Co-ops are not leftwing

Jesse Norman, The Guardian


It's wrong to think food cooperatives don't do it for Tories. They chime perfectly with our values.


Guardian readers are a calm, well-educated bunch. Nevertheless, the mere conjunction of the words "conservative" and "cooperative" may have them spluttering into their muesli. Yet this week the Conservative Cooperative Movement (CCM) is publishing a book called Nuts and Bolts, on how to set up a retail food co-op.


Food is an issue on which the public reserves the right to believe several contradictory things at once. It wants inexpensive food but also a flourishing rural economy, although low retail prices push farm revenues down. It wants variety but also low "food miles", although asparagus in January must come from abroad. It wants vibrant high streets but also easy access and parking, although out-of-town shopping malls often undermine local shops.


Here's where local food co-ops come in. They reject this supermarket-dominated model. They support local growers and provide good, affordable food. They protect the environment. And they build local communities.


If you don't believe it, look at the Park Slope Co-op in New York City, which has 12,000 members, a 75% volunteer workforce - since all members must work in the co-op - and a discount of 20% or more on food prices to members.


There is evidence that for food, where you buy determines what you buy. A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health found that low-income women who went to farmers' markets ate twice as much fruit and vegetables a week as those shopping at supermarkets. When asked why, they said the goods seemed fresher, and they valued the community spirit and the chance to meet growers. In other words, it's not just about economics, it's about society.


But hold on, I hear you say. Co-ops are expressions of social solidarity, aren't they? They rely on equality and mutual commitment, not the pursuit of profit. Their political arm is the Co-operative party, which shares 29 MPs with Labour. So how on earth can there be such a thing as a Conservative Cooperative Movement? To answer this, look more closely at the Rochdale principles, to which all co-ops must adhere. They speak of voluntarism, personal responsibility, teamwork, shared ownership, independence, the importance of education and mutual support, and concern for the wider community.


These are the active values of engaged citizens - to which we all subscribe, even if they are hard to abide by. And they are universal, not specific to a subgroup of society, religious creed or political party.


There is something very odd, therefore, in the assumption that co-ops are intrinsically leftwing. First, because the values above are rather small-c conservative. Second, because the energy, vision and entrepreneurship needed to make a co-op succeed are characteristic of capitalism at its best. And third, because co-ops are not generally seen as leftwing in other countries, notably the US.


The CCM, which I chair, exists to research and promote the use of co-ops. We are starting with food and communities, but will be looking at schools, housing, healthcare and other public services. Co-ops are proud and independent institutions. But government can still help them to flourish. That's why we are calling this week for the Conservatives and other political parties to look again at how the tax system can be used to strengthen start-up co-ops.


Here are three initial suggestions: give greater rates relief for struggling rural shops that turn into co-ops and use local people-power to grow; allow small donations to co-ops to be tax-deductible; and encourage start-up co-ops to earn better tax treatment by recruiting new members and putting them to work. None of these ideas has been costed. But it's not just about economics, it's about society.


Jesse Norman is a Conservative parliamentary candidate for Hereford and South Herefordshire, and a senior fellow of Policy Exchange


Jesse's article in the Guardian

Download the book

You can download our great new guidebook Nuts and Bolts: How to Set up a Food Co-op free of charge here. But please add your name to our mailing list if you do.


Nuts and Bolts by Jesse Norman