Labour History Review

Consumers and Politics: The Co-Operative Movement in Plymouth, 1890-1920

Labour History Review (2002), 67, (1), 7–27.

Abstract

The Plymouth Co-operative Society was one of the most important retail co-operative societies in Edwardian England and played a critical role in the debate over political representation, which resulted in the decision to found a Co-operative Party in 1917. This article examines these debates within Plymouth Co-operative Society. In the light of recent work on the post-Rochdale co-operative movement, it is argued that rather than being seen as a pragmatic response to specific wartime grievances — namely the decision to tax co-operative profits and the arrangements for rationing the food supply — co-operative politics should be seen in the wider context of a challenge to the dominant capitalist mode of consumption. In Plymouth conflicts with private traders before the war had necessitated a prolonged debate about the meanings of co-operative consumption, which was revived by the wartime experience and brought the society into conflict not only with the local authorities but also with the Co-operative Union.

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Some of the key contributions to this literature include Henry Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party, 1880-1906, London, Macmillan, 1954; Paul Thompson, Socialists, Liberals and Labour: The Struggle for London, 1885-1914, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967; Ross McKibbin, The Evolution of the Labour Party, 1910-1924, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1974; Alun Howkins, ‘Edwardian Liberalism and Industrial Unrest: A Class View of the Decline of Liberalism’, History Workshop Journal, 4, 1977, pp. 143-61. The Origins of the Labour Party, 1880-1906 Google Scholar

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Counsel restated the argument that co-operative societies made surpluses, not profits: ‘The society was in fact a distributing agency which returned to its members, by what it chose to call dividend, the difference between the price paid by the members at the time of purchase, and what was actually found to be the actual cost of the article, plus the cost of distribution, originally paid by the society’ (Record, January 1917, p. 17). Google Scholar

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Mr Prince, of the management committee, speaking at the society's monthly meeting in March 1916: ‘The time has arrived when the leaders of our movement will have to justify themselves over this business. The suspicion that the working classes generally have of their chosen leaders, in my opinion, is justified by the way in which those leaders, having climbed into positions of power, throw over their democratic principles and ideas … The leaders of our co-operative democracy, those who should watch our interests, should have been more alert, and since they have failed us, we must set up quicker and better machinery’ (Record, March 1916, pp. 99-101). Google Scholar

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Author details

Hilson, Mary