John Maclean, Justice April 1913

The Co-operative Union and the Labour Party

Source: Justice, 19 April, 1913, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The attempt to bring the Co-operative Union and the Labour Party into a close alliance for mutual political advantage has naturally drawn-working-class attention more keenly to the import and tendency of the Co-operative movement. We may therefore expect piquant discussions at the three great co-operative gatherings in Scotia this year, and if the rank and file of our movement are alive to their opportunity to act as a driving and educating force from within, they should be thoroughly prepared with a policy of some kind or other, or at least with telling arguments.

Sixteen years ago at the Perth Congress, and in 1905 at Paisley, a resolution to enter politics, and in the latter case to join the Labour Party, was defeated. As a straw indicating what may be expected at the British Congress to be held in Aberdeen from May 12 to 14 – the first held in Scotland since the Paisley one – we have Mr. Peter Glass (Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society director) at the Annual National Conference in Edinburgh on April 12 asking the delegates to approve of the principle of direct representatives of co-operaters in Parliament. We have also Mr. Wm. Maxwell, J.P. (late chairman S.C.W.S.) moving that, “This Scottish National Co-operative Conference expresses gratification at the widespread interest aroused since the last Conference with regard to existing and future relations between the co-operative movement and other progressive democratic forces aiming for the improvement of the working class of the country; thanks the United Board of the Co operative Union for having arranged and carried through a successful conference between representatives of the co-operative movement, the Trades Union Congress, and the Parliamentary Labour Party; and recommends all co-operators and co-operative societies to give unbiased consideration to any proposals that may emanate from the joint conference conducing to a friendly understanding between these bodies and to active co-operation among them in all common aims, without committing the co-operative movement to any political party with regard to which representative working-class organisations are divided in opinion.”

These resolutions need no comment from me, but simply show what may be expected at Aberdeen. What should be the attitude of our party members towards any definite proposals for the federation of the three organisations mentioned by Mr. Maxwell for political and other purposes, an towards direct co-operative representation? That is certainly the principal problem for us.

We obviously must oppose direct representation, because that would justify the direct representation of railway and all other kinds of companies and businesses. It would be representation by industry with a vengeance!

Must we, then, support or oppose co-operation of the three organisations mentioned for political purposes? By junction of forces the co-operative movement theoretically would have its interests safeguarded in Parliament as the trade unions are supposed to have at present. Very many doubt strongly the assertion that the Labour Party has been of real service to the trade unions in the Commons, and so might feel justified in concluding that the co-operative movement would best advance without reliance on a spent political force.

Others, again, whilst admitting the utter futility of the present Labour Party, might urge that it would be an evolutionary advance to get the Co-operative Union definitely linked to the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress; especially in view of the fact that opposition to political activity has in the past come from Liberal hacks like Aldridge, Madison and Vivian. The activity of these gentlemen made me vote at Paisley in 1905 for the Co-operative Union joining the Labour Party, and the activities of men of the Maddison type would assuredly drive me to again adopt the same course.

The Labour Party needs money, and know the co-operative Union can supply it. I am firmly of the opinion that co-operative money must be used for the emancipation of the workers, and therefore think the Labour Party is justified in its efforts.

The Co-operative Union sees that rising prices are fostering the rapid growth of the multiple and central shop systems at the expense of the private trader, that these in the end must come together, and that a conflict between them and the co-operative movement must inevitably arise. It is now aware that reliance can be placed in no capitalist political party, but solely in one emanating from the working class. From this standpoint the Co-operative Union seems to me to be taking a wise step.

From our Party point of view the real trouble is the ineptitude of the Labour Party, which has drifted straight to open Liberalism through lack of definite principles and policy of a clear-cut class nature. Together with this goes the constitution of the Labour Party. At present, men who are members may be members of a union, and thus have a double influence. Their influence would be trebled were they co-operators and were their local co-operative societies permitted to take a direct part in local or national joint organisations.

If we could get the workers to individually join a separate political organisation pledged ultimately to Socialism, and presently to fight for the industrial organisations and the co-operative movement, then the formulation of a federation of the executives of the three bodies to control mutually the Parliamentary party might be quite a good plan, if accompanied by money from the two auxiliary and, in a political sense, subsidiary bodies. Unfortunately working-class development has here taken a more tortuous course, one that almost paralyses consistent action on our part. In the circumstances, and until our Party, as a whole has clearly defined its policy, I suggest that our members in the co-operative movement should support advance towards political action along with the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress, whilst they ought at the same times sharply to criticise the acts of omission and commission of the Labour Party.

Otherwise we play into the hands of Liberals and Anarchists, the latter of whom are delighted at an entente between unionism and co-operation, the Labour Party to be left out of consideration. The fact that a considerable number of the B.S.P. may oppose what I here suggest shows the necessity of our Party formulating a policy for the guidance of those who may happen to be at Co-operative Congresses in future.

Before concluding I would like to draw attention to the International Co-operative Alliance Congress, which sits between August 25 and 28 in Glasgow. As a large percentage of Continental delegates will be Socialists, it should be the ambition of comrades here to get appointed as delegates, so that they may obtain a clearer insight into the methods of dove-tailing the three functioning bodies of our class in the various countries and at the same time assist them in the attempt to leaven the British lump with the full revolutionary spirit.