GUEST BLOG: Karin Christiansen, Co-operative Party

Following my blog on July 19 on the Co-operative Party,  I offered Karin Christiansen the party’s General Secretary the right of reply here.  This is Karin’s contribution. I think it’s interesting and useful.

On the 19th July this blog argued that the announcement that I was standing down from my role as General Secretary of the Co-operative Party ‘should be seen as an opportunity for the movement to reconsider whether it needs a political party’.

Firstly, I’m absolutely with Andrew on the need for a thorough, open and engaging dialogue about the role of co-operative politics and the Co-op Party.

But over the last 3 years of listening to and being involved in this debate, my main conclusion is we keep coming at this from the wrong direction. The question really isn’t: “Should the Party exist” or “what are the rights and wrongs of the electoral agreement between the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party” or “does the movement needs a legally constituted political party registered with the Electoral Commission”.

What we should (I think) be asking is this:

  1. What are we trying to achieve collectively as a movement? 

It is probably something along the lines of a flourishing, vibrant, growing co-operative movement that is delivering tangible member benefits to consumers and workers, challenging and innovating across a wide range of sectors, and contributing to the creation of a more equitable and co-operative society.

  1. What are the barriers to achieving that, and what tools we need to overcome them?

To which the answers are of course many and varied. But we know that political indifference is a major one.  Politics can help or hinder us.  Political discourse shapes how our economy and society interacts, it makes policy, regulation and legislation.  Andrew’s recent piece set this out very clearly.

Only after we’ve answered these questions, and only then, it is worth asking about the role of the Party.   It the Party isn’t contributing then frankly it shouldn’t exist.

It is clear to me that in a huge number of areas where co-operative and mutual solutions are not yet fulfilling their potential in providing some of the answers to the fundamental challenges facing our country – from housing to childcare to football and energy.  You only have to flick through Ed Mayo’s Co-operative Advantage book to see the potential.

We often hear warm words about the power of co-operation, but what we need is real action to unlock our true potential in what Paul Mason recently described as “post capitalism” – changes that present huge opportunities for the co-operative movement, but also threaten many of the assumptions we’ve worked under.

In terms of the relationship with Labour, for me this is less about ideology and much more about whether it delivers for us.  When you read the proceedings of the 1917 Co-operative Congress which took the decision for the co-operative movement to seek direct political representation, you see that in considerable part the decision was a pragmatic one.

It was a decision driven by the experience of powerlessness.  The electoral agreement with Labour signed in 1927 was also largely driven by pragmatism. It was based on the certain knowledge that under the ‘first past the post’ voting system, progressive parties need to work together or risk splitting the vote, and to get a hearing by all sides in politics, you get more impact not from being “politically neutral” but being inside the tent.

While I am sure the Party could have done more over the last 100 years, there are very real successes that have resulted from the partnership between the Movement.  It is no coincidence that every piece of co-operative legislation that was consolidated into the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2015 was passed by a Labour & Co-operative Government.  Add to this  much of the early environmental protection legislation and consumer rights legislation.

Just because the Party has done some useful things in the past does not of course mean it should just continue.  Nothing should ever be set in stone (particularly not in ‘Ed stones’!). After almost 100 years, these are decisions that warrant evaluation and review.

The Co-operative Party does not and should not claim to represent the sum total of all co-operative politics. It’s self-evident that there are co-operators in other political parties, as well as many who are in none.  The movement and the Party should, and already does, work with co-operators of all political stripes to advance our objectives – and for our part the Party will do more of that.

In that sense the movement can and is having its cake and eating it – a political party we created, own and which is accountable to us – but with friends of the co-operative ideal across the political spectrum.  What’s not to like?

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Attention! Controversy ahead!

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.

What are the Co-op Group’s wider responsibilities?

The behind-the-scenes rearguard action by the Co-operative Party to persuade the Co-operative Group not to leave it financially in the cold (the Group currently gives the Party about two-thirds of its income) has reached the news pages of the Financial Times today.

I want to comment not specifically on the Party funding issue (I may come back to this later) but on a related but more general point. Here’s my question: is the Co-operative Group simply another independent cooperative, with responsibilities just to its members? Or does it, as the largest cooperative in Britain and as the chief beneficiary of 170+ years of British cooperative development, have duties towards the wider cooperative movement?

There were a number of cooperative societies in nineteenth century Britain who chose not to affiliate to the Co-operative Union or to partake in the broader life of British cooperation, but they were always a minority. The majority of societies (including the Co-operative Wholesale Society, CWS) saw the benefits of cooperation between cooperatives and paid their dues to the central body, the Union, as well as to other national cooperative initiatives.

There were well over a thousand independent societies by the end of the late nineteenth century, so a decision by one society to stand aside from the movement was hardly devastating. It’s different today. The vast majority of British retail cooperative societies, and the CWS itself, have over the years been absorbed into what is now the Co-operative Group. A decision by the Group to withdraw funding is therefore of enormous importance.

Commercial businesses spend money lobbying and supporting causes they feel are in their business interests, so I don’t see why the Co-operative Group should be any different. But I also feel that there is a moral case, based on the history of how it has become the business it now is, for the Group to continue to support the British cooperative movement – and this means, to give a few other examples, Co-operatives UK, Co-operative News, the Woodcraft Folk (the youth organisation with strong cooperative links) and the Co-operative College. No organisation should feel it has an automatic right to be supported, of course; but, with this caveat, the Group should reaffirm a principled commitment to supporting the wider work of the cooperative sector in Britain.