Co-operative vs co-operative

Jackie Storer, BBC News




How could co-operativism, a movement so closely associated with the Labour Party, be adopted so enthusiastically by the centre-right?


According to Jesse Norman - the affable ex-director at Barclays and the Tory parliamentary candidate tasked with chairing it - the two are not mutually exclusive.


"There's no reason why co-ops are themselves an intrinsically left wing idea - quite the opposite," he says.


"What a co-op is, what it says to people is: 'You are all equal, by your hard work you will succeed'. It fundamentally doesn't discriminate against people, it's whatever you bring to the table.


"Co-operatives rebut the idea of a leading role for the state.


"The duke in his castle and the average Joe in their house - if they want to benefit from the co-operative, they have to work alongside each other."


Rochdale pioneers


Co-operatives are organisations which are owned by their members and run for their benefit.


Those ideas, rooted in the success of the Rochdale co-operative shop opened in 1844, were about practical self-help.


This is about harnessing the power of Conservative ideas, of self help, community energy and getting people to improve their lives


Jesse Norman


Mr Norman, who at 6ft 5ins towers over most of his political opponents, argues that these are exactly the values David Cameron and his team are advocating.


He even believes Margaret Thatcher would nod her approval at the new Conservative take on the scheme, because of the importance she placed on people doing things for themselves, rather than looking to the state.


"Co-ops are not just the latest Tory idea of the day," Mr Norman, 45, insists. "They are a clear and important extension of our overall project."


According to him, the plans will start off small, with attention focused on food co-ops, before moving on to look at schools.


'Mad situation'


A booklet, entitled "Nuts and Bolts - Or, How to Start a Food Co-op", is due to be published later this year.


Mr Norman explains: "We've got this mad situation at the moment where supermarkets control the roost.


"You get these big out-of-town shopping centres, high food miles, lots of suburban sprawl, the hollowing out of our high streets. You get this sense that no-one knows where their food comes from.


"Beef is something you find in a packet, not something you find in a field chewing grass.


"So food co-ops are a good way of getting good local food at affordable prices, so the possibilities are there of being green, socially empowering, fair to the farmer - they've got lots of really good characteristics to them."


When I turned 40 I thought there's no use talking about change - get out and do something about it


Jesse Norman


And Mr Norman believes the co-operative model could also help create better schools.


"It's perfectly possible in theory for a group of parents, if they are sufficiently empowered and energised and funded to set up a school," he says.


"What I'm talking about is a different form of social organisation, one that is based on sharing the burden amongst a group, rather than finding a pot of capital, although that might be part of it.


"We need to loosen the rules by which they operate in order for it to be possible for more good schools to come into being.


"They succeed because they have a more direct link to local people, because the parents have set the thing up - they feel a sense of proprietary ownership of it.


"The teachers, they feel more collegial. They don't feel, as they do in most schools at the moment, as an embattled minority, somehow constantly being attacked by the parents, because in this case they are working with the parents, so it's a different ethos."




As well as being unpaid chairman of his party's co-operative movement, the busy married father-of-three is a regular face on the canvassing scene, knocking on doors to drum up support for his bid to become the next Hereford and South Herefordshire MP.


The eldest of five children, he likes to chat, and says that is his downfall as he can spend too long on doorsteps finding out about his would-be constituents' lives.


His CV is varied. He is a former director at Barclays, ex-acting director of Job Ownership Ltd, which promotes employee ownership, helped run a charitable book donation project in Eastern Europe and was a lecturer in philosophy at University College London.


He has also personally raised more than £500,000 for charitable projects over the past three years.


It was at the crucial milestone of 40 that he decided that his next job would be one of MP.


'Harnessing power'


"I had always been interested in politics - I have been a Conservative since leaving university. I found myself starting to get involved in political activities," he said.


In the last few years, Oxford-educated Mr Norman has produced a number of pamphlets for the Conservative Party, including: Compassionate Conservatism - dubbed the "Handbook to Cameronism" - and From here to Fraternity. He has also written for a number of newspapers.


But Mr Norman shies away from allowing Tory-initiated co-operatives to become as political as Labour ones.


"Politics is held in such low esteem at the moment - I think the last thing we want is people turned off because something is associated with one political party or another," he says.


"This is not about the Conservative Party at all. This is about harnessing the power of Conservative ideas, of self help, community energy and getting people to improve their lives."


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Nuts and Bolts by Jesse Norman