How can co-operatives contribute to the political discourse?

In a special session at the UK Society for Co-operative Studies conference Karin Christiansen and Dr Peter Davies explored the role the Co-operative Party could play in building...

In a special session at the UK Society for Co-operative Studies conference Karin Christiansen and Dr Peter Davies explored the role the Co-operative Party could play in building a new economics.

While discussing the relationship between the Party and the wider co-operative movement, the two keynote speakers tried to define how the future should look like for the Party.

Dr Davis co-ordinates the Unit for Membership Based Organizations within the Centre for Culture, Organisation and Values in the University of Leicester School of Management. He said the Co-operative Party should have branches inside trade unions and also support unemployed people. He said a bottom-up approach like in the 19th century was needed.

“The underclass feel rejected, neglected and hopeless and we are not addressing that,” he said.

“I have a huge faith in our ability to solve problems,” added Ms Christiansen, who steps down as secretary general of the Party after the party conference season.

Journalist Andrew Bibby said the Party should stop being a political party and start being a movement. In response, Ms Christiansen said it aimed to be a tool for the movement.

“The Co-operative Party should not be a co-operative movement in the same way the Labour Party should not be a labour movement,” she said. “We are a tool, a vehicle for getting things done.”

The Party was set when the movement was under enormous legislative attack and politicians were passing laws designed to diminish the sector – and current legislation once more posers serious threats to the movement, she added.

Dr Davis responded: “The party’s job is to mobilise people. Don’t try to get into power at any price – if you mobilise people, you will get into power. Get into alliances with societies. We can’t ignore culture.”

The existing electoral system increases the importance of the relationship with the Labour Party, said Ms Christiansen.

“If we stopped having a relationship with the Labour Party there’s a misconception we would become neutral, but the truth is we would be out of the game. The Co-operative Party is only as strong as the movement, and the movement is fragile now. But it has seeds in it.

“We need to stop being scared of them, if they don’t identify as co-ops but what they’re doing is co-operation.”

Dr Davis thinks he Co-operative Party should confront a “Tory tendency” within the Labour movement, but Ms Christiansen replied: “Is the Co-operative party’s job to save the Labour Party? I’m not sure that’s our job.”

The movement is marked by ideological struggle, noted Dr Davis. “Every time a society went bankrupt, we were told it was a merger.

“We need to change the management structure. The Co-operative Party shouldn’t say we’re here to do what retail societies want us to do.”

Ian Snaith – a legal expert who edited the revised edition of my Handbook of Co-operative and Community Benefit Society Law – also spoke, urging the movement to look at open co-operatives, commons and open source movements.

“The co-operative movement needs to be looking at that. It’s clearly where things are moving and we really have to be engaged in that,” he said.

“The Co-operative Party has demonstrated what it can do. When its funds were under threat it mobilised a lot of people – it can mobilise on other issues too,” said Dr Davis.

“A lot of exciting things are going on now but so many exciting things like little co-op initiatives were taking place in the 1950s and they failed because there was no co-ordination.

“The worker movement was isolated and the consumer co-operative movement kept investment for itself and charged interest for those that it did give a loan to. Surplus should be accumulated and reinvested in the movement to grow and not given in dividends.”

Cheryl Barrott, chair of Co-ops Yorkshire and the Humber, said the movement was not just a series of businesses.

“We bought into consumerism,” she said. “What happened to social and cultural values? We are not just for the economic benefit of our members, we went down the consumers’ route. We need to be more Owenite and less Rochdale Pioneers. There are all sorts of issues that the state is rolling back on. What are we putting in place instead of that?”

Martin Strube of Co-operative Solutions also suggested creasing a new system based on the co-operative economy by using a co-operative currency.

The last three years have been exhausting for the Party, said Ms Christiansen. She explained how the Keep it Co-op campaign had managed to bring together trade unions and co-operators but added that the latter needed to campaign more to mobilise people.

“We can’t supply solutions to the housing crisis, if we’re not prepared to have that ambition as a movement,” she warned.

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