With 29 MPs, the Co-operative Party is the 4th-largest party at Westminster. (It is by the way the only co-operative party in the world, apart from the Cooperative NATCCO Network Party, which holds one seat in the Philippine House of Representatives). It was founded in 1917 and has had a Brussels branch since 1982. On 1st December its General Secretary, Michael Stephenson, came to the European Parliament to talk to us. And unwittingly we seem to have held the first meeting the Parliament has hosted on the subject of co-operatives for about 10 years.
He pointed to a renaissance of co-operativism in Britain; in the last decade NHS foundation trusts, co-operative trust schools and football supporter’s trusts have all brought consumer co-operation into new fields. Even the village shop in Ambridge is organising a community share issue! Two areas where a start has been made but much remains to be done are housing and energy.
The financial crisis has shown the strength of mutualism in housing finance – they tend not to freeze credit, they charge lower interest rates, and their structure is intrinsically more stable. Yet, incredibly, the city establishment seems locked in to its unsustainable greed-based model. Till now, the public seems to have naively retained its faith in the esoteric knowledge that financiers claim to have. But at last polls are showing that the RBS directors’ attempt at blackmail to preserve bonuses may be the straw that has broken the camel’s back. It may mark the downfall of the Tory claims to be the party of the poor.
In energy, a cluster of co-operative wind farms like Westmill shows that ethical investors are keen to do their bit against climate change, and the movment is running a well-thought-out campaign on climate change, ACT!.
The meeting chimed well with an initiative of Co-operatives Europe to launch a Network of Co-operative MEPs, whose first meeting takes place in Strasbourg on 14th December, part of a campaign to raise the co-operative movement’s profile in European politics. Two coming opportunities are the EU2020 consultation and the inaugural hearings of the new Commissioners.
Co-operatives have a unique political offer. They are in the lead on a number of issues with which the public engages, such as fair trade and climate change, but they haven’t got the best out of the system. The movement’s job is to put together the narrative and the evidence to create the impact they deserve to have. Right now the Labour Party is receptive to new ideas – so there is a real chance that co-operative solutions will be taken up.