Dan Boucher asks what do you if you are a Conservative and believe in the co-operative ideal
As a member of the Welsh Conservatives with a background in the voluntary sector, there is something that bothers me about the history of my home city, Swansea.
It was in 1917 that Swansea hosted the Co-operative Congress. At the gathering the movement determined that in order to secure the influence it needed to effect change, it must form a political party. The result was the creation of the Co-operative Party. What is the problem with this? Well if you want to join the Co-operative Party you have to sign a form that says, among other things, “I am not a member of any political party other than the Labour Party”. Consequently the only Co-operative label in Parliament or in the National Assembly comes after Labour. There are Labour-Co-op MPs and AMs but no Conservative equivalents.
What do you do if you are a Welsh Conservative who believes in the co-operative ideal?
Launch of The Big Society in a Small Country
Dan Boucher’s book The Big Society in a Small Country: Wales, social capital, mutualism, and self-help is being launched today at an event in the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay, between 6.30pm and 8.00pm. Cultural commentator Peter Stead will be in conversation with Dan Boucher and Lord Brian Griffiths about the themes of the book and their relevance to contemporary Wales. Places are still available to attend. Contact the IWA office 02920 660820, or turn up on the door.
There are some who like to suggest that Conservatives are just a bunch of free market individualists. However, the reality is very different. The Conservative Party has a long tradition of commitment to social justice and enlightened social reform evidenced since Wilberforce and Shaftesbury (who, incidentally, devoted significant time to learning Welsh), and in more recent times by social entrepreneurs like Nat Wei.
The fact that the Co-operative Party has aligned itself with the Labour Party is entirely appropriate if that is what they want to do. We live in a free society and you can’t get much more basic than the freedom of association. However, by the same token we have to recognise that Labour does not have a monopoly when it comes to concern for and interest in the co-operative economy. Indeed, the truth is that the Co-operative economy in Wales is not doing as well under Labour as it would if it were able to benefit from the Big Society policies currently being rolled out by Francis Maude in England.
However, before reflecting on some of these Big Society changes on which Wales is missing out, we should pause to confront the suggestion of some that the Big Society is an English initiative that is alien to Wales?
The truth is that because of our strong tradition of conceiving Wales as an organic, ‘community of communities’, which must be understood from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down, it is actually hard to conceive of a nation where the Big Society would have better resonance. Indeed, although post 1918 the Labour Party embraced the Big State, prior to 1918 even Labour championed Big Society solutions, which continued to be strongly associated with Plaid particularly in the mid 20th Century.
The bottom-up, localist tradition is still alive in Wales today. But its potential is not being fully harnessed because it is saddled with government policy that is in love with the big state. The sad fact is that so much energy and attention has been focused on statist solutions that now, according to some measures, the public sector represents a massive 70 per cent of GDP in Wales. Most economists start getting concerned when this figure rises about 40 per cent!
Of course, the Welsh Government has a social enterprise plan which says the right things. However, when we compare delivery in England and Wales, there are some sharp contrasts. While the lead English minister on the Big Society Francis Maude is pressing ahead with his right to provide policy, working with those parts of the state that want to become mutuals rather than continuing to be part of big impersonal government departments, no comparable steps are being taken in Wales.
Moreover, while the Localism Act introduces the ‘community right to challenge’ which enables concerned community groups to bid to take over state functions in England, there is no comparable provision in Wales. What are we to make of this? Is it that people in England are up to this challenge, but the people of Wales are not?
Then again, an assessment of the cooperative economy across Great Britain in 2010 revealed that it is weakest in Wales – an odd state of affairs given our strong community of communities tradition.
It seems to me that, despite what they may say, Welsh Labour are at the end of the day genetically statist. They can provide good social enterprise rhetoric, as in their social enterprise plan, but they can’t really bring themselves to make the state smaller and society bigger by transferring functions from big impersonal government departments to mutuals. For all their talk about community, this goes against the grain.
This is why Wales badly needs the Welsh Conservative Big Society policies to help secure the appropriate rebalancing of our economy. Moreover, our community of communities culture means that the Big Society is not merely right for Wales because it addresses contemporary challenges but also because it will help to renew our national identity and national traditions in a way that Labour policy never can.
In this context it seems to me that it would be well worth providing a mechanism whereby Conservatives with a special interest in co-operative solutions can identify themselves as such. If Labour MPs can be categorised as Labour-Co-op, then it is time to think about presenting Conservative-Mutual candidates. This would demonstrate that Labour does not have a monopoly on the co-operative economy. In fact, it is the Welsh Conservatives who have far more radical policies to facilitate its advancement.
It would be particularly appropriate for this to emanate from Wales since the Labour-Co-op label can ultimately trace its roots back to that Cooperative Congress in Swansea in 1917.