Most of us have our natural political home on the left. What I mean by this is that we have relatively little stake in the existing order and that our natural sympathies are with the dispossessed. We only broke with the left once it was clear that they hated us for reasons most of us have not yet understood.
Despite this there are a few fragments of the movement that are worth supporting. These grow fewer by the day- but they still exist.
Long before the left took its fateful step towards state dependency there was a cooperative movement. This was not socialism as such but a form of collective capitalism. Working people clubbed together to buy their own shops. The main motivation for this was to guarantee pure food for the members yet there was also a degree of social climbing to it as well. It sprang from the same soil that created a hundred other self help associations such as the Workers Educational Association. It was an association of proud working people who did not seek charity but control over their own lives.
Over time these independent societies banded together and created the Cooperative Wholesale Society that set up farms, a bank and other businesses. This amounted almost to a Socialist state in miniature- but it was voluntary socialism that I have no problem with. My only real problem with Socialism is that it seeks to impose its will upon everyone regardless of ideology.
This movement remains affiliated to the Labour party but has found its original soul- at least to some extent. Six million people are now a member of this co op- twice the former number. Membership of the coop was once a sign that one had arrived in the world and was something most working class people aspired to. The coop is unlikely to play as an important role it once did. Nevertheless I see it as a positive force within the left. It is actually the big society in action- working people working together to improve their lives without relying upon the state to do things for them.
You may join the movement for as little as one pound- for life. There is also a Cooperative Party which works with the Labour Party in public but advocates a gentler and more participatory socialism in private. Membership of the Society does not give automatic membership of the Cooperative Party.
There is also a second form of cooperative- the Workers Cooperative. This is owned by the employees rather than the customers. There are some very well run workers cooperatives such as the excellent John Lewis Partnership.
The biggest danger to cooperatives is that they may be taken over by political movements. Once this happens the coop is no longer a true coop because it no longer represents all the workers or customers but only those with a particular point of view. A war is taking place for the soul of this movement. In one corner we have the Campaign for Cooperation which is a nominally independent group operating from co op premises and promoting their social agenda. In the other corner we have the fascinating Conservative co ops which seeks to link cooperation to the Big Society agenda. To its credit Conservative co ops does not claim to represent cooperatives the way that the Campaign for Cooperation does. The Tory blog even links to the Labour one- but not the other way around.