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Editorial The co-operative ideal is worth defending

THE co-op movement is turning out to be a battle front in the class war. 

Finance capital is naturally keen to crowd out its more ethical competitors and the continued existence of the co-operative movement is affront to the cut-throat immorality of the capitalist market.

The pressure is remorseless but facts are facts. The Co-op Bank, which is down from several hundred to several dozen branches is today mostly owned by hedge funds and no-one knows when its final assets will be stripped out by the market imperative to maximise short-term shareholder value. 

Now Co-op Insurance is up for sale to a known union-busting outfit with union recognition threatened as well as jobs.

Unite, which represents workers at the enterprise, is on the button with its angry accusation that this sale by the Co-op is immoral.

The long-dead founders of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers — the clue to their moral and political stance is in the name — must be turning in their graves.

In 1844 this group of workers — mostly weavers faced with poverty and adulterated food — decided to set up their own co-operative store. 

It was difficult but they persevered and the successful business model that they pioneered grew to play an important part in working-class life and culture.

The aim of the co-op pioneers was to cater for every need from cradle to grave without exploitation and profiteering and to this day the Co-op is collectively owned by 17 million people.

This is a tremendous resource that could play an even more important role in challenging the monopoly domination of the retail market and the price fixing and informal cartels which so disadvantage the consumer. 

A wider question is whether co-operative forms of production are viable in today’s developed capitalist economies. 

Experience so far has shown that big problems face workers trying to compete with a legal framework and a shareholder culture that is designed to maximise the power of big capital. 

The best efforts have been in fields where the ferocity of the capitalist market is limited. 

But co-ops face constant commercial pressures to cut costs, reduce wage bills, minimise jobs.

Even so, co-operative enterprises have carved out a distinct place in British working-class culture and defending not just the principle but the active presence of co-operative services in banking, finance and insurance should be a priority for the labour movement.

We need some creative thinking by the trade union movement and the left to devise strategies for changing the increasingly apparent submission to the twisted logic of the market which has led to the dissolution of these co-operatives on the original and ethical model.

Part of this must be measures to make the people who are elevated to decision-making positions in the co-operative movement to be responsive to the immediate interests of co-operative shareholders, customers and the working class more generally.

Already much of the moral advantage that the co-operative movement had in the marketplace has been squandered.

The strength and value of the co-operative principle is daily demonstrated by this newspaper which — because it is owned by its readers — cannot be taken over as was the TUC and Labour Party-owned Daily Herald which was transformed by Murdoch into that grotesque parody of a newspaper, The Sun.

Co-ops swim against the tide in capitalist economies. Under socialism they have proved to be a valuable mechanism in the transition from an economy based on the drive to profit to one organised to meet human and social needs. 

The co-operative principle is worth fighting for.

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