2017 12 – Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier

Diary of a Corbyn foot soldier

By Michael Murray (murraymicha@gmail.com)
Facebook:  Michael Murray London –  a commentary/digest of political news for busy people.
Dictionary definition of foot soldier: “…a dedicated low level follower.”

In this issue: Departing somewhat from the usual Diary format, I want to devote this entry of the “Diary of a Corbynist Foot Soldier” to marking the 100th Anniversary of the Cooperative Party, its taken-for-granted achievements and its potential contribution to the evolving Labour Party political agenda.

On my retirement to London 4 years ago I joined the Cooperative Party.  I couldn’t see my way then to join the Labour Party. The latter was a party with the fresh blood on its hands of the illegal Iraq invasion and subsequent middle eastern carnage.  Neither was I too enamoured of its Balkan adventure or its support for the, also bloody, Cameron-led Libyan “regime” change in 2011.  On the other hand, I’ve had a life-long interest in cooperativism. However, hardly had I made the decision to join the Coop Party – though I hadn’t progressed beyond merely being a card-carrying member to any level of active engagement – when Jeremy Corbyn came along and I joined the Labour Party.  And that’s where my time and energy was invested; an investment well rewarded by Jeremy’s apology for Labour’s role in the Iraq war, his achievement in two leadership elections, the June general election results – and the climax of all that heady period: his almost unanimous endorsement at the September Labour Party Conference – and, more importantly, more important even than Jeremy Corbyn himself at this stage – the conference whole-hearted acceptance of a new way of doing politics and its buy-in to a ground-breaking political vision.

In the 2017 General Election Manifesto, and re-iterated at Conference, was a commitment to mainstreaming cooperativism, and other forms of employee ownership and control, within Labour industrial policy. Doubling the size of the cooperative sector of the economy, as an immediate objective, was promised.  John McDonnell, speaking at the Cooperative Party’s 2016 Annual Conference, had spelt out why and how that would be done.  At this point I began to pay more attention to the Coop Party.  I attended a number of national-level Coop Conferences and, also, began attending local Hackney Coop meetings on a regular basis.  The first thing I learned about the party at local level is that it covers both Hackney North and South constituency parties.  The second was that it had a reputation of “Centre-Leftism” – which has become a euphemism for anti-Corbynism. Fair enough: the Coop Party, like the Labour Party, is a “broad church,” and the political culture and ethos varies from one branch, and constituency, to another.  Anyway, things have moved on and this Corbyn foot soldier has decided to make the working assumption that when people say they accept the democratic will of the members, on the leadership and the manifesto, they mean it.  Yet I couldn’t help overhearing a long-standing member of the Hackney Coop branch mutter something about  “the hard left” within my and other branch members’ hearing. Not only uncomradely, but at the Christmas do, too?  Let it go. Stick to the working assumption.

The post-2017 General Election saw the Coop Party achieve an historically high parliamentary representation – 38 MPs, making it the third largest party in the House of Commons. At local government level it can claim in excess of 700 local councillors, from what I’ve seen and heard, contributing above their weight to local democracy.  I’d be surprised if the number of Coop councillors does not increase at the next round of local elections.  In Hackney, Phil Glanville has announced his intention to stand for Mayor the next time round as a Labour and Cooperative candidate.  At the Coop Party’s 100th anniversary conference in November Jeremy addressed the conference and was warmly received.  More interesting, I thought, at this juncture in Coop-Labour Party relations, Labour’s Shadow Minister for International Development, Kate Osamor, a known leftist and Corbyn supporter had a wonderful response from a packed 100th anniversary conference hall for her vision of a socialist world.

Let’s look, very briefly, at UK cooperativism in a global context, because it is a global movement.  Secondly, in, perhaps, its most relevant context: the EU.  The chief source for the global information is the “UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs: First Global Census on Coops, 2013/4.”   It says there are around 145 countries and a billion people involved in coops.  Total global coop assets are in the region of  $20 Trillion which generate an estimated $3 Trillion in annual revenue.  So the Global cooperative economy would be, if treated as a single country, the 5th largest economic unit in the world, greater than France and just behind Germany.  This does not include (for methodological, not political, reasons) China’s almost 1 million agri-coops.  “Coops Europe:2015,” published in 2016, provides: Sectoral Analysis (i.e., the industry sectors where coops are to be found in different countries);  comparative Cooperative Legislation and Legal Framework; and, finally, cooperative  Governance.  All EU countries are looked at.  Here we will confine the comparison of the penetration of cooperativism to UK, France and Germany. We find that France, where coop activity constitutes 18% of GDP, cooperative enterprise turnover is Euro306.9 Billion. In Germany it is Euro195 Billion. In the UK cooperative enterprise is lowest of the three at Euro50 Billion.  This provides more context for John McDonnell’s objective of doubling the size of cooperativism’s penetration of the UK economy. .

There is another reason why John is championing coops. That reason is, according to an article by Irish blogger, Michael Taft: “There is a spectre that is haunting Europe, the spectre of de-privatisation, re-municipalisation and re-nationalisation.”  In a review of a new international comparative study called “Reclaiming Public Services” by the Transnational Institute, Michael goes on: “Local, regional and national governments … fed up with high costs, low investment, deteriorating quality and poor working conditions are taking services back into public ownership and control.  For many, privatisation has produced poor results … Public ownership is back on the agenda.”   And, increasingly, it’s public ownership with a combination of customer/tenant, employee and local authority joint management that is involved. There is a very similar picture emerging in the UK.  Housing, energy generating and distribution, local transport, a whole range of social services, education and training provision are the areas where cooperativism is getting a grip, aided by an evolving support structure of coop research, advisory services and training – and all in a political environment that isn’t the most cooperative-friendly, to put it mildly.

For the Centenary Year the Coop Party has published an impressive set of policy documents called: “Ideas to Change Britain.”  The first to be reviewed here is “Six steps to Building Community Wealth,” June, 2017,  which identifies another driver for cooperativism: the gaping economic and social wasteland left by the combined  result of de-industrialisation and central government’ austerity policies which “leave councils struggling to provide basic services and communities vulnerable to shocks.”  The Coop Party’s response is to promote what it calls  “Community Wealth Building” as a new approach to regeneration “framed around the cooperative values of self-help, participation, social responsibility and democratic accountability.”   Already, there are many Community Wealth Building initiatives under way in the main towns and cities, from Glasgow to London. They are reported in this publication to be using innovative cooperative organisational  development tools, such as “Progressive Procurement and Commissioning,” clearly  based on the tried and tested pioneering work of the Basque-based Mondragon Cooperative Corporation and further developed in the US, including in Cleveland, Ohio – a part of the world that has much in common with the “left behind” post-industrial regions of the UK.

Another publication in the series is: “Bricks, mortar & Cooperation,” October 2017, is a comprehensive policy document arguing the case for a cooperative approach to the “broken” housing market. It confronts the underlying issues of land value tax, planning regulations, and the unregulated private rental sector. It looks at the house-building industry itself.  More than half of all new homes are built by the country’s eight largest house builders, the report notes: “this gives rise to concern that they deliberately avoid over-saturating the market with new homes at any one time to ensure high house prices recoup a sufficient profit.”  Over half the construction sector is self-employed, it points out, which can result in “an erosion of workplace rights, from pension contributions to sick pay. “  The answer?  Cooperative construction companies “so that every worker can share in the success of the company.”  Is that achievable?  Look at the case of  “Merthyr Valley Homes.”  At the end of 2015 Merthyr council offered 4,300 former council houses to tenants and the housing association’s 185 employees who were given direct responsibility for overseeing repairs, appointing directors and setting rents and salaries. “With an income of over £30 Million the new association is an important player in both the local economy and community in its own right.”  There are other cases cited, including one typical of  student housing coops,  in Edinburgh: “As well as providing lower rents and better quality the student housing coops organise themselves using participatory democratic structures and work to engage the wider community in the coop movement.”

A third policy document is: “Instilling Cooperation into Learning,” October 2017.  It deals with education from childcare and early years right through to positing the need for a dedicated Cooperative University, no doubt, inspired by the prestigious Mondragon Cooperative University in the Spanish Basque country.  What is most of interest, because of its common-sense practicality, is the proposal for setting up Teacher Coops in place of profit driven supply teacher agencies and umbrella companies.  Another, is the identification of the radical, but obvious, need for Foster Care cooperatives in place of the private commercial agencies, eight of which, the report says, made around £41 million profit last year “at a time when local authorities are increasingly under strain from budget cuts.”  One such coop has been established, known, appropriately as “The Foster Care Cooperative.”  Cooperativism would benefit both carers and children by putting the emphasis on getting the best possible outcomes for children rather than boosting shareholder profits.  Cooperative schools have a long history in education, the report says.  “Cooperative Schools place a high emphasis on schools, teachers, students and the community working together to provide the best environment they can for young people, based on improving learning outcomes through cooperation rather than competition.”  In particular, the report says: “The Coop Party believes that the Education and Inspections Act, 2006 should be amended to enable coop schools to legally form under the Cooperative and Community Benefit Society Act, 2014. It should also allow nursery schools to become cooperative trusts and to join cooperative clusters.”

Of special note is the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews’ online course focused on the cooperative economic alternative. “ There is widespread interest around the world in cooperatives as an alternative to the capitalist corporation, particularly since the financial crash of 2008. Economics and other social sciences can focus and sharpen the debate on cooperatives. Having taken the course, students will be better placed to participate in public discussion on cooperatives, or to join a coop or even start a new one.” Last, but not least, the report argues “technical and vocational qualifications, and apprenticeships, should have parity of esteem with the traditional academic routes.”

Finally: In the spread of more recent surge in cooperative activity in the UK the three high visibility areas are Energy, Housing and Social Care.  But, as I hope I’ve shown here, far more issues than those are pursued by the Coop Party.  The Party, post 2017 General Election, is broadly representative of most shades of democratic socialism within the Labour movement.  A year ago Gareth Thomas, Party Chair, may have caused ripples with his statement that the Party might develop “a more distinct voice … and help the Centre-Left regain its confidence and the political initiative after Brexit”  (Guardian, 12/12/2016)  But that was then.

I’ve found the Coop Party meetings and conferences I’ve attended to be a wonderful source of practical solutions to many of the challenges thrown up by the devastation caused by neoliberalism and all worked through and argued out in an atmosphere conducive to participation and sharing.  The Party’s focus on cooperativism as a fundamental social value, and the cumulative work it has done over a long period, equips it to make a special contribution to the Labour movement, in the short to medium term at the local level, in the longer term at national level. And at the core of it will be the vitally synergistic “Labour and Cooperative Party.”

A happy Christmas to all.  Instead of an individually signed Christmas card conveyed to one and all, by the soon to be re-nationalised, democratised  and cooperativised Royal Mail, my political quote of the Year:

INTERVIEWER: Prime Minister, if there was to be a second referendum on staying in or leaving Europe, how would you vote?  THERESA: I do not answer hypothetical questions.  INTERVIEWER: And would you press the Nuclear Button?  Theresa: Yes!