The Co-operative Party
Collective common ownership has gone through periods of growth and decline since the 1700’s. It remains as it began, a collective response to economic and cultural exploitation by the owners of private business to the people who have not got the advantage of private capital.
The word ‘co-operative’ has been used to describe collective effort to bring about social well-being since the early 19th century.
Another expression which might be used is ‘collective self- help’. This describes the ethos of the co-operative movement well. It is the opposite of ‘charity’ where a benefactor of means gives to those without. It is also different to the view that governments and other institutions can bring about change for people. Co- operation is about people organising collectively to bring about better conditions for the community.
On the basis of co-operative values and principles great businesses have been built up, e.g. The Co-operative Wholesale Society.
These values and principles stated in today’s terms are;
A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.
Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co- operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others. Principles
- Voluntary and Open Membership
- Democratic Member Control
- Member Economic Participation
- Autonomy and Independence
- Education, Training and Information
- Co-operation among Co-operatives
- Concern for Community
The Co-operative Movement began by being non party political in order to avoid conflict between different groups of workers, e.g. chartists, socialists and Owenite co-operators. But by the time of the first world war it became clear that the government was acting purposefully to disadvantage the co-operative sector. There was and still is a clear need for political support for this movement which was and still is radical and anathema to the capitalist status quo.
The Co-operative Party was formed in order to help to create a more co-operative friendly political landscape by electing advocates of the Co-operative Movement to Parliament and other political institutions.
The problem was that there was always a danger that the Labour and Co-operative votes could be split, allowing a Conservative or Liberal to be elected. That is why the Labour and Co-operative Parties signed an electoral agreement not to stand against each other and to be mutually supportive. The agreement allowed some candidates to stand for parliament jointly as Labour and Co-operative.
Anyone who complies with the Co-operative Party declaration may apply to join the Co-operative Party.
I declare myself a Co-operator, and agree to accept the programme, policy and constitution of the Co- operative Party, national and local. I will do all in my power to promote the policy of the Co-operative Party as declared from time to time. I am not a member of any political Party other than the Labour Party or (in Northern Ireland), the Social Democratic and Labour Party. I am a member of a recognised co-operative as determined by the National Executive Committee of the Co-operative Party.
The ultimate vision of the Movement has always been to eradicate the evils of Capitalism by creating a culture where people can combine to organise the means for contented and fulfilled communities. The Co-operative Movement has done this by building up collectively owned businesses which supply the necessities of life. The Movement is guided by the agreed Values and Principles which provide for the well-being of all, private profit being replaced by a share of the surplus which remains after the needs of the business and wider communities have been met. This is an aspiration to a Co-operative Commonwealth which has inspired people throughout the world, creating an international Movement. It could also be called a kind of Socialism, a word first coined by an early advocate of co-operation, Robert Owen.
The Labour Party in the first half of the Twentieth Century took a completely different view of Socialism. Rather than encouraging collective self-help, it took a paternalistic approach. This took the form of top down nationalisation, the co-operative ethos was squeezed out of Labour Party thinking. There has always been a tension between Labour Party philosophy and Co-operation and heaps of misunderstanding and even mistrust.
The Co-operative Party declaration makes clear that membership of the Co-operative Party is open to Co-operators. That is people active in building the Co- operative Commonwealth, or put more simply, committed members of one or more co-operative organisations. Prospective Co-operative Party members are people who are committed to their co-operative(s) and wish to engage in the work of building political representation for the Co-operative Movement.
The declaration also states that a Co-operative Party member must not be a member of a political party with which it does not have an electoral agreement with the Co-operative Party.
What we have in the Co-operative Party is something entirely different, or at least that is what I see in Sheffield. As membership secretary of Sheffield Party for 13 years, I see the membership as made up of Labour Party members who have joined the Co-op Party to help them in their Labour Party ambitions, with no knowledge, interest or involvement with the Co-operative Movement.
I think that the Co-operative Party (which exists to give political representation to the Co-operative Movement) is worth more than that.
What is a Co-operator?
- A co-operator is someone who trades with the Co- operative Sector; in this way helping to build the Co- operative Commonwealth through trade.
- A co-operator is someone who works for social and commercial objectives by following the ethos of the co-operative movement (see Statement of Co-operative Identity, the Values and Principles of the Movement – International Co-operative Alliance)
- A co-operator is someone who in addition to the above works politically to facilitate the development of the Co-operative Sector.
What is the Co-operative Commonwealth?
Society is in the main Capitalist. If you are happy with the political status quo, then any talk of the Co-operative Commonwealth will be of no interest to you.
But there is an alternative and that alternative is not so difficult to achieve as it was in 1844 when the first co- operatives were being established by co-operative pioneers against ruthless opposition.
Every person, each day, can make choices about with whom to trade, where they spend their money. They can spend it with a capitalist organisation or a co-operative one.
If they trade in the co-operative sector, they are helping to build up an alternative to Capitalism, an alternative where goods and services are produced for their intrinsic value, the business or organisation being owned and controlled by the members/customers. In this way a new kind of society is being developed where businesses and services form part of a cohesive society where we all benefit, have ownership and belonging. The Movements Values and Principles guide co-operatives to mutually support each other and care for the wider community. How different this is to the competitive nature of Capitalism which is a race to which private investor can accrue the most private wealth.
The Co-operative Movement is cohesive and has a democratic structure which allows for the development of a more people and planet friendly way of life. But this Movement needs to be cared for and nurtured, there is a powerful lobby of private vested interests which will always try to undermine the Co-operative Movement. So each one of us can help to build the Co-operative Commonwealth each day by our trading choices. We can trade with.
- Co-operative Shops run by Co-operative Retail Societies
- Other services provided by Co-operative Societies, e.g Legal services and Funerals
- Worker Co-operatives
- The Phone Co-op for telecommunications and broadband
- Mutual and ethical banking
- Choosing Fairtrade products which usually come from co-operatives.
Smooth running and success is never guaranteed with Co-operative ventures any more than it is elsewhere. The Co-operative Movement has had many failures. The failure of the Co-operative Group at the moment is an example of this. But failures of particular co-operatives do not imply that there is anything wrong with collective ownership and self- help. It reminds us of what a huge, (but worthwhile task) the building of the Co-operative Commonwealth is, in the face of Capitalist adversity.
30th June 2014