Gillian Lonergan, of the National Co-operative Archive, wrote to the Co-operative News earlier this month, responding to a debate on the political neutrality of the Rochdale Pioneers. It makes interesting reading for those considering the background of the Co-operative Party.

I am pleased to see the Rochdale Pioneers Museum handbook Our Story being discussed by Robin Martakies in the News (December 4).

The publication talks about the origins of the Rochdale Pioneers, which is why the Rochdale Principles, which were only formulated in the 1860s, are not discussed. It would take a publication of a considerable size to cover the development of the principles and how they were adapted over time.

The Rochdale Pioneers and political neutrality has been debated for well over a century.

The Pioneers were keen that membership should be open to all and that religion and politics should not be a factor. The original 28 came from different religions and political backgrounds and happily accepted all as equals. The best description I have seen of what the Pioneers meant by political and religious neutrality comes in a statement by the President, Abraham Howard, to repudiate an article in The Counsellor of September 1861:

“The principles of the Rochdale Co-operators are — 1st, not to inquire into the political or religious opinions of those who apply for membership into ours or any of the various co-operative societies in our town; 2nd, the consideration of the various political and religious differences of the members who compose our societies should prevent us from allowing into our councils or practices anything which might be construed into an advantage to any single one of each sect or opinion. The result of these principles has been that in the discussion and determination of all the great questions which have divided us, there might be seen ranged on both sides men of various creeds and opinions.”

He adds: “The present Co-operative Movement does not intend to meddle with the various religious or political differences which now exist in society, but by a common bond, namely, that of self-interest, to join together the means, the energies, and talents of all for the common benefits of each. The co-operator does not seek to enforce or carry out any particular doctrines of any particular individual… I recommend, in the name of the Pioneers and Co-operators of Rochdale, all new societies never to inquire what politics or what religion the persons applying for membership are, but take all those who are willing to subscribe to the rates.”

The question of co-operative representation in Parliament is a very different subject and there were many discussions about co-operators becoming involved in politics over the ensuing decades. The Joint Parliamentary Committee was formed in 1881 to keep a ‘watch’ on Parliamentary activities, and the 1897 Co-operative Congress passed a resolution in favour of direct representation in Parliament – described by William Maxwell as not introducing politics into co-operation, but introducing co-operation into politics.

Co-operators were recognising the need to have MPs who understood and approved of co-operation – the resolution at the 1917 Congress said: “In view of the persistent attacks and misrepresentations made by the opponents of the Co-operative Movement in Parliament and on local administrative bodies, this Congress is of the opinion that the time has arrived when co-operators should seek direct representation in Parliament and on all local administrative bodies.”

If anyone wishes to study this further, there are many resources in the National Co-operative Archive.

Gillian Lonergan
National Co-operative Archive