This is used as a basis for attack. Green political process is so different - listening is key political skill which the parties that are elected to Westminster just don't seem to have mastered, in spite of the rhetoric. Respect is one key value that, while I find it in many co-operators, I do not find in the Labour Party. But surely the key value that is missing from this comment is co-operation itself - mutualism has always been about working together to solve our problems. The fact that we are in different political parties is no reason to abandon that principle.

  3. My partner and I are both keen supporters of the coop movement and try to ensure as high a proportion as possible of our personal and business (I'm self employed) expenditure as possible passes through cooperative enterprises. However, I would be absolutely appalled to think that any of this money was being used to support New Labour, as I regard many of their policies as the absolute antithesis of what progressive politics and the Coop movement should be about, as reflected, for example, in their absolute failure to tackle income inequality and declining social mobility income. So, firstly, is our money being used to support New Labour? And secondly, if so, how do we challenge this?

  4. Both my partner and I are keen supporters of the cooperative movement and try to use cooperative enterprises as much as possible for banking, insurance, shopping, phone lines, etc (I'm self employed so this includes my business activities). However, I would be absolutely appalled to think any of this money was being used to support New Labour, as I regard their policies as the absolute antithesis of what progressive politics, and the cooperative movement is about, as reflected, for example, in their penchant for illegal wars, their utter failure to tackle income inequality and declining social mobility, and their absolute failure to propose meaningful electoral and financial reform. Firstly, is our money being used to support New Labour? Secondly, if so how doe we challenge this (we are both cooperative members)?

  5. Wow. What a tribal piece by Robbie.

    I'd have rather he addressed why the updating of legislation was something done through Private Members' Bills rather than actual government legislation, which all together still doesn't address the crying need for a co-operative act, which the co-op sector has been demanding for over a decade. We've still got the FSA as an incompetent, uninterested and untransparent registrar and regulator for the sector. There has been reform of the legislative environment, but it's pushing it to say its been overhauled, and really pushing it to say that this is something we should celebrate to the point of obscuring all else. yes, the last Act of the 1979 Labour government was a Credit Union Act, and there wasn't one under the Tories in the next 18 years. But hey, there's not been one under Labour yet either in 12. We know Tories don't do co-ops like Labour. But we also know Labour don't do co-ops like it could or should.

    There is a significant strand within Labour which has pushed co-op values, and it'd be churlish to underplay it. But it's equally overegging the custard to over state it too; there's a significant majority who have always paid lip service to the ideas of co-operation and mutuality, and still do.

    Some of that is because they have other tribal affiliations within the Labour family (eg, the TU base has been unhelpfully sceptical about co-ops and despite some thawing remains so) but mainly because the leadership of the party remains suicidally wedded to an economic policy which is as neo-liberal as makes no difference. In this world, there is no other model than the investor-owned business. You can allow all the Private Members Bills to tinker here and there all you like, but when you bankrupt the country to bail out a business model which is inimical to co-operation and mutuality - and then flatly refuse to use this opportunity to redress this state of affairs - then it all counts for little, sadly.

    The continued protestation that Labour and the party are best buds seems pathetic (in the sense of 'full of pathos'); it reminds me of a teenage me telling my parents that someone who they saw taking advantage of me was not the somewhat manipulative cove they in fact were and were, in reality, my bestest friend ever. I knew then that this was not really the case, as I pretty much think the Co-op party in its heart knows too that it is locked in somewhat dysfunctional relationship with Labour and that inertia is as much an explanation as principle.

    What's more intriguing here is the refusal of the party to want to engage with others, in this instance the greens. I can see that there's a tactical consideration that for the forseeable future, the party likely to be closer to being in a position of power in Westminster, but its the inability to make alliances beyond that that irks so. There's every chance the Greens in Scotland will be a player after 2011, and having only a relationship with the frankly absurd Scottish Labour Party is bonkers.

    There's a world of co-operators, especially amongst younger people, who are only switching onto the problems of financialised, resource hungry capitalist models, and are hungry and enthusiastic for alternatives. When I tell them about co-operation and mutuality, it just fits. People get it. It seems like the business model of the future. And then they find out that the political representative body of that exciting, modern, forward-thinking economic model is in some kind of weird death-embrace with a party they see as responsible for the bankrupt economic policy, environmental policy and foreign policy that frankly appals them. I'm a huge advocate of co-operation but am prevented from joining the Co-op Party because of my disagreements with the Labour Party. That's, well, very uncooperative, isn't it?


  6. Of course, Labour co-operators could grab our lapels and repeat the same mantras more urgently loudly about the shared history, or they could accept that we understand all of that, and take a different view. They could, as Molly suggest, listen and learn, and understand and maybe start to have a real dialogue, not one infested with tribal loyalties (and, dare I say, meshed up with personal ones too. I could be wrong there, and no-one involved in the Co-op party might want to be a Labour MP, but forgive the cynicism that some of us might read into the party's defence of a link that could the meal-ticket to the seat of one's dreams).

    Best wishes for a good Co-op Party Conference this weekend.

  7. ICA Co-operative principles say membership should be open irrespective of political affiliation. The formal UK Co-operative societies are unusual in having a political party. Despite the Hastings Agreement there were Liberal MPs who were Chairmen of their local society.