I picked up Greg Rosen’s 2007 history of the Co-operative Party, Serving the People, to find out a bit more about what the party has stood for over the years. Despite the highly unattractive cover – particularly unfortunate given how difficult the co-operative movement has found shaking off its dowdy image in recent years – the book is readable and quite interesting.
The Co-operative Party was founded in 1917, as a defensive measure by the older co-operative movement. Governments had shown a lack of understanding towards the co-operative movement and the nature of the services it provided, and this had become a particular problem during the first world war. So the Co-operative Party was founded to defend the co-operative movement from political actions that could harm it. (One of its leading lights at that time was Sam Perry, father of Wimbledon champion Fred.)
It soon developed a wider programme, and in 1927 entered into an alliance with the Labour Party to form what some later described as the “trinity of the Labour movement”: the Labour Party, the Co-operative Party and the trade unions. Some of the best-known figures in Labour history – such as Tony Crosland and, er, John Stonehouse – were either Co-operative Party MPs or had strong links with the Co-operative Party.
More importantly, some of the most important pro-consumer legislation from the 1960s and 1970s had its origins in Co-operative Party policies, including the Consumer Protection Act 1961, the Hire-Purchase Act 1964, the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 and – probably most significant of all – the abolition of Retail Price Maintenance (RPM) in 1964. RPM had been staunchly supported by some Conservatives (in order to protect Tory-supporting small shopkeepers), but was opposed by the Co-operative Party on the grounds of free trade (a co-operative cause since the 19th century) and the consumer interest. Pressure from the Co-operative Party prompted Edward Heath, then president of the board of trade, to abolish it.
The professed aim of the Co-operative Party was to be the “consumer’s champion” – an aim that ran into difficulties as failures to modernise the wider co-operative movement and its shops, and the rise of the supermarket chains, led to a decline in consumer loyalty to “the Co-op”. However, this commitment to championing the consumer, and to democratic control of its operations, lead the Co-operative Party to oppose Labour’s post-war nationalisation programme. As one Party figure wrote in 1946:
Between the viciousness of capitalism and the evils of dictatorship in economic affairs is the path of democratic co-operation.
The influence of Co-operative Party values can also be seen in Labour’s post-1994 version of Clause Four, in which an emphasis on “securing for the workers … the full fruits of their industry” was replaced by the assertion that “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”.
So why is the Co-operative Party so little known in British politics? The alliance with Labour has no doubt been a large part of this, particularly after it was renegotiated in 1968 so that Co-operative MPs stood as “Labour/Co-operative” rather than “Co-operative/Labour”. However, the ability of the Co-operative Party to influence Labour Party policy and produce concrete change for the good would seem to make that a price worth paying, especially given the co-operative movement’s general emphasis on “doing what can be done” rather than pursuing idealistic visions of a remodeled society. It certainly contrasts with the sad decline into irrelevance and extinction of the Independent Labour Party.