The Trotskyist left in this country is good when it comes to thinking and theorising about the Labour party and the trade unions, but very often the third wing of the labour movement - cooperatives - tends to be neglected. For example, the Socialist Party has these two recent pieces on how co-ops fit into Labour and Tory schemes for privatising sections of the NHS and welfare services. This article in Socialism Today does an excellent job at critiquing the Tories' sudden conversion to co-ops, but lacks an appreciation of the co-op movement today - strongly implying it is an historic relic of when the labour movement had to provide its own welfare services.
This attitude is mistaken. In a lengthy but excellent four part post, Arthur Bough unearths what the classical Marxists have to say about co-operatives, showing they were far from hostile or indifferent to them. He argues that socialists should be as active in them as they are in the other wings of the labour movement, arguing for their democratisation and extension (where appropriate). Co-ops are not a panacea or substitute for class struggle but they are an important front in the struggle against capital.
This in mind, there are two short books on co-ops I've read recently. The first is Co-ops to the Rescue, edited by Alan Thomas and Jenny Thornley. It is dated (published in 1989) but is an excellent introduction and case study of 'rescue co-ops', where a co-op is formed to take over a failed or failing business. This is particularly relevant in a Stoke context as upcoming cuts are likely to dispense with some of the city council's leisure provision. While it is preferable the council keeps them open, possible co-op solutions are better for workers and service users than outright closure.
In his introduction, Alan Thomas notes the majority of co-ops (then) were common ownership enterprises. Capital is limited to the nominal membership of the co-op and reserves and profits are held in common - a member cannot sell their stake for a profit and withdraw. Unlike capitalist firms management is delegated authority on the part of the membership. They have the final word through the general meeting of members.
Co-ops can find support across the political spectrum for a variety of reasons. The Tories' current enthusiasm for co-ops is nothing new. Under Thatcher the government treated them as any other (small) business and were left to the vagaries of the market to determine whether they would sink or swim. Tories did see co-ops as a way of inculcating market discipline (and therefore conservative values) in workers, but not enough to amend the law to favour co-op formation or provide them some of the tax breaks available to conventional small businesses (common ownership was incompatible with relief on employee profit share schemes).
Whereas the co-op movement has been closely allied with Labour from more or less the beginning (the Co-op Party is affiliated to Labour and currently has 29 MPs sitting as Labour MPs), co-ops have had to compete inside the party with other models of ownership - particularly nationalisation, and in more recent years privatisation (though mutualism is, apparently, due to be at the heart of the next manifesto).
The rescues studied in Co-ops to the Rescue are very different. They involved a construction firm, grocers, a shirt factory, two engineering companies, and English language teachers. Two had folded by the time the book went to press, but as far as I can tell the remaining four are still trading today (websites here and here). The lessons drawn from the six studies are typical of others - they often require policy backing and direction, be that from involved trade unions, local councils/government, and/or the wider co-op movement, long-term support from the same sources, and the inculcation of a high degree of internal commitment. They shouldn't be regarded as a quick fix. Left Labour councils of the 1980s such as Sheffield City Council and the GLC were very keen to see co-ops formed under their watch (and with their backing) quickly succeed. Like any other business they take time to find their feet.
In all, Co-ops to the Rescue is a very good introduction. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Serving the People by Greg Rosen - the book that comes with your Co-op Party membership pack. This is less a history of the Co-Op Party and more one of its prominent members. That said you do get a sense of the (not always unproblematic) influence it has had in Labour.
The biggest problem with Serving the People is its unacknowledged ideological bias. It fits firmly in the tradition - if it can be called that - of Blairist 'Third Way' thinking. Capitalist society as is is taken for granted, and co-ops are presented as the passage through the Charybdis of free market fundamentalism and the Scylla of nationalised industry. Except that the position Rosen takes is not equidistant - there is very little critique of private ownership, but a lot of state, left, and trade union bashing.
If for a moment we regard the trade union movement as the voice of working class interests in the workplace, and the co-op movement its expression as consumers, what Rosen consistently does throughout the book is oppose the latter to the former. Co-op Party politicians in the Labour party are forever favourably contrasted with those (nine times out of ten on the left) who are wedded to "producer-dominated politics". For Rosen the unions and the left represented vested and particularistic interests. The Co-op Party and movement on the other hand crystallised a universal interest.
There is certainly a contradiction between these two wings of the labour movement, but to prise them apart and present co-ops as a post-class alternative for progressive politics as Rosen does is to perpetuate the contradiction. Instead, socialists in both wings should be working to bind the two more closely together in an attempt to unify and politicise the working class simultaneously as producer and consumer.
Another key problem is the absence of strategic thinking or any sense of the state of the Co-op Party today (Serving was published in 2007). Yes, it might be near the ceiling of its number of MPs but what about the membership? How is cooperative activism on the ground? Rosen does not address this at all.
Here we have two books from the centre left and right wing of the co-op movement. They are good entrées into co-ops for very different reasons - Co-ops to the Rescue because of the challenges start up co-ops have to face, and Serving the People as a guide to how the powers that be see them.