The Cooperative Movement: Time to Come Together

Monday 22nd May 
Tony Webster, professor of History at Northumbria University and author of Building Co-operation: A Business History of The Co-operative group.

 Naked Lunch Café, Liverpool’s newest co-op, was the perfect place to host Professor Tony Webster, one of the UK’s leading authorities on the co-operative movement. Naked Lunch was founded by a group of forty-plus local people, to save the café, formerly known as Kerouac’s and run by the late Ged Smith, and to stop the site falling into corporate hands, retaining the ‘indie’ vibe on Smithdown Road in the process. Tony delivered a fascinating history of the Co-op movement, which was founded in the UK in Rochdale on 21st December 1844 by the 28 strong Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, who set up the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS). They bought food wholesale and ‘opened their store selling pure food at fair prices and honest weights and measures.’ Such was their power, Tony Webster said there is evidence of the Co-operative Bank ‘using loans under CWS direction to secure overseas supplies of produce. Eg 1933 – CWS branch in NY organised for the CWS a $0.5 million bank (5%) loan to New England Fish Company. Condition of loan was that CWS had first refusal on ALL of tinned salmon produced by the Canadian Fishing Company (100% owned subsidiary of New England Fish Company). If New England defaulted, ALL the shares in the Canadian company would be forfeited to CWS. Who would have thought at the time that the actions of these twenty-eight men, reacting against the stranglehold the local shops had on workers in Rochdale, would have had such an impact? Worldwide, there are now ‘a billion co-operators as members of 1.4 million co-operative societies across the world.’

Examples of international success include the Co-operative of Architects and Engineers of Reggio Emilia (CAIRE) in Italy. Between the 1920s-1940s under Fascism in Italy there was a severe repression of co-operatives. But post war saw a revival, of which CAIRE, established in 1947, which was the first professional cooperative in Italy, is a good example of this. It was founded in response to a popular desire for modernisation in post war Italy – especially housing for ordinary people. CAIRE was set up by a group of university friends in Milan: Antonio Pastorini, Osvaldo Piacentini, Aldo Ligabue, Eugenio Salvarani, Athos Porta, Silvano Gasparini, Franco Valli, Ennio Barbieri, Antonio Rossi. They were a ‘co-operative of intellectuals’ motivated by a desire to improve society. They set up major housing projects in Modena and Pisa, including. Such was their impact after World War II, the architects of the new republic of Italy wrote support for co-operation into the Italian constitution. Article 45 of the constitution reads: “The republic recognises the social function of co-operation with a mutual and non-profit character. The law promotes and favours its growth by the most suitable means and ensures, by appropriate controls, that its character and purposes are respected.”

In Spain, José María Arizmendiarrieta, a Priest under Franco in 1940s, set up technical college in the Basque Country, grew into a major multi-purpose co-op which now has 83,000 Workers, 85% of whom are members of the co-op.
Yet, for a variety of factors, including the recent scandals and travails of the Co-op bank, co-ops are probably least successful and less well known in the UK than many places across the globe. In the UK there just are 6,797 independent Coops, employing 222,785 people, which in itself gives an idea of the scale of its potential, but in Argentina, Cooperatives employ over twenty-two million. What went wrong in the UK? The early pioneers were an energetic and enterprising bunch, travelling the world to source supplies, they quickly discovered the necessity of supply lines and vertical distribution, and sourced directly from producers as well as middlemen brokers – e.g. Andrew in Copenhagen – bought butter from Danish farmers (who were also co-operativised!) – this ‘kept the brokers honest’. Through their desire to make the Coops a success, they soon branched out into home ownership, forming in 1884 the Southern Co-operative Permanent Building Society, which worked with co-op societies to lend to working class homebuyers in the late 19th century. This went on to become the Halifax Building Society. Tony gave examples of successful Co-ops in the UK, including Suma Wholefoods near Halifax in Yorkshire, which was formed in 1970s with 120 members, and now has a turnover of £25 million per year. Again, this gives the potential for co-ops in the UK.
In Rochdale, the birthplace of the co-operative movement, the museum identified that the community engagement in Rochdale was lacking. Resilience was the driving force to inspire staff to think of a new engaging concept that would bring active co-operation back in the town.

SOUP has been identified worldwide as being a successful tool for communities to enhance opportunity. The museum team explored the concept of how the principles of co-operation such as ‘Self-Help’ and Self-Responsibility’ could link with ‘SOUP’.

‘SOUP’ is a community based crowd funding event that started in Detroit in 2010. People pay a small fee to attend an evening where four or five ideas are pitched, with the winner receiving the entry fees to invest in their project. The winner reports back to the next SOUP event on progress. Everyone present then eats soup and networks.

The first ‘Soup’ was held in May 2016 at the Rochdale Pioneers Museum. Staff at the museum gathered public interest social media, networking and local press.

‘SOUP’ has official Facebook and twitter campaigns run by the museum at present. This has helped to engage interest throughout the last 8 months and has helped bring a further two ‘Soup’ events to Rochdale in various locations. During our recent exploration in to the use of ‘Periscope’ and ‘Facebook Live’, they widened our global audience to over 600!

The museum has played the most active role in bringing this fantastic concept to the community of Rochdale. This use of resilience has brought the museum closer to engaging with the community, showing an active and co-operative approach to inspiring others - just as the Rochdale Pioneers did in 1844.

Tony ended by giving contacts for further research and queries into co-operatives: Enquiries – any questions to do with co-operatives; Researchers – co-operators, co-operative societies, academics, family or local historians; Projects – working with co-operative societies to provide resources for publications and activities; Outreach – talks and workshops for co-operative or community groups.

Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Website: Twitter: @cooparchive Facebook:

In Liverpool there are a handful of co-ops. Naked Lunch Café was founded by forty plus local people to save the premises for the community and provide high-quality, good value food and drink in a friendly yet professional co-op. But the aims of the people behind Naked Lunch are to set up further co-ops, and inspire and support others to set up co-ops. The movement in the UK took a battering after the fiasco of the problems of the co-op bank. This session, both informative and enjoyable, engaged a lot of people in the discussion, and will go some way towards making people think about the potential for co-ops, and the possibility even of setting one up for themselves.

Mike Morris is Co-Director of Writing on the Wall and a member of the Naked Lunch Co-operative. If you are interested in finding out more about Naked Lunch, or want advice on setting up a co-op, call in for a coffee to 431 Smithdown Rd, Liverpool L15 3JL, or phone them on 0151 735 1596. You can also find them on Twitter @NakedLunchCafe