I’ve been involved in ‘local politics’ for a lifetime, it seems seeking to exercise ‘community power’. I worked in the education service for over 45 years and through that was involved in community action and regeneration projects – which are always ultimately an expression of political values. Many of these were forms of cooperation: a concept I find fascinating and full of potential for the world we live in today as we muse over how to deliver a sustainable and equitable future.
The origins of the Cooperative Movement
The coop movement in 2023 is a sleeping giant which grew from a simple act of defiant direct action in 1844 by the fabled Rochdale pioneers involving a very long walk with a wheelbarrow to fetch some groceries to start a cooperative supply store.
Cooperation spans the world today, with literally billions involved in cooperatives of one kind or another and a total turnover in excess of $1trillion from a multitude of mutual societies working for community interest in agriculture, retail, banking, housing, education, brewing, funeral-care and much more besides.
For many, there is nothing more than a warm fuzzy feeling about cooperation – the slightly middle-class sense of John Lewis being ‘nice people’ without really knowing what it’s all about.
John Lewis is indeed one model of mutual where the staff are all ‘owners’ who share in the success of the business and have a voice in the direction of the company.
The cooperative model is actually very simple, with a set of strong internationally agreed values and principles, setting out the powerful links between self-responsibility and mutual obligation.
Alongside the very practical models which focus on social solutions, the Cooperative Party serves as a sister to the Labour Party movement – but has its own, very distinctive approach to membership and community engagement. In many ways it often seems to be more radical and more pragmatic than its big sister, being first to raise issues such as the basic right to food. The shocking reality of current experience in this country informs the Party’s very practical reference points within a political viewpoint: working for social justice and equality.
My own experience includes both strands: political and practical. I’ve been a member of the Coop Party for several years, recently being elected to serve the East Kent branch as Chair. I am working with a determined local team which brings experience from activism in the Labour Party to bear on our local community engagement, activism and communications.
I spent over 15 years in developing cooperative education partnerships through the Schools Cooperative Society, which at one point involved over 800 schools nationally. The concept is simple and entirely relevant when we are seeing desperately constrained resourcing: schools working collaboratively on curriculum, policy, sharing best practice and sharing solutions to challenges such as the Covid epidemic or the cost-of-living crisis. The vast majority of Coop Trust schools exist within the mainstream local authority system – working with the advantage of a commitment to shared values and principles.
The Coop ‘Foundation’ Trust model has offered a quiet alternative since 2006 to the academy Trust model, which has raised serious issues since its introduction in 2010 by Michael Gove over reduced public accountability and marketisation being brought into public service education.
In our own region of Kent, a Coop Trust partnership oversees the work of all special education providers – 25 schools work together to provide children with additional needs or challenges with the most outstanding learning they can deliver collectively. In the current climate of funding cuts and local authority crisis, it is good to know that there is a collective determination to sustain the service to the best of their ability as a cooperative.
A social phenomenon
The Cooperative movement is a social phenomenon. What I would like to see is a wider awareness of the work which goes on all year round in practical cooperatives, which is meeting the challenge of the cost-of-living crisis head-on: housing associations, credit unions and food banks for example.
Alongside this, the Coop Party formulates an agenda to address the political and economic issues which create disadvantage and inequality and proposes a positive way forward – with transformative policies on Food Security, Sustainable Housing and Transport.
Their policies do influence the Labour Party without any shadow of a doubt – some 27 MPs and key members of the Shadow Cabinet are elected as Labour and Cooperative – as well as hundreds of local Councillors. What I like is that there is also a streak of independence and a willingness to listen to others, such as the Green Party on issues of mutual interest – as in our planet and its prospects.
Local elections in May
In a future piece I’ll be writing on the local elections in May, and why the current national sense of overwhelming crisis suggests the need for a more open approach to cross-party collaboration and less authoritarian politics rooted in our communities.
Cooperation is a secret hiding in plain view: cooperation makes more sense than ever before in a globally connected society, with the opportunity to share ideas, solutions and face the serious challenges facing our people and our planet.
Maybe you should consider finding out more; if so, you would be very welcome to get in touch:
email to contact the Folkestone & Hythe, Dover and Deal, Thanet area Cooperative Party.