Recent articles in the national press have exposed the increased cost of the Conservatives’ proposed “Swedish” school model. They have also highlighted an interesting omission, for when these schools were launched, their co-operative status was seen as key. This is even more surprising considering that it was only 18 months ago that both the schools model and the Conservative Cooperative Movement (CCM) launched with great aplomb.

As Jesse Norman, the Movement’s appointed chair, stated at the time:

“Co-ops are not just the latest Tory idea of the day, they are a clear and important extension of our overall project.”

David Cameron, announcing policies stolen from a publication launched by Labour/Co-operative MP Ed Balls at Labour Party Conference a couple of months earlier, stated that he wanted to “create a new generation of co-operative schools in Britain”. Yet almost two years later, it is proving quite difficult to see what the new-found Conservative love for co-operation has brought.

CCM was established to provide support to Conservative activists setting up their own co-ops and help in campaigning. Despite having existed for over a year, they are yet to found a single co-operative, apart from themselves. And, despite their new-found love for co-operative schools, the Conservatives were entirely absent from a debate on the topic in Parliament, with only the Rev Ian Paisley milling about on the Opposition benches.

So far the only new thinking that the Tories have offered on co-operatives is entitled ‘Nuts and Bolts,’ a publication about food co-operatives, the authorship of which was granted to Jesse Norman’s sister-in-law.

Had she done a good job, all would have been forgiven. Yet the entire document was littered with virtual plagiarism from an article by the famous American co-operator, Karen Zimbleman. Given their inability to do a simple piece of desk-based research, it’s quite difficult to actually work out what the CCM is for.

Yet fundamentally the Conservatives misunderstand the very nature of what it means to be part of the Co-operative Movement. Norman believes the co-operative model of self-help shows its conservative roots.  While he is right to state that co-operatives are open to all, regardless of political belief, to equate the co-operative belief in working collectively with conservative individualism is wrong.  When co-ops were founded, they gave a voice to those who did not own the means of production.

In this way they are intrinsically linked to the left.  Co-ops are social enterprises; organisations that strive to create more than just profit, that have social and environmental aims, that work outside the traditional economic models of rational decisions made to increase surplus. In this way, they are organisations of the left. And co-ops often fill the gap left between the state and the market, which does not in itself negate the role the state has to play.

For economies and societies to be successful, we need all three to work, and work together.  Norman himself has written that the failings of the current financial systems were in part due to the fact that we lost the tripartite system of state, private and mutual organisations regulating and working together.  And the co-op movement is stronger for being just that – a movement, with a strong coherent voice.  By creating a rival in the CCM, not only did the Conservatives undermine the sixth Rochdale principle of co-operatives working together, they also attempted to reinvent the wheel.

I am interested in co-ops because I believe the third sector has a valuable role to play in today’s economy – that is why I spend my days working with them.  The waste and renewable energy project I am currently working on will show how local communities can come together can be part of something cutting-edge, something big. I hope that by working on real-life projects, creating new co-ops, I can do my bit to demonstrate their continued relevance.

I am one of many.  There are active members of the Co-operative Party all over the country, making changes in their communities and in the way services are delivered.  We don’t just talk about it and we don’t need to set-up a new movement to try to talk about it louder.  Unlike CCM, we are doing it, not re-branding it.

For that is what the Conservative Co-operative Movement has turned out to be, an attempt to re-branding co-ops as part of the right. There might be a logo and a website, but even that hasn’t been updated in a year. It looks like Jesse Norman was wrong; it was just that day’s idea.

Philippa Roberts is Labour’s PPC for Hereford and South Herefordshire.

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