Sunday, 9 October 2011

The Co-op party's big mistake

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

This is a longer version of a post of mine which has appeared over on Liberal Conspiracy. To be honest I prefer this version, but if you're pressed for time and can't be bothered to read 1100 words then please read the LC version instead :)

I recently opened a bank account with Britannia, which is a subsidiary of the Co-operative Bank. I've also signed up to become an official member of the co-operative group and, as such, I'm expecting my membership details in the post some time soon.

But this got me thinking. You see, the co-operative movement has a political arm which is called (predictably) the Co-op Party. Now, I for one, think that the concept of co-operatives is a brilliant idea - customer and employee owned businesses directly democratically accountable to and splitting their profits amongst those same customers and employees. I also think that it's a great that the wider co-operative movement has its own political party to speak up for the co-operative philosophy in government. So don't think I hate the Co-op party.

But where I disagree with it is its strategy. Quite sensibly, in my opinion, it doesn't see the point in standing candidates for the Co-op party alone and just being another minor party with a tiny share of the vote. Instead, the Co-op party will stand joint candidates. This means that if someone has been selected to stand for parliament, and is also a member of the Co-op party, then the Co-op party will contribute substantially to their campaign costs and the candidate will stand under the name of both the Co-op and the other party.

Unfortunately, however, there is a caveat to this. No matter how supportive someone might be of the co-operative philosophy, they are only allowed to stand as Co-op candidates if they're a member of the Labour party or are not a member of any other party. This is because of the historical ties between the Labour movement and the co-op movement.

But where has this got the co-op movement? Well, at the moment, there are 29 "Labour and Co-operative" MPs in parliament, including the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls. And one Co-op party policy is to turn failed high street banks (such as Northern Rock) into co-op or mutual banks of the type which survived the banking crisis unscathed due to their sensible approach of dealing only with high street bank activities and not risky investment bank gambling. Now this is, in my mind, a great idea. In fact, it's a policy not dissimilar from a Lib Dem one to encourage more public services or state owned companies (such as the post office) to become mutuals or co-ops.

Now, given that Ed Balls was one of Gordon Brown's right hand men, you'd think he might have been able to persuade Gordon Brown to implement this policy. But, for some reason, he didn't. Never mind though, maybe Gordon Brown didn't want to listen, but now Balls is Shadow Chancellor then he's free to make his own policies - and Ed Miliband can't be holding him back because he appears on the Co-op party website endorsing co-operatives and what the Co-op party stands for. And yet, when it comes to the Labour party supporting the policy of turning failed banks into mutuals or co-ops: silence.

This is a very basic, very easy policy for the Labour party to announce in opposition. It's something that would be popular and which would chime with people's anger at "casino banking". And, if it comes down to it, they don't even have to worry about implementing it as, by the time of the next election, the economic situation will be much different and they can change the definition of failed banks in order to avoid doing anything - and that's if they're being really cynical and Machiavellian.

But they haven't. And, when you look into things further, you can't help but sense that the Co-op party is getting a pretty raw deal. They fund the election campaigns of a lot of Labour MPs (in some cases, almost totally) and, with the Co-op bank's generosity in letting Labour continue to owe millions of pounds of money borrowed from them, the co-op movement is playing a big part in keeping Labour afloat at a time when they are heavily in debt and are having trouble raising money. Yet despite all that, very few co-op friendly policies have been implemented by Labour in government since before the Second World War. There have been a few minor bits of legislation to the benefit of the co-op movement (such as setting up a method for co-ops to take over building societies like Britannia) but, by and large, it seems to me that a lot of Labour party MPs are happy to take co-op money but then do very little to represent the co-op movement in parliament once they've been elected.

And this I think is where the Co-op party has made a big mistake. By only allowing their candidates to be members of the Labour party they are effectively giving Labour a monopoly on their support. And, if you want to be cynical, a Labour party candidate, once selected, could well join the Co-op party just to get his or her hands on campaign funds. I'm not saying that's what happens, merely that that is a possibility that this situation makes possible.

But if you look outside of Labour you will find a lot of prospective parliamentary candidates who agree with the co-op ethos. I know several Lib Dems who are probably far more committed co-op members than Ed Balls, for example. And if you look also at the Greens and the SNP and Plaid Cymru and even, god forbid, a few tories, you will also find people who believe in the co-operative philosophy. I know I do.

But as it stands, people outside Labour, like me, who believe in co-operatism aren't allowed to join the Co-op party, not even as a supporter. And all this means is that the Co-op party is cutting themselves off from dozens of potential candidates who could otherwise be ardent voices for the co-op movement in parliament. In short, the Labour-only approach of the Co-op party is shooting themselves in the foot. They may be a few minor difficulties with allowing co-op candidates from other parties (such as what would happen if you had a co-op party members from two different parties both standing in the same election) but these pale into insignificance compared to the potential benefits it could bring. I mean, you know there's something wrong when even Caroline Lucas is banned from joining the Co-op party.

If the Co-op party is serious about getting the co-operative philosophy, and their policies, implemented in government, then they should revise the archaic monopoly they are giving to Labour. Otherwise I fear that the day of co-operatism will never come.


  1. Newton's 3rd law of motion is universal. The chaps at the coop aren't stupid, so there will be a very good reason for them to have crafted their affiliations in this way. Somewhere in the background, probably between two old friends, there will be a quid pro quo.

  2. Great post and great idea. LibDemVoice had an article on the idea in 2009 and I wrote about it earlier in the year so its great that there is a growing voice for the idea and we should keep it up and who knows where it may lead?

  3. @solutionfocusedpolitics

    Absolutely. Sadly I think the Coop party is so packed with Labour MPs that it will never change but with a bit of luck we might someday get to the stage where the Coop movement realises that they're being taken for a ride by a party that has never given anything more than lip service to cooperative principles.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Completely agree. The co-operative movement has a choice to make: does it continue to maintain the historic but unproductive relationship/affiliation with Labour, or does it - er, well - co-operate with like-minded people where possible?

    The relationship between the Co-op Party and Labour is one of a faithful wife and abusive husband. She keeps coming back to him because she deludes herself that, deep down, he loves her really.

  6. Labour like to say the Lib Dems don't get enough out of putting David Cameron into number 10.

    But look back at the maths, counting Labour separately from Co-op MPs, and it appears that Gordon Brown was put into power by the Co-operative Party in a hung parliament. The Co-op Party seemed to get far less out of their deal than the Liberals did out of theirs!


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