Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

No nostalgia

The Co-operative party’s centenary is an opportunity to express a mutual alternative to Britain’s perennial work and social care problems, writes Claire McCarthy

When any organisation marks a significant milestone, like a centenary, the temptation is to spend a lot of time in nostalgia mode. The Co-operative party is not immune to this as we approach the anniversary of our founding 100 years ago this October. At its worst this risks being sentimental, but in reality it is our legitimate pride in our past that drives our want to remember, commemorate and honour.

Over the last few months we have been pulling together an exhibition on the history of the Co-operative party, which is being hosted by the People’s History Museum in Manchester. Going through our archives and talking to our members about their memories is a fantastic reminder of some of the achievements of the party and of cooperators in politics.

AV Alexander, one of the first Co-operative members of parliament and the son of a blacksmith, went on to lead the Royal Navy in Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet. Alf Morris, the son of a gassed soldier who lost an eye and a leg in the first world war, went on to pass the world’s first disability legislation. We worked on some of the earliest environmental legislation and the groundbreaking consumer legislation of the 1960s and 1970s that still forms the basis of many of our protections today.

More recently, the party ensured legislation to make it easier to set up and expand a co-operative business, supported the rapid growth of credit unions, enabled the creation of hundreds of cooperative schools, backed football supporters’ trusts, championed a new generation of energy coops, rallied thousands of people behind our campaign for a ‘people’s BBC’; and fought for reforms in banking, housing, tax and land ownership.

But being proud of your past is never enough. No organisation – however noble or longstaanding – has the god-given right to exist. The Co-operative party and the cooperative movement we exist to represent are only as important as our plan for the future and our ability to realise it.

The cooperative idea was born 200 years ago to provide a real alternative to the broken markets and vested interests which work against the interests of ordinary working people. Never has there been a more glaring example of the need for such an alternative as in some of the social care provision we see today.

Fifteen minute visits, a low paid and exploited workforce and faceless finance companies profiteering from the needs of older and disabled people. Co-operation offers a radical alternative vision to the existing social care market based on an ownership revolution in the social care sector in England.

We have long supported the election of employees on to company boards. Theresa May – you may remember – was in favour of this before she was not. Private sector social care providers would be the perfect place to start. That is why the Co-operative party believes part of the solution is a ‘right to run’ with carers, care recipients and their families having a guaranteed right to representation on the company boards of private sector care providers. Those who provide and rely on social care services have the knowledge and requisite desire necessary to deliver good quality, cost effective care.

The best way to align those interests, and that knowledge, is through the mutual ownership of care services, with care providers that are owned and run by care recipients and their families, care workers and the wider community. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government wanted to mutualise public sector services. It is now time to mutualise the private sector in social care.

Another very modern set of challenges that cooperation can help us meet are those arising from the changing world of work.

The emphasis in Matthew Taylor’s recent review on the goal of ‘good work’ for all is very welcome. Our labour and cooperative movements should be front and centre in shaping and achieving this. However, what too often gets ignored or underplayed in these debates is the power of people coming together and building solidarity from the bottom up.

Today, cooperation is providing a framework to reduce isolation and shift the balance of power in people’s working lives in really practical ways. Music teachers (supported by the Musicians’ Union), taxi drivers and childminders who want an alternative to working alone or relying on an expensive agency or a platform that skims off all the profit for a supply of work, are creating worker cooperatives. Examples from other countries include bread funds in Holland, where self-employed workers pay into a pot which provides them with sick pay if they cannot work. Or Indycube, a co-working space company which started in Wales, and is now expanding into England, that became a coop last year. Their latest initiative is to work with Community union to provide the growing army of self-employed workers with trade union services.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Which is why we have put these types of innovations front and centre of our centenary ‘Ideas to Change Britain’ conference, that takes place in London in mid-October. We will be debating and honing our proposals for building on the historic commitment made in Labour’s general election manifesto – to double the size of the cooperative sector. Arguably the most ambitious pledge the Labour party has ever given the cooperative movement. This will be absolutely key to creating a fairer economy that serves the interests of ordinary working people and rewards them with a proper share of the growth they help to create. We will promote our practical proposals for how local government can help drive sustainable local growth. We will champion our vision for how we build an education system in England which is based on the values of collaboration not competition: where no school or child is left behind. And we will consider what role our values can play in tackling the housing crisis – drawing on the brilliant work Carwyn Jones’ Welsh Labour and Co-operative government which is supporting the development of a new generation of housing cooperatives.

This period gives us a chance for us to celebrate our proud history. But, above all, it must be a moment to look forward.

Britain stands at a crossroads. It hardly feels an overstatement to say that our very social and economic future feels less certain than for a generation, maybe longer. The next few years will determine what kind of Britain we are and what values prevail. Just one more reason why 2017 must not only be the end of our first 100 years, but the start of our second.


Claire McCarthy is general secretary of the Co-operative party. She tweets at @CoopClaire

Pioneering the Future exhibition, marking the centenary of the Co-operative party, runs until 19 November 2017 at the People’s History Museum in Manchester



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Claire McCarthy

is director of public affairs at 4Children. She writes in a personal capacity

1 comment

  • With the rise of Corbynism and the shift to the “real Left,” the Co-op Movement should be in the vanguard pushing Labour’s agenda and acting as a trusted advisor. It is clear from John McDonnell’s speeches that Labour wishes to use Co-ops and Mutuals as the “blue print” for reform. It is sad, therefore, that the Labour leadership shuns and distrusts the Co-op Party. Why should this be so? Some might argue that it is because the Westminster Bubble/Right Wing/Blairite Career Politicians/factions have taken over the party. It is indicative that Claire McCarthy’s article appears alongside a clear, Progress attack on John McDonnell.

    To be a TRUE Co-operator one needs to be a TRUE socialist. Mutualism and Co-operation of large organisations is simply Public ownership by another name. I am afraid that many (if not all) of the leadership (or of influence) are not socialists. Some vehemently oppose Corbyn and what he represents. Ironically, many of these MPs owe their seats to Corbynism! Under the New Labour era, “Private ownership and The Market is good, but Public is bad.” It was an almost unquestionable philosophy. Thus, it is very difficult for them to adjust to a membership led philosophical shift where the Left is becoming mainstream and the Right “fringe.”

    I have been a Co-operator to some 20 years. The “journey” has been an “education” in its own right. I have met many decent, genuine people but there are others who are nasty, Machiavellians and bullies. The latter espouse Co-op Principles and Values but do not abide by them. Many of them brought about the Co-op Group crash but are still in power! (See my book: “Co-ops and Mutuals: Watershed or Armageddon?”) Some years ago, I remember a prominent member writing in the Co-op News that it used to be a nice, friendly, democratic party but not now. The Co-op Party is in need of radical reform. Its structures are archaic. Party councils are a “mafia” who represent no one but themselves. Many branches exist in name only, with no active members. I recently went to a SE Policy Forum. Two of us turned up but the rest were Co-op Party Council members. The policy making forum was tacked on to the end of their AGM! There is a real need for One Member One Vote (OMOV). I also find it hard to understand how a leader of an organisation (party) does not have a pedigree of long activism as a grassroots co-operator. But this is a new phenomenon in NGOs, charities, etc. – one that I do not agree with. People are much more valued when they work up through the ranks.

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