Co-ops’ radical history: Co-operative News

As the General Election draws closer the political parties are laying claim to their commitment to co-operative ideas and heritage.  A recently published and very readable review of the history of the British co-operative movement makes clear from where the ideas came.


Rita Rhodes – a long-time co-operative practitioner and now a Visiting Research Associate in the Open University’s Co-operatives Research Unit – takes us back to the early days of Robert Owen and the Rochdale Pioneers.  In doing so, Rita also makes it very clear that the movement’s heritage is inextricably linked to contemporary radical, liberal and working class political debates.  While Owen inspired many, including the Pioneers, he was himself strongly influenced by a strong liberal tradition that challenged the presumed rights of the owners of property and capital.


The Rochdale Pioneers emerged in 1844 from a working class ethos of self-help, but one which was closely connected to contemporary radical political movements.  The title of the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers makes it clear that the creation of the store was part of an outlook that saw it as one part of the struggle for fairness and equality.  Many of the Pioneers were active Chartists, who campaigned for radical reform of the Parliamentary and political system.


This is reflected in the founding principles of the Pioneers.  One of those was that all members were equal, including women.  Another was that financial statements should be presented regularly to members.  Other founding principles were more widely remembered: profits were divided amongst members according to the amount they purchased, full weight and measure should be given and only the purest provisions should be supplied.


While these principles were radical, it is presumably significant that the Society’s annual almanac for 1860 explained that “the present Co-operative Movement does not intend to meddle with the various religious or political differences which now exist in society”.  Indeed, religious and political neutrality was fundamental to the society.


Although the Rochdale Pioneers was not the first co-operative society, it was much more successful than societies that had gone before.  Consequently they inspired many others to follow their example, leading to new societies across the country.  By 1862 there were 300 societies in existence, with a combined membership of 77,000 people and capital of £349,000.  The Co-operative Wholesale Society for England and Wales was established in 1863 and for Scotland in 1869, with the Co-operative Union established the same year.  Two years later, the Co-operative News was published for the first time.  Co-operative Insurance is even older, having been formed in 1867.


The movement continued to grow, with a culture and the emergence, Rhodes argues, of a national co-operative identity.  By1914 there were 1,385 societies, with over three million members.  A Propaganda Department operated between the two world wars to promote the ideas of the movement and the Co-operative Party was established in 1917.


Parliamentary action and support had earlier been necessary to enable the movement to expand and solidify.  During the mid 19th Century, much of this was provided through the role of leading intellectuals, who were well known as Christian Socialists.  The leaders included the Rev. Charles Kingsley (who wrote The Water Babies) and Tom Hughes, who was a Liberal MP, a chartist, the principal of the Working Men’s College and author of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. 


While influenced by the Rochdale Pioneers, Rhodes reports that these men were also positively impressed by the experience of producer co-operatives in France.  The Christian Socialists were determined to change laws that impeded the development of both producer and consumer co-operatives and an important piece of legislation was drafted by one of their members – Edward Vansittart Neale – and passed in 1853 as the Industrial and Provident Society Act by a Conservative Government.


During this period, and owing to a large extent to the importance of the British Empire, the ideas of the Rochdale Pioneers spread internationally, and consumer and producer co-operatives flourished in many countries.  Agricultural co-ops were established in many countries in the Empire, with credit and thrift co-ops set-up around them, creating strong co-op orientated communities in rural areas.  However, agricultural co-operatives were not as successful in Britain as in some parts of the Empire.  Farmers in Britain tended to be successful capitalists who had no need to form co-ops.  And when agricultural co-ops did begin to be formed in Britain they had a very different ethos, because of this. 


Tensions also existed between consumer and producer co-operatives.  Producer co-ops were mostly shorter lived and many ceased to be commercially viable when factories replaced craft production.  Efforts at unifying the two major wings of the co-operative movement floundered when the Co-operative Wholesale Society began opening factories in competition with those of members of the Co-operative Productive Federation.


Ironically, implies Rhodes, it was the enthusiasm for collective socialism inspired by the Second World War that caused the dramatic decline of co-operative societies – even though many saw co-ops as the embodiment of collective socialism. 


The seeds of the degeneration of Britain’s Rochdale co-operatives may have already existed before the Second World War,” she writes. “The Movement appears to pass its zenith around the time of its centenary in 1944. Nevertheless the War heralded additional changes. At state level it led to a kind of ‘wartime socialism’ which harnessed collective responses to the war effort.”


As confidence grew in the state to provide social benefits such as health, education, full employment and the reduction of poverty, so the role of co-operative societies in doing this became marginalised.  “In the immediate post-war Britain the state was seen as the appropriate vehicle for reform and tended to overshadow voluntary co-operative action,” observes Rita.


Meanwhile, radically changing trends in the retail sector – larger stores, the ability of big retailers to eliminate wholesalers and the ending of resale price maintenance – wrong-footed a slow moving co-operative sector that became unable to compete.  The decline of the movement was as fast as its growth had been more than a century before.


It could be argued, of course, that the British co-operative movement has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past few years, with consolidation within the Co-operative, the acquisitions of Somerfield and Britannia and the stronger branding.  But it is sobering to reflect on a history that is briefly and well described by Rita Rhodes.


Whether this has any bearing on the General Election is a completely different matter, of course.  But it does illustrate the point that co-operatives have always been at the heart of political debate.


·         British Co-operative History by Rita Rhodes is available on the internet, at

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