2017 marks a century since the Co-operative Party was founded on the basis for a need for political representation. This year, the Party is hosting a series of celebrations – and here, general secretary Claire McCarthy explains why it matters for the movement to have its voice in the corridors of power.
“Co-operation is a theory of society and therefore a legitimate basis for a political party.”, WT Allen, the chairman of the Co-operative Union’s Parliamentary Committee told the Co-operative National Emergency Conference on 17th October 1917. The Co-operative Union was meeting in ‘emergency’ session to agree how to put into effect a decision of the movement to seek direct political representation. And so the Co-operative Party was born.
It is often described as a decision born out of frustration at not getting a hearing from the government of the day. Anyone who reads the transcript of the conference (available to read online here) can immediately feel that palpable sense of frustration. However, we can also understand it as a natural step for a movement whose aims, after all, were intrinsically political from the outset.
Right from the beginning co-operators were part of the great social struggles of their time. Robert Owen, often described as the Father of Co-operation, campaigned for adult and child education, secured a reduction in working hours for women and children, and established the first trade union. The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, or the ‘Rochdale Pioneers’ as they became known, were associated with Chartism and the early trade union movement. Campaigns by the Co-operative Women’s Guild for divorce law reform and maternity care politicised many of those who would play leading roles in the fight for universal suffrage.
In short, co-operators never saw their mission as ending at the shop front, instead they wanted to build a society based on fairness and democracy – deeply political objectives.
Today, this can be seen in the leadership the co-operative movement has shown on issues ranging from corporate taxation, to climate change, loneliness and modern slavery. Co-operative businesses are demonstrating not only that they do business in a socially responsible way but also that they will take a stand on issues beyond a narrowly drawn view of their immediate trading activities or interests.
To outsiders this may seem strange, but as co-operators we know that what motivates us are questions of power – of who holds it, and in whose interests it is exercised. For each of us, the work that we do within our own co-operatives, be that our credit union, our football supporters trust, our energy co-op, our worker co-op or as members of a retail society is of value in its own right. After all, co-operatives can only achieve their objectives if they are well-run and successful.
But we see that work as part of a bigger jigsaw puzzle. When viewed as part of a movement of millions of people, we know that co-operation has the capacity to be a powerful force for social change, shifting the balance of power from small elites to people and communities.
As ever, the co-operative principles are a guiding light, in particular principles six and seven. Principle six highlights the role that each individual co-operative has within the movement – to contribute to its strength and success. Principle seven reminds us of our duties beyond our own membership, out into the wider community and its interests.
Furthermore, the experience of social movements all over the world in the last hundred years shows that when powerful vested interests are challenged, they don’t give up easily. The status quo is a powerful beast – and it plays dirty.
Which is why, the decision of those foresighted co-operators present at Westminster Central Hall on 17th October 1917, not just to lobby but to organise, was critical. Because a reforming movement like ours needs a voice in the rooms where decisions are made if we are to achieve our vision of a society where power and wealth are shared.
As WT Allen continued his speech at that National Emergency Conference, he observed, “We have things to safeguard, things to stand for, things to achieve.”
Today, that work goes on.