THE BLOG

The Co-operative Movement's Political Voice Is Crucial

20/02/2014 17:13 GMT | Updated 22/04/2014 10:59 BST

You don't have to be a professional pollster to guess that if you ask the British public - as the Co-operative Group are doing this week - whether it would be better to use resources to support local community initiatives rather than politics, you are likely to get an affirmative answer. We all know that in abstract 'politics' is a pretty unfashionable and unpopular business.

Yet there was a reason why ordinary - and in many ways extraordinary - members of the co-operative movement created the Party in 1917 and that was because they had a vision of a better society and that realising that would require engagement in the British political system.

In other words the creation of the Co-operative Party was not intended to introduce politics to co-operation but rather co-operation into politics. This remains our mission to this day.

Week in week out the 32 Co-operative MPs, 17 Peers, 4 Members of the Scottish Parliament, 9 members of the Welsh Assembly and hundreds of councillors champion this same vision of a society where power is shared more evenly; where businesses are run in the interests of members and communities (not detached, foreign investors); where patients, passengers and pupils have a real say in the running of the public services on which they depend.

In just the last few weeks, I have introduced a Bill into Parliament which calls for the creation of a credit union for service personnel and their families; my colleague Jim Dobbin has laid legislation aimed at ensuring that Local Enterprise Partnerships are better geared up to support the creation and development of co-operative businesses; and Stella Creasy is building on the proud co-operative tradition of being on the side of the consumer by challenging the Government to be more ambitious with its Consumer Rights Bill.

Over the last 100 years we and our predecessors have done this work with the financial support of Co-operative Societies who subscribed to the Party and were our members. These are not the political donations - of the type given by companies and business leaders to other political parties - but instead membership fees for being part of 'their' political party.

The Co-operative Group's 'Have Your Say' survey asks respondents whether it is appropriate for big business to donate money to political parties. What it does not highlight is that all large businesses spend money on engaging with the political process, though most do this via spending on both in-house and consultant lobbyists.

In contrast, the co-operative movement have sought to engage in political and policy debates in a far more transparent and democratic way through the Co-operative Party, which does not lobby on behalf of a business but seeks to influence debate based on our values and ethics. And this is no doubt one of the reasons why, at the Half Yearly Meeting of the Co-operative Group in October, members voted by an overwhelming majority to continue to maintain political engagement and support for the Party.

I have no doubt that the management of the Co-operative Group have the best interests of the business and its members at heart and a willingness to listen to members, customers and the wider public is laudable. But, if I were a professional pollster I would tell you that when it comes to surveys the answer you get depends on the question you ask. I would hazard a guess that a question that asked 'is it appropriate or inappropriate for co-operatives to financially support politicians who champion and promote the work and values of co-operatives at a national and local level' the Co-operative Group might get a different answer.

It is right that we need to renew the Co-operative to make sure it is fighting fit for the 21st century. This process of renewal offers an opportunity to reaffirm the relationship between the Co-operative Group and the Co-operative Party to ensure that we can work most effectively together to make the case for a different way of doing business that contributes positively to the economy and to communities. Any other outcome risks leaving the Co-operative Group and the wider movement weakened - to the detriment of all.