Co-operative Party

This article is about the British political party. For other parties of the same name, see Co-operative Party (disambiguation).
The Co-operative Party
Leader None
Chairperson Gareth Thomas
General Secretary Claire McCarthy
Founded 17 October 1917 (1917-10-17)
Headquarters 65 St John Street
London, EC1M 4AN
Youth wing Co-operative Party Youth
Membership  (2016) Increase 9,000
Ideology Co-operatism
Social democracy
Political position Centre-left
National affiliation Labour Party
House of Commons
27 / 650
House of Lords
16 / 809
London Assembly
5 / 25
Local Councillors
1,500 / 20,565
Police & Crime Commissioners
1 / 41
Scottish Parliament
7 / 129
National Assembly for Wales
11 / 60
Northern Ireland Assembly
0 / 108

The Co-operative Party is a centre-left political party in the United Kingdom supporting co-operative values and principles. Established in 1917, the Co-operative Party was founded by co-operative societies to politically campaign for the fairer treatment of co-operative enterprise and to elect co-operators to Parliament. The Party’s roots lie in the Parliamentary Committee of the Co-operative Union established in 1881.

Since 1927 the Co-operative Party has had an electoral pact with the Labour Party, with both parties agreeing not to stand candidates against each other. Instead candidates selected by members of both parties contest elections using the description of Labour and Co-operative Party.[1] The Co-operative Party is a legally separate entity from the Labour Party, and is registered as a political party with the Electoral Commission.[2] Co-operative Party members are not permitted to be members of any other political party in the UK apart from the Labour Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland.

The Co-operative Party is arguably the fourth largest party in the House of Commons with 25 Members of Parliament, although as all of its MPs sit in the Parliamentary Labour Party, this distinction is not often made. It also has representatives in the House of Lords, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and local government.

In keeping with its co-operative values and principles, the Co-operative Party does not have a leader like other political parties. Instead, Gareth Thomas serves as Chair of the National Executive Committee, Claire McCarthy as General Secretary, and Gavin Shuker as Chair of the Co-operative Party Group of Parliamentarians.


The Co-operative Party was formed in 1917 after being approved by the May Congress of the British co-operative movement held in Swansea.[3][4] Since an electoral pact established in 1927, the party has stood joint candidates with the Labour Party.[5] In 1938 a written constitution was adopted by the Co-operative Party which formalised links between the two parties, and in 1946 Co-operative candidates first stood in elections under the Labour Co-operative banner.[3][6]

In its formative years the Co-operative Party was almost exclusively concerned with the trading and commercial problems of the co-operative movement. Since the 1930s it has widened its emphasis, using influence gained through strong links with the political and commercial left to spread what it sees as co-operative ethos and moral principles. The basic principles underpinning the party are to seek recognition for co-operative enterprises, recognition for the social economy, and to advance support for co-operatives and co-operation across Europe and the developing world. The party stands for a sustainable economy and society, a culture of citizenship and socially responsible business represented by the practice of retail and industrial co-operatives. The Co-operative Party seeks to advance its agenda through the Parliamentary Labour Party, with whom it shares common values.

Joint Parliamentary Committee

The Joint Parliamentary Committee was set up in 1881 by The Co-operative Union. It was primarily a watchdog on parliamentary activities. Issues and legislation could be raised in the House of Commons only by lobbying sympathetic, usually Labour, MPs. As it was somewhat unsatisfactory to have to lobby MPs on each individual issue, motions were passed at the Co-operative Union Annual Congress urging direct parliamentary representation. However, for much of this early period societies would not commit funds.

First World War

At the start of the war, the many retail societies in the Co-operative movement grew in both membership and trade, in part because of their very public anti-profiteering stance. When conscription was introduced and food and fuel supplies restricted, these societies began to suffer. The movement was under-represented on the various governmental distribution committees and draft tribunals. Co-operatives received minimal supplies and even management were often drafted, whereas business opponents were able to have even clerks declared vital for the war effort. Societies were also required to pay excess profits tax, although their co-operative nature meant they made no profits.

A motion was tabled at the 1917 Congress held in Swansea by the Joint Parliamentary Committee and 104 retail societies, calling for direct representation at national and local government levels. The motion was passed by 1979 votes to 201.[3]

Central Co-operative Parliamentary Representation Committee

An Emergency Political Conference was held on 18 October 1917. As a result, the Central Co-operative Parliamentary Representation Committee was formed in 1917, with the objective of putting co-operators into the House of Commons. This was soon renamed the Co-operative Party. The first national secretary was Samuel Perry, later a Member of Parliament and the father of Fred Perry.[7]

At first the party put forward its own candidates. The first was H. J. May, later Secretary of the International Co-operative Alliance, who was unsuccessful at the Prestwich by-election, January 1918. Ten then stood in the 1918 general election.[3] One candidate met with success, Alfred Waterson, who became a Member of Parliament for the Kettering seat. Waterson took the Labour whip in Parliament. In 1919, 151 Co-operative Party councillors were elected at local level. Waterson retired from Parliament in 1922, but four new Co-operative MPs were elected that same year, including A.V. Alexander, all of whom took the Labour whip. Six were elected in 1923 and five in 1924.

However, since the 1927 Cheltenham Agreement, the party has had an electoral agreement with the Labour Party, which allows for a limited number of Labour Co-operative candidates. This means that the parties involved do not oppose each other. The agreement has been amended several times, most recently in 2003, which was made in the name of the Co-operative Party rather than the Co-operative Union. After the formal agreement, nine Labour Co-operative MPs were elected at the 1929 general election, and Alexander was made a cabinet minister. However, only one was returned at the 1931 election against the backdrop of a massive defeat for Labour.

The rise of the sister party

Labour's recovery as a credible party of government during World War II and the formal links and local affiliations brought by the 1927 agreement saw benefits electorally for the Co-operative Party. In 1945, 23 Labour Co-operative MPs were elected and two had high office in the Labour government – Alexander and Alfred Barnes, who had been chair of the Party.

But with Labour's fluctuating fortunes and the slow post-war decline of the co-operative movement, the Party saw its influence and standing fall. By 1983, another nadir for Labour fortunes, only eight Labour Co-operative MPs were elected.

However, in 1997, all 23 candidates won seats in Parliament and, after Labour assumed power, the Party gained its first members of the Cabinet since AV Alexander: Alun Michael 1998–99 (later First Minister for Wales) and Ed Balls 2007–2010. In 2001, only one candidate was defeated: Faye Tinnion, who had stood against the Leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague.

Organisation and structure

At the local level, the party is organised around the trading units of the retail societies. Party branches exist at a more local level to organise activities and liaise with Constituency Labour Parties.

Regional Party Councils/Members' Regions

  • Anglia
  • Bath & West
  • Bristol
  • Brussels
  • Chelmsford Star
  • Coventry & Warwickshire
  • Dorset
  • East of England Society
  • Hampshire & Isle of Wight
  • Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire
  • Kent
  • London
  • Manchester & District
  • Midcounties Oxfordshire
  • Midcounties Swindon and Gloucestershire
  • Midcounties West Midlands
  • Midlands Eastern & Southern
  • Midlands Northern
  • Midlands Western
  • North and Mid Wales
  • North Eastern & Cumbria
  • North Staffs & Cheshire East
  • North West North
  • Northern Ireland
  • Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire & Erewash
  • Plymouth & South West
  • Scottish
  • South and West Essex
  • South Wales
  • South Western
  • Surrey, Berkshire & Buckinghamshire
  • Sussex
  • West Mercia
  • West Wales
  • Yorkshire and the Humber

Other: Co-operative Party Youth section

Funding and finance

Most of the party's income comes from grants made by six of the largest retail co-operative societies and from members' fees. The Co-operative Group is a substantial funder of the party, but no funding is given by The Co-operative Bank since it split from the group in 2013.[8] Local retail societies provide most funding for local party councils, which form the basis of members contact with the party. The party recognises several structures which exist without society support (voluntary parties) as being part of the whole. Subscriptions from members also support the party financially.


As a result of an electoral agreement with the Labour Party,[9] "Labour and Co-operative Party" candidates receive financial help with election expenses from the Co-operative Party, including funding parliamentary candidates. There are other Labour MPs who are Co-operative Party members but are not sponsored. One of these was Gareth Thomas MP, chair of the Co-operative Party since 2001 and of the Co-operative Congress in 2003, who was invited to join the parliamentary group in 2003. Until the 1990s, the number of Labour Co-operative candidates was capped at 30. The party's capacity to support more than the previously agreed number is debatable as the prospects of non-sponsored members are not always unfavourable. The benefits of the agreement are twofold, Labour gaining candidates with lower election costs and the party gaining influence within a Labour movement.

The Co-operative Party has not registered a logo with the Electoral Commission for use on ballot papers. Following the passing of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, candidates standing under a joint description were unable to use any registered emblem.[10] The law was amended in 2013 to allow the use of an emblem by candidates standing jointly for two parties;[11] this allowed Labour and Co-operative Party candidates to use the registered Labour Party emblem in the 2015 general election.

Annual conference

The party holds an annual conference with delegates elected by their local members by local parties and societies. The inaugural conference was held in 1920 in Methodist Central Hall Westminster and the first annual conference in Preston in 1924. The 2006 conference was held in Sheffield in September. The 2007 conference, marking 90 years, was held at Central Hall, Westminster. The 2010 Conference, held in Cardiff included a reception hosted at the Welsh Assembly Building, the Senedd, marking the launch of the Party's Manifesto for the 2011 Welsh Assembly Election. In 2014, the Party's Annual Conference was held from 10–12 October at TUC Congress House in London.


The current General Secretary is Claire McCarthy, appointed in October 2015.[12]

McCarthy succeeded Karin Christiansen (appointed 2012) who had been the first female in the position. Previous General Secretaries include Michael Stephenson (from June 2008; a former adviser to Tony Blair),[13] Peter Hunt (from 1998), and Peter Clarke.

Chairs of the Co-operative Party

Electoral representation

The modern party is the political arm of the wider British co-operative movement and so being a member of another co-operative enterprise is a requirement for membership. The party's ties with the Labour Party are strong, with Co-operative members who wish to stand for election also having to be members of the Labour Party, as joint Labour and Co-operative Party candidates.[9]

House of Commons

There are 27 Labour and Co-operative MPs in the House of Commons:[14]

House of Lords

There are seventeen Labour and Co-operative Peers in the House of Lords:[16]

Lord McFall of McAlcuith currently sits as a non-affiliated peer following his appointment as Senior Deputy Speaker.

National Assembly for Wales

There are eleven Labour and Co-operative AMs in the National Assembly for Wales:[17]

Scottish Parliament

There are seven Labour and Co-operative MSPs in the Scottish Parliament:[18]

Ken Macintosh (MSP for West of Scotland) currently sits as an independent following his appointment as Presiding Officer.

London Assembly

There are five Labour and Co-operative AMs in the London Assembly:[19]

Police and Crime Commissioners

Alun Michael is the current police and crime commissioner for South Wales.[20]

Northern Ireland Assembly

The Co-operative party is affiliated with the Labour Party in Northern Ireland. Labour and SDLP members are permitted to join the party,[21] but does not currently have any representation in the assembly.

Notable Co-operative Party politicians

See UK Co-operative Party politicians and List of Labour Co-operative Members of Parliament for wider lists.

Nicholas Russell (died 17 August 2014), the 6th Earl Russell (and grandson of the philosopher and 3rd Earl, Bertrand Russell) was a strong supporter of the Co-operative Party and secretary of its Waltham Forest branch; he was vocal in his call for the abolition of the House of Lords.

See also


  1. "National Agreement between the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party (2003)" (PDF). Retrieved 14 May 2016.
  2. "Overview of donations and loans reported in 2013". Donations and loans to political parties. The Electoral Commission. (registration required (help)).
  3. 1 2 3 4 James C. Docherty; Peter Lamb (2006). Historical Dictionary of Socialism. Scarecrow Press. p. 90. ISBN 978-0-8108-6477-1.
  4. Arthur Birnie (2013). An Economic History of the British Isles. Routledge. p. 367. ISBN 978-1-136-58979-9.
  5. David Marsh (2013). The Changing Social Structure of England and Wales. Taylor & Francis. p. 178. ISBN 978-1-136-24163-5.
  6. Simon Hall (1999). The Hutchinson Illustrated Encyclopedia of British History. Taylor & Francis. p. 90. ISBN 978-1-57958-107-7.
  7. Rosen, Greg (2007). "Serving the People: Co-operative Party History from Fred Perry to Gordon Brown". Co-operative Party. ISBN 978-0-9549161-4-5.
  8. "Co-op Group to continue funding political parties". BBC News. 16 May 2015.
  9. 1 2 "National Agreement between the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party" (PDF). Party Support Handbook. Co-operative Party. Retrieved 6 August 2014.
  10. "City Council Candidates condemn electoral mix-up". The Cambridge Student Online. Retrieved 14 June 2011.
  11. "Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 Part 2 Section 20". Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013. London. Retrieved 6 August 2014.
  12. Gareth Thomas (22 October 2015). "Claire McCarthy appointed General Secretary". Co-operative Party. Retrieved 24 November 2015.
  13. "Michael Stephenson is new General Secretary". Co-operative Party. 5 June 2008.
  14. "Members of Parliament". Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  15. "Oldham West and Royton: Parliamentary By-Election Results". Oldham Council. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 4 December 2015.
  16. "Members of the House of Lords". Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  17. "Members of the Welsh Assembly". Retrieved 14 May 2016.
  18. "Members of the Scottish Assembly". Retrieved 10 November 2016.
  19. "Members of the London Assembly". Retrieved 14 May 2016.
  20. Alun Michael party bio
  21. Co-operative Party in Northern Ireland

Further reading

External links

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