Interview with… Co-operative Party General Secretary Michael Stephenson
The Co-operative Party is all about giving power back to the people. They are the second largest centre-left party in the UK and are in a ‘sister’ relationship with Labour. There were 28 Co-operative MP’s in the last Parliament including Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. The co-operative and mutual mentality operates in all sectors of our economy and society, from food to retail, banking, housing, care provision and even supporter ownership of football clubs.
There is a definite ‘sea of change’ happening between society and state, and a wave of enthusiasm for sustainable, long-term planning – so I believe it was the perfect time to interview the Co-operative Party General Secretary Michael Stephenson with the aim of learning more about the politics of the co-operative movement.
The vast majority of people who replied to my Facebook note said that they hadn’t actually ever heard of the Co-operative Party. Naturally then ‘what are the Co-operative Party?’ became my first question to Michael.
Michael said that the Co-operative Party is basically the political arm of the whole co-operative movement. The ‘sister-party’ relationship with Labour means that in certain constituencies, candidates contest the seat as both a Co-operative and Labour representative.
There appeared some confusion on Facebook about what the term co-operative could actually apply to, so next I asked Michael to define the co-operative ideology.
According to Michael, the movement was conceived in Rochdale in the 19th century when ordinary working people grew tired of being ripped off by shop owners. Rather than be at the whim of the markets, these people came together and formed their own organisations which were based on the principles of democracy, sharing rewards and self-help .
In other words, ‘co-operative’ means giving everyone a say in how a organisation is run. Giving greater autonomy and control to local communities has been a key theme in the current election campaign, and the reaction on Facebook was greatly in favour of devolving power from the state. So are co-operatives now highly fashionable?
Michael agreed that they are and said that the irony of the Co-operative Party model is that ‘its new-ness is its old-ness’. He says its founding values are as,if not more relavant today than they were in the 19th century. Especially in this ‘post-credit crunch world’ society is looking for long-term sustainability and for people to be put before profit.
So what are some Co-operative Party initiatives. One that most people picked up on (and interestingly hasn’t really been covered by the mainstream media) is that of providing support for first-time buyers.
Michael explained that the Co-operative Party has a radical approach on home ownership, with a new idea of co-operative housing. In this approach, people wouldn’t take out a mortgage with a bank instead they would get equity in certain housing co-operatives owned by investment organisations.
Another idea that resonated well on Facebook was for ‘Co-operative Trust Schools’.
There are about 30 such schools now in the UK according to Michael. The idea here is that with the help of the local co-op organisation, parents, teachers and students can get involved by being elected to a body that has a say in how the school is being run.
The other issue that attracted a lot of debate (particularly among males) was of allowing football supporters to own football clubs.
This is a initiative that will hopefully prevent situations like what is currently happening at Portsmouth Football Club. As Michael explains, the idea is to allow fans to set up bodies in their football clubs that gives them a say in the running of the club.
And finally… most people on Facebook pointed out that the Co-operative Party sound more like the Green Party rather than Labout. I asked Michael if he believed that Labour has politically moved away from the Co-operative Party and if they would considered an alliance with the Greens.
Michael said this was ‘nonsense’. For eight decades, ‘whenever Labour has been in power they have done the right thing for the Co-operative Party… you don’t just junk eight decades of history and shared values’.
What do you think to the Co-operative Party? Did my questions serve the public interest? What issues would you like me to cover?
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