Why I’m anxious about the Co-op Party

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By Carl Rowlands

Whenever the Co-operative Party appear on LabourList, as they have done in the recent past, I must confess, I am both glad and anxious. Glad, in that they are raising the profile of the co-operative movement, of which I remain a somewhat disillusioned supporter. But also anxious, as I no longer trust what might be on the agenda.

These days, it seems, advocates for co-operation exist at the top of the Labour Party. Ed Miliband is a member of his local Co-op Party branch in Doncaster. Ed Balls is a consistent, long-term supporter of the co-operative movement. Much of the time, he prefers to talk more of mutuality. Mutuality is a difficult definition – it could actually mean Surrey County Cricket Club or exclusive gentlemen’s associations. Contrary to some perceptions, it would not normally include garden allotments, for example. And finally, and perhaps most significantly, Tessa Jowell seems to regularly make speeches on the subject, indicating an interest at the core of the New Labour establishment.

The devil really appears to be in the detail. Tessa Jowell’s interest in co-operatives appears to co-incide with an agenda which is not entirely removed from that of the ‘Big Society’ – using co-ops to address weaknesses in public services. This raises two big questions: what are these weaknesses, and do co-ops actually address these? It also raises the big question of circumstance. Why seek to introduce co-ops now, and why in the public sector, rather than to, say, public utilities?

Are perceived weaknesses in the public sector based on a lack of motivation? Is it the lack of a revitalised public sector ethos which is at the heart of employee disillusionment? We don’t know, because much of the ‘Big Society’ rhetoric, echoed by Tessa Jowell, is not based on objective evidence. I see no sign of the evidence that public sector workers are asking to join co-operatives, or that these would help the delivery of services. There are a couple of studies, where in-house bids have successfully competed against the private sector in tendering. Yet these were not co-operatives – rather, in-house management bids, supported by unions, which emerged from anti-privatisation campaigns.

Perhaps if New Labour had concentrated on the core values underpinning public services, it would not be in a situation of now trying to outpace the Conservatives in matching a cuts agenda. Joined-up government was often nothing more than a buzz-word. For example, the Home Office needed to be geared – from top to bottom – to the values of rehabilitation. It needed employees with enthusiasm for this, as a mission. There has been groundbreaking work done in recent years by those working with activity theory, whereby different teams in different disciplines can form new structures and generate new, human-focused solutions to different problems. Successive governments seem more keen on ‘buzz’ – the use of keywords and Malcolm Tucker-type PR people, to disguise a fundamental lack of energy, direction and focus.

And then the second question is whether co-operatives are actually able to address these questions. In the UK, the retail co-operatives have millions of members, many millions of customers, yet the democratic structures are quite weak. The retail Co-operative Group is driven by corporate governance. There is only a thin layer of active membership, and these members are not always the first to hear about Group decisions. This does not make the Co-op a model for dynamic participatory structures. Public sector unions may be forgiven for suggesting the physician should heal thyself.

In a provocative moment. Harold Wilson once questioned the wisdom of running Marks and Spencer ‘as well as’ the Co-op. To its credit, the Co-op would not now be totally disgraced by such a comparison.

But, looking the weakness of its democratic structures – the half-empty regional committees, the reliance on a small base of corporate managers, many of which are ill-equipped to deal with wider issues – one could suggest a similar comparison. Why would Reading Borough Council want to run its committees like the Reading Sub-Committee of the South-East region of the Co-op? Would it really want to be like one of the few hundred worker co-ops in the UK, many of which bravely trade as small businesses, in a bitterly hostile economic and cultural climate? Or would the model be based on social enterprises, so lauded, and yet ultimately dependent upon shrinking state funds?

Finally, why now? There is a drive to save money, which is resulting in an attack on the conditions of working people, both as service users and providers. Is this where the co-operative movement, with its proud history, really wants to be? If not, then it’s very important that it explains what it wants. Robin Murray has made a great start in doing this, but the debate around this has yet to fully emerge.

Here’s a more pessimistic theory, yet one which may correspond more closely to reality. Co-operation as a movement and philosophy in the UK was actually broken – shattered – as a movement in the 1980s, despite the richness of its values and ethos. Economically, and politically, it was effectively destroyed. Having lost its cohesion, ideas and concepts of co-operation have now become splinters, which are being propelled by a neo-liberal tidal wave.

The existence of the Conservative Co-operative Movement hints at the fracturing of theory and practice, which has occured in the last thirty years. These splinters are now pointing at the heart of the labour movement, threatening the trade unions upon which we all depend for any degree of democracy or representation. Resolving this situation will require a new radicalisation and re-invention of movements for co-operation and collective ownership. Not just a new socialism, but a new ‘commune’-ism. Only such a major re-invention, involving new autonomous models of local government finance, and a massive education campaign to rebuild a grassroots, would allow co-operatives to take a place at the forefront of a social economy, as is happening in Latin America and around other countries in Europe.

The current uptick in interest may be a false dawn, deceptive and also dangerous. But there may yet be the first glimmers of light emerging.

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