Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Cooperative movement and politics

Jonathan Evans, the Conservative MP for Cardiff North, spoke up for the mutual and cooperative principles in British business in questions on the Business Statement in the House of Commons today. Jason McCartney (Conservative, Colne Valley) in the same session questioned the failure of the Co-op to provide a dividend this year, which enabled Leader of the House Andrew Lansley to make the point that the Labour Party had benefited from soft loans from the Co-op. If I recall correctly from his blog, John Redwood shops at his local Cooperative store in Wokingham.

I assume all three are Co-op members and wonder whether they, and other Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who are also Cooperators, have been assiduous in attending general meetings of the organisation in order to question its far-too-close ties with the Labour Party. I must confess to being remiss in this respect after a single foray back in the 1990s. Perhaps if more of us had persisted, the Co-op would not have landed in the mess we see today.

Mr Evans is wrong, though, in advocating that mutuals should not involve themselves in politics. They cannot shackle themselves in this way while their conglomerate and multi-national rivals are active in the political sphere. What is clear is that the Co-op should not have tied itself to one political party. While acknowledging the common roots of the Labour, TU and Cooperative movements, I feel that the Co-op should have taken stock of its political strategy a long time ago. Most of its aims of social justice in the retail sector had been met, and it was already moving to a "green" agenda when New Labour came to power in 1997. The Blair/Brown governments were very helpful to the big supermarkets, who now have huge power especially over planning decisions. Indeed, Terry Leahy of Tesco and David Sainsbury were Labour supporters. That power is inimical, I would suggest, to ecologically-aware retailing and to local choice.

Therefore, donations to the Liberal Democrats (of course) and to the Green Party would have done more for the Co-op's interests than continuing to serve the Labour Party slavishly. The Cooperative Party is theoretically an arms-length organisation, but it is constitutionally bound to promote cooperative principles and should at least have made it known to the MPs it sponsors that its support was not unconditional.

As to the way in which a disgraced Labour councillor with no business experience was able to surf to the top of a prominent retail bank, we await detail from one of the three inquiries whose launch has recently been announced.

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