In a speech that cited Fredrich Engels and the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, David Cameron yesterday launched an audacious bid to claim cooperatives for the forces of conservatism.
The news brought an angry response from Britain’s Co-operative party, which has long worked with Labour and endorses 29 Labour and Co-operative MPs, including the schools secretary and top Brownite Ed Balls.
Britain’s cooperative movement has always been more Nantwich than Notting Hill and the launch of a new history of the party, by Labour historian Greg Rosen, drew crowds – and the prime minister – at this year’s Labour conference.
Until now, most Tories had probably encountered cooperatives only when buying wine on holiday in France. But there is nothing specifically socialist about community self-help. Around the world, cooperatives allow several hundred million farmers and workers to earn more for their efforts.
Britain’s Co-operative Group, which runs banks and shops, has an annual turnover of £9bn – it is also the nation’s largest single farmer, with 70,000 acres. In Britain, cooperatives have found themselves squeezed between big government and big business. They need space to grow.
Owned by their members, cooperatives that thrive risk demutualisation – the fate that befell most British building societies. At a time when consumers are worrying more about where goods come from and how they are produced, there should be room for more of them.
Hat tip: Mr D Cameron