‘It is a mistake to ignore co-operative politics’

Karin Christiansen, General Secretary of the Co-operative Party For the best part of 100 years the Co-operative Party has been the political party of the co-operative movement. We...

Karin Christiansen is the General Secretary of the  Co-operative Party
Karin Christiansen, General Secretary of the Co-operative Party

For the best part of 100 years the Co-operative Party has been the political party of the co-operative movement. We have been working with co-ops like the Midcounties Co-operative to level the playing field between co-operatives and traditional private sector business models, and (more recently) to make the case for ‘people-powered’ businesses and public services. Decades before Ed Miliband coined the phrase.

Whether or not any co-operative decides to be a member of the Co-operative Party is clearly a decision for their board and their members and if members of Midcounties [which has said it is withdrawing its subscription to the party] decide they want to end our partnership then they are absolutely entitled to do so. However, I would argue this would be a mistake for three reasons.

Firstly, as Patrick Gray, the president of Midcounties, has said, the Co-operative Party has provided vital support and advocacy for co-operatives since our creation by the movement in 1917. The Party and its parliamentarians have made the case for co-operative movement in good times and bad including during the dark days of the 1980s when the movement was laid low by the demutualisation of a string of building societies. There may be more advocates for co-operative and mutual ideas now, but canny observers will have noticed that some of them have been rather quiet since the well publicised troubles at the Co-operative Group. The Co-operative Party does not just exist to make the case for co-operation when it is popular but more importantly when it is not. And now would seem to be such a time.

Secondly, the idea that the Rochdale Pioneers’ original commitment to open membership and political ‘neutrality’ is an argument against the movement seeking representation in Parliament is not a new one and has been clearly refuted. As far back as 1881 co-operatives recognised that they needed to monitor Parliamentary activities and in 1897 passed a resolution in favour seeking direct representation. Indeed, William Maxwell (president of the International Co-operative Alliance in the early 20th century) said that co-operatives being directly engaged in politics was ‘not introducing politics into co-operation but introducing co-operation into politics’.

Today organisational membership of the Co-operative Party is no obstacle to co-operatives supporting other political causes and working with other Parties. Indeed all our member societies engage with politicians locally and nationally from across the political spectrum. And so they should. It is worth remembering that the Co-operative Group’s affiliation to the Co-operative Party did not prevent the coalition government from supporting the Co-operative Bank’s proposed takeover of a significant number of Lloyds Bank branches in 2011 – however ill-fated the deal turned out to be.

The Party itself, and our MPs, also work co-operatively with governments of all colours to achieve political and policy change. In just the last few months we have been working with the Department of Education to promote the work of co-operative schools and the Ministry of Defence to make the case for the creation of a credit union for the armed forces and their families.

Patrick Gray, the president of The Midcounties Co-operative
Patrick Gray, President of The Midcounties Co-operative

Finally, the idea that membership of the Co-operative Party puts off Co-op shoppers is unproven as Patrick Gray previously acknowledged in an interview with the Guardian in May. The interview stated then that shoppers were not deterred by the political donations made by the society. He even highlighted that David Cameron shops in their Chipping Norton store – clearly not ‘put off’ by Midcounties’ affiliation to the Co-operative Party. Similarly, the Co-operative Party’s own polling undertaken by Populus in April shows that the majority of the public think it is either ‘appropriate’ for a co-operative society to make a financial contribution to the Co-operative Party or have ‘no strong feelings’ on the subject. In addition, there are clearly members and customers of retail co-operatives who make a positive choice to use them as a result of their political, ethical and campaigning activities.

Co-operatives were created to meet desperate social and economic needs. While the nature of these needs have changed since the 19th century — the bread sold in the shops is no longer full of sawdust and rat poison — consumers are still being ripped off and exploited by companies more interested in generating short-term profits for shareholders. Today it is our energy and childcare bills that we are struggling with; being able to find decent affordable housing; and getting a fair and transparent deal from our mobile phone provider or our bank. A major advantage modern co-operative pioneers have over our Rochdale forebears is that the modern world has provided us with an amazing set of tools to build collective, co-operative solutions. From crowd funding to social media, the digital age makes bringing people together to collaborate in their mutual interest easier and more engaging.

The Midcounties Co-operative is an innovative and thriving business which is showing that large co-operatives can be successful and can adapt their business to meet the challenges faced by modern Britain – including the need for fair energy prices and high quality childcare. The Co-operative Party very much hopes to keep working with the excellent staff and members of Midcounties to celebrate their successes and to keep driving co-operative solutions forward into the future.

• The Populus Poll was commissioned by the Co-operative Party. Populus spoke to 1033 people between 15-16 April 2014. Respondents were given an explanation of a co-operative and the Co-operative Party and asked ‘To what extent do you think it is appropriate or inappropriate for The Co-operative Group, as a member, to make financial contributions to the Co-operative Party?’ 30% answered ‘very’ or ‘quite appropriate’, 46% had ‘no strong feelings either way’ and only 12% felt it was ‘quite’ or ‘very inappropriate’. 12% ‘didn’t know’.

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