The ‘keep it coop’ campaign of the Co-operative Party has been high profile and energetic – and a testament to the skills of the small staff team and the politicians involved in the party.
The campaign goes wider than simply trying to keep the funding for the Co-operative Party, which has long been aligned to Labour. But it is worth remembering that, despite one hundred years of action by the Co-operative Party, the original co-operative vision was not one that started from political alignment, but rather one of transformation from below.
These are four main dates that shape the formation of the co-operative principles around political activity:
1832: Twelve years before the formation of the first modern consumer co-operative in Rochdale, the 1832 Co-operative Congress, chaired by none other than Robert Owen, passed the following resolution: “Whereas, the Co-operative World contains persons of all religious sects and of all political parties, it is unanimously resolved – that Co-operators, as such, are not identified with any religious, irreligious, or political tenets whatever; neither those of Mr Owen, nor of any other individual”
1860: The Rochdale Pioneers declared in their Almanac: “the present co-operative movement does not intend to meddle with various religious or political differences which now exist in society, but by a common bond, namely that of self interest, to join together the means, the energies, and the talents of all for the common benefit of each”
1937: After long consideration, the International Co-operative Alliance published its first set of global principles, including the recognition of political and religious neutrality.
1963: The first revision of the principles was set in train. The agreement in 1966 included removing reference in the principles to neutrality and to cash trade. The rationale was, on one account, to replace political and religious ‘neutrality’ with political and religious ‘independence’, which is covered in a principle on autonomy. In 1992, a report for the International Co-operative Alliance explained that “this implies that co-operatives should carry out their own opinions without undue dependence on other organisations or on political parties”
The Co-operative Party has a proud heritage and long list of achievements, which are set out in this elegant summary by the Co-operative Heritage Trust. It’s current manifesto offers a wealth of creative policy thinking. But there is, also, a different, and longer, tradition of political neutrality in the co-operative sector, both here and abroad.
Some co-ops elsewhere have supported political representation, such as the effort by the Seikatsu Club in Japan to boost women’s representation in the 1990s, by putting up candidates under the banner of ‘politics from the kitchen’, but these examples tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Co-ops are often engaged in campaigns that might be seen as political, but it is rare that they seek direct representation in the way that has been the case here. Having said this, the autonomy and independence of co-ops from wider political sway has always been seen as essential.
There are two honourable traditions in the co-operative sector. Both share a common set of values, for example co-ops should act in an open way, but beyond these, you can choose to be politically aligned or choose not to be. Get it right, and either way can help to keep it all coop.