A SENIOR figure within the Co-operative movement has criticised the group’s close relationship with Labour claiming that it is a “closed shop”.
Dave Bowman, who was the editor of the Co-operative news - the UK-wide magazine for Co-op stores and businesses in the country, said it was a mistake for the Co-op to put all its “eggs in one political basket”.
The Co-operative Group, as the largest retail business in the UK Cooperative movement, is the biggest affiliate supporter of the
Co-operative Party, which fields candidates in UK national, regional and local elections on joint tickets with the Labour Party, its sister party.
However, Bowman claimed that the Co-op would be better served by independence, which he said would lead to more economic success in the sector that has more than 200,000 members through the Scottish Midland Co-operative Society Ltd.
His claims came after Mary Lockhart, the then chair of the Scottish Co-operative Party and a former member of Labour’s Scottish executive, backed independence in a Scotland on Sunday article saying she has become disillusioned with Labour’s failure at UK level to fight coalition policies on welfare benefits and trade union laws.
The comments from Bowman, who is an SNP supporter, will be seen as a blow to Labour, which has close links with the Co-op, with Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown both members of the Co-op Party.
There are also 32 MPs who were elected on joint Labour-Co-op platforms at the last UK General Election, with members of the House of Lords also sitting as members of both parties.
The highest profile Labour-Co-op MP is Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who was handed £50,000 by the Co-operative group to cover the cost of his constituency office in Yorkshire.
However, Bowman suggests that Labour has failed the Co-op, which has thousands of employees in Scotland and hundreds of stores that are owned and run by members of the consumer co-operative.
Bowman said it had been left to an SNP politician at Holyrood to set up a cross party group on Co-operatives as he claimed Labour had failed to promote the sector.
He suggests that independence will give Scotland “the opportunity to shape its future” with full economic powers and a growth in organisations such as the Co-op.
Members of the SNP, the Tories and Lib Dems are banned from joining the Co-operative Party because of its electoral agreement with Labour. However, Bowman claimed the arrangement with Labour meant the Co-op was “virtually invisible” and lacked any real influence over political issues.
He insisted that some members of the Co-op were increasingly unhappy with the relationship with Labour and wanted to have links with other parties as well.
Bowman said: “The party’s relationship with big sister Labour is increasingly under strain.
“A number of smaller retail co-op societies have already opted out of funding the Co-op Party.
“More and more Co-op members are questioning the strategy of putting all the movement’s eggs in one political basket.
“The supreme irony is that despite the strength of the Co-op Party in Scotland it was left to SNP MSP Willie Coffey to come up with the idea of launching the cross party group on Co-operatives at Holyrood.
“The closed shop policy enshrined in the Co-op party’s sister party relationship with Labour means that the Co-op party is virtually invisible.”
Bowman went onto highlight senior Co-op member Lockhart’s backing for independence as part of growing support for a Yes vote in the movement.
“Over the past decade the Co-op Party has barely discussed the issue of independence, but the conspiracy of silence was shattered earlier this year when the party’s passionate and highly articulate chair Mary Lockhart relinquished her position after announcing in a newspaper article she will be voting Yes.
However, Labour MSP Richard Baker, a member of the Co-op party, claimed the Co-operatives had benefited through their existing political links.
Baker, a director of the anti-independence Better Together campaign, said: “There have been many moves through devolution to encourage Co-operatives and to argue that Co-ops would be better off under independence is simply an assertion without any evidence.
“The Co-operative movement can be supported through devolved parliaments and Westminster and Co-operatives have flourished through working with Labour.”