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.


  1. As one of those autonomous activist types who is openly hostile to Party politics, I have always seen the establishment of co-operatives as a form of direct action - a direct response by working class people to social and economic problems that we cannot wait hundreds of years for a political system to change. We take matters into our own hands in the true spirit of self responsibility, self help, solidarity and self determination.
    As the current machinations of government show, Parliament is still largely a preserve of the elite and even the gains made by working people risking their livelihoods and their lives in the earlier parts of the 20th century are being eroded. The same problems facing us now (poverty, lack of housing, huge gap between rich and non-rich) existed prior to 1911.
    We can take control of the economy by controlling the means or production and distribution of wealth at the local level without the need for legislation.
    In the same way the Labour movement took a wrong turn focusing too much energy on reformist political gaming instead of what had been successful syndicalism, for the Co-operative movement to put too much time, money and energy into politics is a diversion from our real goal.
    I'm not naive enough to think a real threat would be legislated out of existence but I think the way we would defend our movement would be by sheer force of numbers as much as by tinkering around the edges of the political machinery that is ultimately controlled by civil servants rather than the quasi-democratic unrepresentatives who think they are in control.

  2. The spirit of cooperative activity has always been for me encapsulated in the recognition that there is a better way to work, live, share resources or wealth. To not question relationships or practices and examine their value and contribution is something I find bizarre and truly struggle with. It may be that the current support to Labour is the correct course of action but it is essential that it is weighed and the value it brings considered. If our political goal is the promotion of cooperation and cooperatives we must ask ourselves - what progress are we making? What is that money buying?

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