Friday, 11 September 2009

The Co-Operative Party Conference

It is one of the invisible political forces on the British political spectrum, but with 29 MPs the Cooperative Party is the fourth largest bloc in the country and a force to be considered, if not yet to be reckoned with.

It starts its annual conference in Edinburgh today and over the course of Saturday and Sunday respected figures such as John McFall MP and Iain Gray MSP will be on hand to speak in support of a range of policy positions which it will argue for as the junior partner within Labour's governing coalition.

The recent welcome given when Conservative leader David Cameron openly flirted with the cooperative movement 'raised eyebrows', if not as a demonstration for pragmatic politics, but for the way it showed the cracks which have opened up in the hitherto subservient relationship it had assigned itself on the left.

Now I admit I have a soft spot for their stated approach and I think there is a clear space for mutualism in society, such as with the desire to transform Network Rail into a not-for-profit company and the remutualisation of state-held building societies.

But I have serious misgivings about the strategic approach they have adopted since they consigned themselves to a 'sister-party' to the more statist labour movement in 1927.

Ever since that point in the aftermath of the general strike their subordinate role has contributed to the tendency towards polarisation of political discourse and worked against the very cooperation they presume to stand for. In effect they have become a neutered factional voice within the official Labour party.

Admittedly they claim to have successfully weaned the Attlee government away from the socialist doctrine of nationalisation, but with the manifesto of 1945 largely underpinned by the likes of Beveridge and Keynes' Liberal thinking this is more a matter of hype than reality.

So why did they do it?

The practicalities of presenting a national face and standing candidates in every area of the country has always mitigated against smaller parties breaking through and increasing the range of views represented in our constitutional democracy (as Ukip and the Greens have discovered to their chagrin).

However, with devolution now a reality and local solutions to the fore the opportunity and means is surely there for them to make a stand now more than ever.

Ideologically they should be pushing harder for electoral reform which would make acknowledged coalitions an inevitable consequence. And by dissolving the official link with Labour the volatile nature of electoral maths would be reduced to the benefit of all in society.

The more moderate Cooperative grouping has always had more in common with Liberals and LibDems than hard-line Labour and it would be much more in-keeping with their mission to work on issues of common concern with any party than to slavishly follow where Labour takes them.

With Labour looking increasingly likely to be heading for meltdown at the next election and facing the risk that their platform may evaporate with Gordon Brown's leadership it would send an immeasurable statement to the public that we don't live in a two-party hegemony and there are more options out there.

Politics is about cooperation and mutual interest after all - so what are they waiting for?


Jock Coats said...

Of course they will claim that it was their run-ins with Lloyd-George's government that drove them into the arms of the emerging Labour Party. And that when they did hitch their flag with that party it was, at the time, replete with liberal, mutualist types as much as socialists. After all, it was MacDonald's Chancellor, Philip Snowden, who resurrected L-G's failed plan for land taxes, for example and was an ardent free-trader.

Oranjepan said...

...all of which makes a bit silly for them to have retained the formal organisational link for so long after the personalities departed the scene.