The behind-the-scenes rearguard action by the Co-operative Party to persuade the Co-operative Group not to leave it financially in the cold (the Group currently gives the Party about two-thirds of its income) has reached the news pages of the Financial Times today.
I want to comment not specifically on the Party funding issue (I may come back to this later) but on a related but more general point. Here’s my question: is the Co-operative Group simply another independent cooperative, with responsibilities just to its members? Or does it, as the largest cooperative in Britain and as the chief beneficiary of 170+ years of British cooperative development, have duties towards the wider cooperative movement?
There were a number of cooperative societies in nineteenth century Britain who chose not to affiliate to the Co-operative Union or to partake in the broader life of British cooperation, but they were always a minority. The majority of societies (including the Co-operative Wholesale Society, CWS) saw the benefits of cooperation between cooperatives and paid their dues to the central body, the Union, as well as to other national cooperative initiatives.
There were well over a thousand independent societies by the end of the late nineteenth century, so a decision by one society to stand aside from the movement was hardly devastating. It’s different today. The vast majority of British retail cooperative societies, and the CWS itself, have over the years been absorbed into what is now the Co-operative Group. A decision by the Group to withdraw funding is therefore of enormous importance.
Commercial businesses spend money lobbying and supporting causes they feel are in their business interests, so I don’t see why the Co-operative Group should be any different. But I also feel that there is a moral case, based on the history of how it has become the business it now is, for the Group to continue to support the British cooperative movement – and this means, to give a few other examples, Co-operatives UK, Co-operative News, the Woodcraft Folk (the youth organisation with strong cooperative links) and the Co-operative College. No organisation should feel it has an automatic right to be supported, of course; but, with this caveat, the Group should reaffirm a principled commitment to supporting the wider work of the cooperative sector in Britain.