The news this weekend that Co-operative Party general secretary Karin Christiansen is standing down after three years should, I think, be seen as an opportunity for the movement to reconsider whether it needs a political party.
I know that talk of this kind runs the risk of playing into the hands of those in the Co-operative Group looking for opportunities to cut back on their funding for the Party. But I still think the discussion one worth having.
What I think is urgently needed at this juncture in the British cooperative movement is a broad-based grouping which brings together individuals who are committed to cooperative principles and who want to see the movement strengthened. (This is what the activists at Co-operative Business Consultants are calling for, in their current Co-operative Ways Forward campaign for democratic cooperation).
What I’m not convinced is needed any more is a body established as a fully-fledged political party, with its curiously arcane relationship with the Labour Party.
Ideally I’d like to see the Co-operative Party turn itself instead into a vibrant membership body (perhaps by making common cause with Co-operative Ways Forward). This could even, dare I say it, attract cooperatively members of other political parties such as the SNP or Lib Dems who are currently excluded from membership by the direct Labour Party link.
If it’s argued that such a solution would deprive MPs and councillors who sit under the ‘Labour and Co-operative’ label of much-needed support, I have a response. Just as trade union members can pay a political levy to Labour, so members of my suggested organisation could also elect to pay a levy to Labour.
The Co-operative Party was formed in 1917 specifically because the government was discriminating against coops. Some in the movement at the time weren’t convinced a would-be parliamentary party was the correct response. Now in 2015 I think the argument is even harder to make.