The Tories, banks and Daily Mail want the cooperative movement to founder because they fear its power
Robert Owen would be bitterly disappointed, but certainly not surprised, at the current travails of the Co-operative Bank. He was used to seeing his grand vision of human cooperation turn to dust. In 1824, flushed with the success of New Lanark, Owen bought an entire town in America. New Harmony, Indiana, was supposed to be a new model community, built on the principles of cooperation, nurture and equality.
Instead it became a magnet for what the historian of the experiment called ‘crackpots, free-loaders, and adventurers whose presence in the town made success unlikely’. If Owen had met the Reverend Paul Flowers, crystal meth aficionado and sometime chair of the Co-operative Bank, he would immediately recognise the type.
Owen would certainly recognise Euan Sutherland, who recently resigned as chair of the Co-operative Group, hastened by the excoriation of an angry Co-op member of parliament, Meg Hillier. Sutherland, whose previous roles include flogging Coca-Cola and Mars bars, is the kind of ‘Manchester School’ capitalist Owenism was designed to put out of business. His concern was what GDH Cole, who wrote an introduction to the Everyman edition of Owen’s A New View of Society, called ‘mere money-making’. It had little to do with the ideals of cooperation. Sutherland will be paid over £3m for his unhappy 10 months at the Co-operative Group. Few cooperators begged him to stay longer. The main challenge now is to find a replacement: someone who shares cooperative values, knows how to run a business, and does not take class A drugs.
It is vital that the Co-operative Group, with its local shops, funeral businesses and pharmacies, and the Co-operative Bank, remain part of our lives. It represents more than a quaint nod to history, with the ‘divi’ and the number many over a certain age, and from a certain background, can immediately quote. It represents the very kind of ‘responsible capitalism’ that Labour is trying to create. It remains the country’s largest mutual. As Jon Cruddas wrote recently in the Observer, ‘we need a robust mutual sector, and a cooperative movement to assert, in practice, that it is good to associate, pool resources and have a stake.’
But there is another element to cooperation which must survive the current crisis: that of democratic ownership and participation. The first two principles of the Rochdale Pioneers’ shop in Toad Lane in 1844 were ‘open membership’ and ‘one member, one vote’. The cooperative ideal is fundamentally democratic. That democratic impulse has been expressed, since 1917, through the Co-operative party.
The Co-operative party is almost unknown outside of the political class. Because it does not stand candidates independently of the Labour party, it lacks the saliency of a free-standing party. Yet today the party can claim 32 MPs, including Ed Balls, Luciana Berger, Stella Creasy, Chris Leslie, Steve Reed, Stephen Twigg and John Woodcock. There are 18 Co-operative members of the House of Lords, four members of Scottish parliament, nine members of Welsh assembly, and eight members of the London assembly. There is every chance that there will be more Co-operative MPs after 2015 than Liberal Democrat, Green and United Kingdom Independence party MPs put together.
The 2010 Labour manifesto was the most cooperative-influenced party document in 110 years. It called for a ‘step-change in the role of employee-owned companies in the economy’. Had we had the chance to enact it, Britain would be a much better place. There is every indication that the 2015 manifesto will be similarly laced with Owenism.
We must defend this link between the Co-operative party and the Labour party. The recent consultation about the future of the Co-operative Group, its political party, and the concordat with the Labour party is one that everyone who cares about the future of the Co-op should have filled in to support the link between it and Labour.
There is an underlying agenda that the link should be broken, and that the Co-operative Group’s donations to the Labour party should be ended or redirected. The Conservatives would love it if the link could be broken. Their flirtation with co-ops was an utter sham; merely part of their detoxification, like their fleeting support for tackling climate change. They do not care about the future of co-ops. They care a great deal about destroying the Labour party, and they understand you do that by knocking away, one by one, the pillars which give it practical and philosophical support.
While noting the failures of Owen’s cooperative communities and his Grand Trade Union (which six men from Tolpuddle joined, and paid the price), Cole wrote:‘he laid the foundations on which a later generation was better able to build. Few men have exerted a wider or more beneficent influence.’
That beneficent influence is under threat. Cooperation is being attacked, not because it is a quaint museum-piece, but because it is powerful and threatening to the established order. That is why the Conservative cabinet, the owners of the Daily Mail, and the boards of big banks want you to allow the Co-operative Group, Co-operative Bank and the Co-operative party to founder.
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