Former BAME Officer and Social Secretary for OULC, Brahma Mohanty, gives us his thoughts on the illustrious history of The Co-operative Party.
This October marks the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Co-operative Party: borne out of the Parliamentary Committee of the Co-operative Union of 1881 and founded by co-operative societies to seek fairer and more equitable treatment for co-operative enterprises, and elect co-operators to Parliament. Since 1927, the party has had an electoral pact with the Labour Party and candidates selected by the membership of both parties and with selected candidates standing under the ‘Labour and Co-operative Party’ banner, with members barred from joining any other political party apart from Labour and the SDLP in Northern Ireland. Today, it is technically the ‘fourth largest party’ in the House of Commons with some 27 MPs amongst the Parliamentary Labour Party, and with representation at every level of national, regional and local politics. Notable past and present Co-operative politicians include current Co-operative Party Chairman Gareth Thomas MP (Harrow West), Stella Creasy MP (Walthamstow), Seema Malhotra MP (Feltham and Heston), recent Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election victor Gareth Snell MP, Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, the Baroness Royall of Blaisdon and former Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls.
The party’s hallmark of ‘co-operation’ can trace its roots back to mid-nineteenth century Rochdale, Lancashire, where members of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers laid down the set of principles (known as the Rochdale Principles) which co-operatives all over the world continue to adopt to this day. From a rented store in Rochdale (today the Rochdale Pioneers Museum), 28 workers (predominantly weavers) banded together to sell food items they could not otherwise afford in the face of poverty induced by the increased mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution. Within ten years, the movement had yielded up to a thousand such co-operatives throughout the country. By the start of the First World War, the movement had grown in both membership and trade but with the introduction of conscription, and the effect on stocks and supplies and even staff, the societies began to suffer, even being required to pay further profit taxes (though co-operatives essentially made no profits). This would lead to a motion being tabled at the 1917 Congress in Swansea where 104 retail societies called for their concerns to have direct representation at both the national and local government levels and thus on 17 October 1917, the Co-operative Party was born. Up to four MPs had been elected to Parliament by 1922 including A.V. Alexander who would take on the Labour whip.
Such was the close association between Labour and the Co-operatives that an electoral pact was reached between the two (by way of the Cheltenham Agreement 1927). The pact saw benefits for both sides allowing Labour to successfully recover as party of government post-Second World War through election of 23 Labour and Co-operative MPs, and aiding Clement Attlee and the Labour Party to a landslide victory in the 1945 General Election (with the 12% swing remaining the largest ever in British electoral history). Fortunes would fluctuate in the following decades with most significant decline in 1983 following the Foot-led Labour’s heavy defeat in the 1983 General Election. Things would improve by 1997 when all 23 Labour and Co-operative candidates were elected to Parliament and with Labour forming a government, the Co-operatives had their first Cabinet members since A.V. Alexander with Alun Michael and Ed Balls.
As the party approaches its 100th anniversary, the alliance with Labour remains stronger than ever with a commitment to “politics for people”, amongst other policies advocating the rights for those receiving care, their families and carers themselves to assume a more prominent role on the boards of private companies providing social care services As recently as February of this year, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell spoke of the importance of co-operative principles in a fast-developing ‘platform economy’ dominated by apps such as Airbnb and Uber in that “the power these changes in technology give us all is the ability to pool our collective talents and skills to produce wealth not just for a tiny handful at the, but for all of us”.1 A Labour government would be “completely committed to fixing our rigged economy and promoting the co-operative ownership of the wealth we produce” with the proposal of a new National Investment Bank central to providing funds to co-operative enterprises and promoting innovation.
In these turbulent and uncertain times for the UK economically, politically and socially, the principle underlining the alliance between Labour and the Co-operatives is critical now more than ever before. This should be a key component of Labour’s ambitions to govern as they seek victory in the General Election on 8th June. As Jeremy Corbyn has stated, “the co-operative movement is a force for human emancipation here in the UK and around the world” and that a Labour government should be driven by “co-operative principles of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity”.2
To join the Co-operative Party, visit: https://party.coop/