Midcounties Co-operative is questioning its subscription to the Co-operative Party as part of a move to create a new campaigns fund.
The fund will provide a vehicle for supporting a wider range of campaigning organisations, including other political parties which support the aims of the co-operative movement.
Patrick Gray, president of the society, said this issue was first raised at a members’ meeting four years ago. He explained that two factors were behind the decision, which was endorsed by a large majority at the society’s annual meeting in May. “First, the members of our society hold a wide range of political views. It is important that we respect this diversity and reflect it in our engagement with the world of politics.
“We don’t want to become a-political as some other societies have done, as we believe that co-operatives are not just businesses but also have a wider role in society, but we also need to show that we are not politically exclusive or locked in to a particular party agenda. Second, we are concerned that potential customers may be put off by a feeling that the Co-op is tied to one political party”.
In 2008, Midcounties commissioned an independent research company to conduct a survey to find out how customers perceived the society.
The survey showed that Midcounties was viewed positively by the public, particularly for its ethical and community policies, but it also revealed that some customers rarely or never shopped in Co-op stores, preferring other shops.
While the surveys confirmed that the most important factors in choosing where to shop were price, location and range, they also highlighted a number of other critical issues. One of the reasons why they chose to shop at other retailers was the fact that they associated co-operatives with old-fashioned politics, said Mr Gray.
Almost 20% of respondents replied that they “wouldn’t feel comfortable” shopping with the Co-op because it is “tied up with the Labour Party and the Trade Unions”. Midcounties’ core trading area includes a large number of rural constituencies, most of which return Conservative or Liberal MPs.
Another survey carried out in 2013 confirmed the results of the 2008 research. It also showed that around 26% of customers in the trading area intended to vote Labour, while another 26% supported the Liberal Democrats and 21% said they preferred the Conservatives.
Asked whether they were aware of the link between Midcounties and the Co-operative Party, 6% of customers said they had heard about the connection. Of those who did not know about the special relationship between the society and the Co-operative Party, 3% said the political affiliation would make them more likely to shop there while 25% said it would make them less likely.
“What this indicates is that people don’t want to patronise shops which carry a political label,” said Mr Gray. The 2013 survey included 499 people, while the research carried out in 2008 had gathered responses from 500 customers.
“We are not turning our back to the Co-op Party. With our members’ support, we intend to continue to support it,” said Mr Gray, “but in future other organisations will also be able to apply for support from the resources which our members make available”.
Midcounties’ subscription to the Co-operative Party will continue until its half yearly meeting in October. Its contribution of £38,000 accounts for 4% of Co-operative Party subscriptions income.
In an article for the News, general secretary Karin Christiansen said: “The idea that membership of the Co-operative Party puts off Co-op shoppers is unproven as Patrick Gray previously acknowledged. The interview stated then that shoppers were not deterred by the political donations. He even highlighted that Prime Minister David Cameron shops in their Chipping Norton store – clearly not ‘put off’ by Midcounties’ affiliation to the Co-operative Party.
“Similarly, the Co-operative Party’s own polling undertaken by Populus in April shows that the majority of the public think it is either ‘appropriate’ for a co-operative society to make a financial contribution to the Co-operative Party or have ‘no strong feelings’ on the subject. In addition, there are clearly members and customers of retail co-operatives who make a positive choice to use them as a result of their political, ethical and campaigning activities.”
• Read more: A split movement – supporters and non-supporters of the Co-operative Party. This article has been amended in the first paragraph to clarify that the society’s support for the Party has not ended and is still under discussion as part of the campaigns fund.