David Webb is a Lecturer in Town Planning at Newcastle University. His research has explored the governing principles behind urban management, in particular New Labour’s ‘top down’ housing market renewal programme. More recently, his interests lie in co-operative influences on the heritage conservation movement and the cultural heritage of co-operation.
This May’s election news was crushing for the Labour Party and the left. And yet the political promise of the leadership contenders looks uninspiring. In choosing its next leader, to inspire a comeback, Labour faces a choice between a left wing stalwart ready to stick to their principles and debunk the myth that Britain’s economic fortunes were caused by state ‘profligacy’ or a return to the Blairite vision of a socially tempered devotion to market governance. But there is another way, perhaps the only route available to Labour if it wishes to exploit the opportunities created by a politically fractured and polarised UK: cooperation and solidarity.
The Guardian’s election round-up offered a shrewd analysis of the relationship between the SNP’s landslide and the appeal of Labour to swing voters in the south. The SNP’s rise may not, it seems, have just been exploited by the Conservatives and the Murdoch press. It could actually have been actively encouraged as part of a deliberate electoral strategy. This amounts to a divide and rule approach aimed at undermining the solidarity of those opposed to the Tory party alliance of landed interests and financiers. But political pluralism can be used to strengthen solidarity as well as break it. The roots of solidarity do not lie in us all thinking the same, but in strengthening core values through mutual working while allowing freedom and diversity to flourish.
Co-operative working could be the key to realising strength from political diversity. As Johnston Birchall argued in the 1980s, in his book ‘Building Sustainable Communities’ , co-operatives are a highly malleable form of organisation capable of appealing as much to individualism as to collectivism (Birchall, 1988). Phillip Blond, architect of the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’, also understood this. He hoped to use co-operatives as a means of promoting Anglican Conservatism and ‘family values’ over corrosive privatisation (Blond, 2010). With retrospect, Blond’s agenda never seriously challenged the Tory party’s neoliberal core. But the Coalition did demonstrate the ability of co-operatives, in different guises, to appeal across the spectrum, with 75% of neighbourhood planning initiatives having taken place in Conservative controlled areas (Geoghegan, 2013).
Co-operative Socialism, on the other hand, gave birth to the Labour Party, with many more members of the First International supporting Proudhon and Bakunin’s mutualism than Marx’s problematic dictatorship of the proletariat. John Ruskin and William Morris both demonstrate the potential for co-operatives to have a romantic appeal to the affluent classes, these days obsessed with local food and organic produce. Co-operative working, then, is a word than can be mobilised in conservative or radical guises to respond to the political challenges being faced.
Right to left
A retreat to the left by Labour now will lose them the election in 2020: they simply cannot match the weight of tabloid papers and Conservative ministers insistent on pinning austerity on reckless spending policies. All Blair’s new public sector management tools offered was a double whammy of conformist, bureaucratic service delivery and preparations for future privatisation.
Labour needs a new concept that will allow it to start on the right and draw the electorate to the left. This is, in fact, what David Cameron has been doing with his discourse on austerity. During the 2010 election he was much more circumspect about the causes of the economic crash. This time, backed up by a raft of neoliberal converts in the Lib Dems, he went all guns blazing to pin austerity on profligate state spending. Ed Miliband, meanwhile, offered an inconsistent message that veered between apologising for his party’s economic record and offering price control policies in areas like energy that came across as more of the same.
There have been occasional Conservative attempts to challenge market concentration which the Labour party might learn from. Their plans to increase house building will not work because of market concentration in land ownership and the development industry. But rather than confront these industries with regulation, gentle efforts have been made to encourage new market entrants, focusing on areas such as custom build where new building technologies and approaches already have the potential to challenge the big players. Labour could do the same, continuing the Coalition’s encouragement of co-operative local service delivery and exploring a range of ways to promote co-operative energy producers, house builders and utilities providers using innovative organisational forms rather than giant nationalised companies.
Co-operatives can be deployed as a means of market regulation, as a replacement for some rail services for example, thus helping to highlight the inherent failures of heavily regulated, privately delivered services. They have the potential to reduce the huge expenses currently directed at regulating bodies, contractual arrangements and business failures not to mention profit margins. But they also have the potential to maintain a basically neoliberal form of market delivery: something that will be essential in Labour’s early fight back against the Tories. In the longer term, examples like the anarcho-communist village of Marinelada in Spain show that radical forms of organisation can provide realistic and sustainable solutions (Hancox, 2013).
Co-operation has one last virtue that may prove crucial in 2020, which is that an alliance around co-operative principles may be stronger than a party system where Labour expends valuable resources fighting against the Greens and the SNP. If the south wants light touch regulation, give it to them by using co-operative thinking to inspire ethically conscious consumerism and regulation through local accountability. If Scotland wants progressive Socialism, then encourage a form of co-operative ownership of large public services and infrastructure akin to the Netherlands’ housing association sector. Solidarity from diversity. Yes, this is a vision that has neoliberal tinges, and that is why it offers the best base from which to rebuild.
Birchall, J. (1988) Building communities : the co-operative way Routledge & Kegan Paul: London.
Blond, P. (2010) Red Tory : how the left and right have broken Britain and how we can fix it Faber and Faber: London.
Geoghegan, J. (2013) Poorer areas see few neighbourhood plan applications. Downloaded 21st July 2015 from: http://www.planningresource.co.uk/article/1175787/poorer-areas-few-neighbourhood-plan-applications
Hancox, D. (2013) Spain’s communist model village.Downloaded 21st July 2015 from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/oct/20/marinaleda-spanish-communist-village-utopia