Aberavon & Neath Liberal Democrats
Friday, March 14, 2014
The Cooperative movement and liberalism
Liberal Democrat Voice
for the following:
Arthur Seldon on Liberal, Labour and Co-operative from 1949
From “Liberal Magazine” Nov 1949
“A Liberal looks at the Co-operative Movement, declares
Alliance with Labour is dangerous”
The co-operative movement is a liberal institution. It was born in a liberal economy. It grew in an era of political and economic liberalism. It will survive and prosper only in a liberal State.
Its alliance with the Labour Party is a profound and tragic blunder. Its principles, its purpose and prospects as a trading organisation, and its political policies make its most natural and congenial political home the Liberal Party.
First, its principles are liberal. The co-operative movement is a voluntary association of individuals who join and leave at will. It is based on the voluntary principle, without which is loses its soul. It lives by serving the consumer in a free economy independent of the State. It could not breathe in a regime of compulsion, direction and State control.
Secondly, its business structure and development makes its Labour alliance incongruous, out-moded, and dangerous. Changing distribution of income and social groupings are leading it to expand and extend its services and activities. The bulk of its members are drawn from skilled workers whose incomes and requirements are approaching those of the old middle classes. The new members of recent years have come mainly from the middle classes, and the expansion has been mainly in the South. It is a far cry from the groceries, the coal, and other staple commodities of the Northern working classes to the fashion goods, the television and the department stores of the 1950′s.
The co-operative veteran must rub his eyes when he reads the current advertising campaign of the C.W.S with its “co-op. customers” – the dentist, the teacher, the colonel and other middle class figures. How is the movement to continue to expand along these lines – the only lines along which it can expand – if it is tied to a political party which potential members, for reasons good or bad, fear or distrust?
Thirdly, a free consumers’ co-operative movement has no business to be allied to a party largely financed by a producer interest, the trade unions, and inspired by Socialist ideology based on belief in the efficacy of State control. The National Council of Labour is not a triumvirate of like-minded equals; it is an unconvincing facade for irreconcilable opposites.
The co-operative movement’s differences with the trade union element in the Labour movement are typified by its attitude to the licensing of shops. Can any co-oiperative official or member endorse U.S.D.A.W.’s demand for this reactionary and illiberal device for the control of retail outlets?
And the inevitable conflict with the philosophy and practice of Socialist planning has been laid bare in the compromises and the concessions which preceded the final draft of “Labour Believes in Britain”. No doubt face saving formulae will be found by the Labour Party negotiators in the effort to keep the goodwill of the movement at least until the coming general election is over. But is the movement faithfully served by buying a few more years of immunity? The clash must come sooner or later.
The co-operative official or member who convinces himself that the nationalisation of wholesaling and other co-operative activities can be put in cold storage for ever, or who gives credence to seductive talk of the movement being “allowed” to run a part of a Socialist economy, is indulging in wishful thinking that does no credit to his judgment and no service to the movement.
He has forgotten that there is a co-operative movement in Russia that is “allowed” to run a sector of the economy – now expanding, now contracting at the will of a commissar. But is this poor thing, this convenient instrument of a total State, unfree, dependent, a mockery and a travesty of the hopes of the Rochdale Pioneers, held up as a desirable fate for the British co-operative movement?
But if the Co-operative-Labour alliance is a mistake, on what does it rest? There is the sentiment of he working-class origin of both organisations, a sentiment which neglects the long distance both have travelled since their early days. Then there is that universal Aunt Sally, “the capitalist system”, which means all things to all men, a convenient thought-stifler when awkward questions arise. And a few words about “production without profit”, or about that wildly impossible “Socialist and Co-operative Commonwealth” could always be relied on to raise a cheer or quell the doubts of those who think for themselves.
What are the facts of history? From the very first the alliance with Labour was never an easy one. Only ten years after it was born, doubts and fears were expressed by co-operative spokesmen about Labour policies, such as Dr. Addison’s producer-controlled agricultural marketing boards.
More than once in the 1930′s Lord Rusholme (then Mr R. A. Palmer) and others spoke out against the monopoly legislation of the Labour Government of 1929-31, later adopted and enlarged by the “National” Governments of Macdonald, Baldwin, and Chamberlain, and supported in principle by Labour in Opposition. These co-operative spokesmen were supported not by the Labour Part, which was too concerned with trade union interests, but by the handful of Liberals who understood the economic and political dangers of monopoly in all its forms.
It has taken four years of Labour in power to make the dangers too plain to be ignored. It is not merely a question of the nationalisation of a few co-operative activities in wholesaling and insurance. These are only the first steps. The ugly truth is that, however “liberal” some of its paper intentions, Labour’s philosophy is the antithesis of that on which the co-operative movement and other Liberal institutions rest. For underlying it is the impudent assumption that no voluntary association of free individuals can be superior to the State.
The co-operative movement wants the freedom to develop in those fields in which, by trial and error and in rivalry with other forms of distribution, it proves itself in the interests of the community. It seeks no artificial respiration, but it rejects doctrinaire exclusion. This is precisely what a Liberal economy implies, and what the Liberal Party stands for.
In a Liberal economy there is room for all forms of enterprise – companies and one man businesses working for “profit”, profit-sharing enterprises of all kind, and “mutual aid” organisations such as the co-operative movement. The only activity for which there is no room is monopoly.
The Liberal Party does not stand for one kind of economic organisation against the others. It stands for the progressive elements in all forms of economic life against the backward-looking elements. It calls for room for all forms of activity provided hey benefit the community. And in its policies of freedom for enterprise and the prevention or destruction of monopoly, it truly serves the consumer. Here surely is the voice of sanity. It is the voice of the progressive in all forms of human activity, co-operative and all other; it is the voice of the Liberal.
The hour is not too late for co-operators to see the truth and to warn their colleagues and their fellows. Many have paid uneasy lip-service to Socialist ideals in which they had no faith. Many have quelled doubts by representing themselves as “liberal-minded Socialists”. Misplaced loyalty to the established political strategy is treachery to the principles of the co-operative movement. To speak out now may be to incur the displeasure of the articulate minority who have vested interests in the Socialist alliance. But to remain silent is to earn the reproach of the multitude whose hopes will be crushed by the prostitution of the movement in a Socialist State.
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