Lord Graham (1925-2020): Our final interview with a giant of co-operation

Lord Graham of Edmonton (1925-2020), discussed his life in co-operation, speaking to the News in 2018

As a tribute to Lord (Ted) Graham of Edmonton, who died last week, here is another look at his last interview with Co-op News, in October 2018. Ted, ever generous with his time, shared insights from his long service to the co-op movement, and his thoughts on the state of co-operation in the 21st century.

Thomas Edward ‘Ted’ Graham was born in Newcastle and started work at the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Co-operative at the age of 13. He served in the Royal Marines from 1943, but was severely wounded taking part in an exercise in 1944 and returned to co-operative service in 1946. He studied by correspondence courses and at night school and earned certificates from the Co-operative College. Ted became Prime Minister of the Tyneside Youth Parliament and held several positions in the co-operative movement, being appointed Southern Section Officer of the Co-operative Union and National Secretary for the Co-operative Party. He was the Labour and Co-operative MP for Edmonton from February 1974; he lost his seat in 1983 but was created a life peer as Baron Graham of Edmonton. He was Labour Chief Whip from 1990-97 and was also chair of the Co-operative Council and served as President of the 1987 Co-operative Congress.

I first got involved in co-ops in the 1940s. As I am now 93 years of age and joined the Co-operative Party and the Newcastle Co-operative Society when I was 17, I can modestly claim to have been around the course! I first became an addict of the Co-operative News in the years when it was a vastly different ‘News’. The year was 1942 and the first editors that I can recall were Billy Richardson and Frank Buckshaw, who brought reading pleasure to thousands of co-operative enthusiasts. But just as the clientele has changed, so has the congregation it seeks to serve. The movement as I remember it has changed out of all shape and size!

I sense a feeling that the future of co-operatives is full of danger – many of them of our own making. 

Let me begin by remembering that The Co-op was the first retailer to produce what turned out to be self-service stores. The London Co-op Society (LCS) led the way. This was one of the biggest of changes as it engaged the shopper within the democratic framework of managing the business. 

The democracy extended to member meetings. In the 1940s, gatherings for the Newcastle Society in the City Hall, which held over 1,000, was often overflowing. A dividend announcement or a fiercely fought local issue could draw vast attendance. There was an air of excitement – the reduction in the dividend declared could create a riot! Where are these members now?

The bedrock of co-operative democracy was epitomised by the strength of the auxiliary bodies – the Women’s Guild, the Men’s Guilds, the Mixed Guilds, the BFYC (Young Co-operators). We boasted what were called ‘activists’, who were active in the years following the Rochdale Pioneers. At one time in the past 100 years we could rely on the guilds to democratically keep the board on their toes. But all of these are gone now too, save spasmodic efforts to stay alive. 

Another danger I see is the result of decades of co-operative mergers. 

In Newcastle, for example, I witnessed co-operative societies clustered around the city merge into a regional society; thus a modest congregation in a district was submerged. Over 30 separate societies merged into one, 30 groups that were whittled away as their fates were thrown in with other nearby societies. This meant fewer co-ops. But is this a good thing?

Whatever happened to the hundreds of once thriving societies we were once proud of, their purpose lost in a morass of fighting for their lives? Playing the game of expansion does not signal success; instead we find the very foundations on which a co-op is built, being eroded away. 

The winning ingredient isn’t necessarily scale (look at our large competitors who are fighting to survive) – it rests substantially more on the quality of management. 

Size and business strength does not bring the success we could once achieve. But although we cannot match the access to hard capital of our main competitors, all is not lost. The success of co-operatives over the last century tells us that the co-operative principles can be at least one secret to winning.

The Co-operative News is a great canvas to reflect on how the new co-operative movement is emerging, based on men and women with the right principles at heart. It is full of splendid history and stories of progress.

Anthony Murray (the previous editor) sailed the ship in the right direction. Sincere congratulations to Rebecca Harvey, new editor of the News.  I will read every page of future editions, and anticipate that it will stimulate more readers, more co-operators and more appreciation for the vital part the Co-op News has played for many years. Long may it do so!