Friday, 8 February 2013

Party games

Dave Boyle questioned the link between The Co-operative Party and Labour in a recent Guardian article. Yesterday, Gareth Thomas MP replied in robust but predictable fashion.

Boyle's main point is that:

"the real issue isn't whether the link with Labour is effective for the movement, or even for the Co-operative Group, but whether it's the only way in which the co-operative movement can be politically active and effective."


Thomas's response, and the comments on Boyle's piece, conflate political effectiveness with the Co-operative Party Labour Party bond in a way that condescends to, and tries to marginalise, some of our most radical and effective grass roots co-operative activists - many of whom come from autonomous (4th co-operative principle) political traditions like commonwealth socialism and community activism, environmentalism and feminism, that are critical of party politics, and sometimes hostile to it.

The arguments seem to amount to 'if you're not in the party game, you're not serious (or even grown up)' or 'better inside the tent pissing out'. For example, Thomas says 'Boyle is welcome to watch from the sidelines' - so much for 11 years' highly effective activism and lobbying, then. David Griffiths comments 'There are only two independent societies that I can think of that do not support the Political side of the movement.' By 'societies', he's referring only to the Rochdale-type consumer retail societies, and ignoring the thousands of independent societies and co-operatives that make up the wider movement. By 'Political side', he means the Party. In other words, 'please pipe down, you're not relevant, there's no choice about this, and anyway we debated it last year in the movement press'.

At least Thomas and Griffiths have engaged. More often, the reaction to anyone wanting to seriously debate the Group's indirect bankrolling of Labour is thunderous silence.

Thomas says 'The Co-operative party has prioritised its relationship with the Labour party', but in reality the 'relationship' looks like an eternal and unchanging feature of the UK landscape, indifferent to logic, immune to criticism, ignorant of our rapidly warming political climate. But even immovable fixtures like Stonehenge or the protestant supremacy in Northern Ireland are subject to the weather, and one day fade away, or suddenly collapse - even as we wonder what they were for in the first place.

I'm one of the growing minority of Co-operative Party members who isn't also a supporter of Labour (although I was a member in my teens).  My experience of the Party, so far, is that it has a lot to learn about co-operation and co-operators, and many people in the party want to reconnect with the wider movement.  I'm hanging in there and learning a few things myself.

Two of the secret weapons of the co-op as a social movement for working class economic and political emancipation are, I think, its autonomy and impatience with sectarian bullshit. So maybe I'd restate Boyle's question this way:

Can the Co-operative movement afford to alienate its youngest, best and most radical activists and potential recruits by allying itself so firmly with a sectarian organisation steeped in a cretinous political culture? We do have a choice.