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Last Updated: Friday, 18 January 2008, 08:51 GMT
Co-operative vs co-operative

The Tories want to help people set up co-operatives to run public services, in an apparent head-on challenge to the established Labour-linked Co-operative Party. Jackie Storer met the men in charge of the two co-ops.

Jesse Norman and Peter Hunt

Jesse Norman
Conservative Co-op Movement
Peter Hunt
Co-operative Party


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.

Jesse Norman

"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."


The leader of the Co-operative Party has told the Conservatives to give up trying to replicate the Labour-supporting movement - and come and join it.

Peter Hunt, the Co-op Party's general secretary, wonders what the point is of setting up a rival concern, when there is already a very successful one operating, and has been for more than 150 years.

Peter Hunt

He spoke out after David Cameron announced his plans to create a Conservative Co-operative Movement to run public services, such as schools.

Mr Hunt said he was more than a little surprised to hear of the scheme, especially as in his opinion "there has never been any interest in their leadership or policies in the co-operative sector".

"I was also a bit cynical because they did the launch in Manchester, the home of the co-op movement," he said.

"I also know that nobody in the existing co-operative movement had a clue about it, or had been consulted about it, so it seemed like a bit of a stunt.

"The reality is that the Conservative political organisation that we have seen over the last 100 years or so has shown no interest whatsoever in this type of work and certainly not in community activity."


The 41-year-old seems genuinely perplexed at Mr Cameron's decision to metaphorically park his tanks on what had fundamentally been left-wing territory.

Ex-Barclays director Jesse Norman has been appointed as chair of the Conservative Co-operative Movement, with plans to focus attention on food co-ops to start with, before moving on to schools.

It's a backhanded compliment that the work that we have been doing is sufficiently interesting for them to want to nick it
Peter Hunt
Co-operative Party

Mr Hunt shakes his head in disbelief. "I think that he should forget about the Conservative Co-operative Movement and instead join in with the existing co-operative movement," he said.

"It's been going on for 150 years and he will find that a lot of the things he is talking about have been done, are being done and continue to be worked on by everybody else in the co-op.

"He would be welcomed into the co-operative movement with open arms, absolutely.

"And if he doesn't like the fact that the co-operative movement supports the Labour Party, it's a democratic organisation - he should join it and change it.

"Wanting to establish something that is a Conservative Co-operative Movement, by definition, is seeking to be different and not building on all that expertise and knowledge and experience.

"If they have been on the road to Damascus and they have changed, let's see evidence of it, but all I've got to go on is how they have behaved over the last few years."

Members' benefits

Mr Hunt points to the fact that Margaret Thatcher closed down the Co-operative Development Agency that had been brought in by the Callaghan-led Labour government in the 1970s.

The Tories also brought in the 1986 Building Societies Act, which Mr Hunt says "led to massive demutualisation and the almost obliteration of the established mutual sector".

8,000 members
29 MPs
Three quarters of the parliamentary Labour party are members
10 members of the Cabinet are members
12 cooperative schools
Nine MSPs
Four AMs
120 football supporters trusts

"On a local level, they have shown no interest in supporting co-operative enterprise or co-operative ventures," he said.

"So the task that David Cameron's got is not to make a speech saying he is interested in it and isn't it a good idea? The task is to start, where he can, doing something about it and he's got an awful long way to go before he can compare with what others have been doing."

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.

There are 25 co-op businesses that support the Co-operative Party financially, the biggest being the Co-operative Group, which includes the Co-op Bank, insurance society, funerals and pharmacies.

Specialist schools

The total co-op turnover is about 20bn a year, and its reach includes small micro co-ops like breweries, food co-ops - even set up from the back of people's garages - to GP out-of-hours practices, foundation hospitals and 120 football supporters trusts.

There is a Co-operative College that provides education and training for people that work in the co-op organisation, plus a network of 12 co-op-sponsored specialist schools.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls is currently working with the movement to establish co-operative trust schools, where the parents and teachers run the show and elect the trustees.

The Co-operative Party, has just celebrated its 90th anniversary, and has 29 MPs, including Mr Balls, nine Members of the Scottish Parliament and four Welsh Assembly Members among its 8,000-strong membership.

Three-quarters of the parliamentary Labour Party are members, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown and nine of his colleagues from the Cabinet.

'Not threatened'

So have the Conservatives' plans had any affect on the Co-operative party?

"Well we don't feel threatened. It's a bit of a distraction - a backhanded compliment that the work that we have been doing is sufficiently interesting for them to want to nick it," said Mr Hunt.

But the married father-of-one admitted that it was raising the party's game.

"As a result of all this we are changing what we do and making sure we are a bit more outward looking," he said.

"We have been quite happy to go along doing our job in our quiet way - but we don't want the wrong message to get out there."

Cameron's co-operative coup?
08 Nov 07 |  UK Politics
Cameron launches 'co-op movement'
08 Nov 07 |  UK Politics

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