Liberal and Co-operative

What does a Liberal look like? That is not some test for choosing a leader. The beginnings of an answer are more likely to emerge at a local level.

A reprint provoked the question in the current Liberator of a 1980s piece by Roger Cowe in which he argued: “I believe that the most important challenges to Liberals are firstly to live out their ideals, and secondly to convince others that they are right, and this is long term and somewhat nebulous”. Lifestyle issues can be very sensitive, and you can spend a lifetime learning how to live like a Liberal! However, I believe Roger’s challenge is still valid after all these years.

For the moment, I want to highlight just one element of that. At a time when government ministers are echoing David Cameron with the mantra “We’re all in this together” (which invites the response – oh really?), I suggest that a good subsidiary question is “What does a radically co-operative way of living look like?”

The Co-operative Party has been in alliance with the Labour Party since the Cheltenham Agreement of 1927, and I often wonder if any of our historians can shed light on pre-1927 attitudes towards the Co-operative Party within the Liberal Party. Presumably, the decline in Liberal votes was part of the reason for the Labour-Co-op pact. Come what may, Liberals should not be afraid of articulating co-operative values and indeed living by them.

I did not realise it at the time, but I grew up in a co-operatively built house. With only one child, my parents knew that they didn’t stand much chance on the council house waiting list. They saw the self-build group, whereby 32 men (yes men – it was the 1950s!) built 32 houses in their spare time as a way of escaping the slums of Newcastle’s West End.

Later in my full-time work as a Methodist minister, I opted for appointments in what we used to call team ministry. This term disappeared as the Methodist Church tried to encourage collaborative forms of ministry across the board. In my final post in Bradford, I was “Team Leader” of the Touchstone project, although one of the Anglican bishops during my stint insisted on referring to me as the Director. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, I had spent a few years in community living as two ministers and their families occupied one manse in Barnsley.

But each of us can work out our own ways of expressing co-operative values. One simple step is to be a member not of the Co-operative Party but the Co-op, the mutual trading organisation, founded by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844. When we begin to emerge from the current crisis, there will still be a continuing need for people who have some understanding of, in St Paul’s phrase, being members one of another.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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  • I’ll buy that Michael!

  • Steve Griffiths 17th Apr '20 - 1:12pm

    On the many occasions I stood as district or county council candidate, I would have been delighted to have been described Liberal & Co-operative.

  • So would I, Steve Griffiths. I well remember sitting on the counter of the Birkenshaw Co-op when Mum gave her ration coupons to the manager. It was next to Bradford Road Methodist Chapel, and even had a drapery department where I got my first long trousers.

    Michael raises an interesting point about the link with Labour. As with so many things in the Liberal Party it went wrong in the First World War, first under Asquith and then more so under Lloyd George.

    At the start of the war many of the retail societies grew in membership, in part because of their very public anti-profiteering stance and the Christmas ‘Divi’ was important to ordinary folk.

    When conscription was introduced (under Squiff) and food and fuel supplies restricted, the societies began to suffer. The movement was under-represented on the various governmental distribution committees and draft tribunals set up by LLG.

    Co-operatives received minimal supplies and management were often drafted, whereas their business opponents were able to have even their clerks declared vital for the war effort. Societies were also required to pay excess profits tax, (LLG as Chancellor in 1915 at 50% – increased to 80% by Bonar Law in 1917) – although their co-operative nature meant they made no profits. It was an indirect tax on the poor – and no divi.

    As a result a motion was tabled at the 1917 Cooperative Congress in Swansea by the Co-op Joint Parliamentary Committee and the 104 retail societies. It called for direct representation at national and local government levels and passed by 1979 votes to 201.

    The Co-op JPC put up a candidate against a Liberal at the Prestwich byelection in a 1917 …and lost…. but later the JPC secretary Sam Perry (father of Fred, the Wimbledon champion) was elected as the first Labour Co-op MP in 1923.

    Like so many things in the decline of the Liberal Party – it was an unnecessary own goal and very careless. As Don Cregier pust it in his ‘Decline of the British Liberal Party’ , they just didn’t get it. They were ‘Chiefs Without Indians’ and I can’t imagine either Lady Violet or Lady Megan handing over their ration books at the Birkenshaw Co-op.

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