“The Co-op is not just a retailer; it is a major political player in its own right. Over the past ten years it has given £6,187,788 to a British political party, the Co-operative Party, and a further £355,857 to the Labour Party. There are currently 32 Co-operative Party MPs in the House of Commons, 17 Co-operative Party Members of the House of Lords. It has five MSPs, nine AMs, and hundreds of councillors around the country.” Those facts were listed on this site by Jesse Norman, the Conservative MP and thinker, in a prescient article which we published last summer and reproduced on Friday. Norman went on to point out that since the Co-op Party and Labour Party are in effect the same, Labour has had all that £6 million or so, the payments have been kept in the dark, and the Co-op’s seven million members have never been consulted about whether they should have been made in the first place.
This arrangement was never morally sustainable – why should members of the Co-op Party be barred from joining any other party than Labour? – and it has turned out not to be financially sustainable, either. Norman referred to the troubles wreaked on the institution by the Britannia loan (to which Ed Balls boasted of giving Treasury support, as Adam Boulton reminds us in today’s Sunday Times) – and the Observer reports that the Co-op’s plight is now so dire that a third of its funding to Labour may be cut, perhaps more. The despised hedge funds that will now shape its future look no less ethical than the Co-op this morning, and infinitely more efficient: as the Sunday Telegraph points out, “a number of the US financiers behind the hedge funds have provided tens of thousands of dollars worth of funding for the Republican Party”. They are unlikely to have much sympathy for the party of Unite and Falkirk.
David Cameron was all over the scandal in PMQs last Wednesday, cracking jokes about the Reverend Flowers (pardon the pun), and Ed Miliband protests in the Independent on Sunday this morning about “the Crosbyisation of the Conservative Party”. For many Tories, it is emotionally gratifying to see Downing Street and CCHQ hitting back after years of personal campaigning against our leaders, based not on anything they’d done, but where they were educated: the Damian McBrideisation of the Labour Party, one might say. But the Conservatives have reasons to be careful over the Co-op – three of them, in fact. The first is that a lot of people’s fingerprints can be found on the institution’s troubles – Labour’s, the Methodist Church’s, Bradford Council’s, the City Regulator’s charities…and, yes, the Treasury’s, as the ever-helpful David Davis has been reminding anyone who cares to listen.
Indeed, there are now no fewer than seven inquiries under way into aspects of the Co-op’s woes, and the Sunday Times (£) says bluntly that “the buck stops with George Osborne”. The second reason is that personal attacks can carry political risks with them. Matthew D’Ancona today argues that the Conservative leadership has “ended the eight-year truce on drugs in politics”, and refers to “an unspoken agreement between the main parties [which] was reached that resembled the Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction…the meth is out of the bag now, so to speak. Such stories are hard to control and to contain; habitually, they get nastier and more sordid the longer they last”. These are wise words. The third reason is that the political risks run wider. The hurling of mud by any party blackens its opponents less than it does the Commons and politics as a whole…and, in the long-run, perhaps itself.
After all, it isn’t as though, as D’Ancona puts it, “Flowers was coughing over his bong, a rent boy on each knee, as he urged Miliband to “hang the deficit, my dear chap, and spend what you like!” Close links between the Labour leader and Flowers simply haven’t been proved, though Ed Balls certainly received £50,000 from the Co-op Group, the parent to the bank. That so many institutions have been compromised by the Co-op poses the question: why? Perhaps the best answer was suggested by Norman himself: “I am a huge believer in the virtues of co-ops, mutuals and employee ownership”, he wrote. Contrary to the rules of the Co-operative Party, the ethos of co-ops has a broad attraction: the solidarity it offers appeals as much to enthusiasts for the Big Society as supporters of the big state. After Lehman’s, the Co-op simply looked better to politicians than big banks – an illusion.