Co-opting ideologies?

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Tory leader David Cameron has been to Manchester to launch a Conservative cooperative movement.

It's a fair bet that Mr Cameron did not learn a great deal about British labour history while he was at Eton - or since - but in his Manchester speech he did recognise that the cooperative movement in Britain has been something associated with the left.

Indeed the political expression of the movement, the Cooperative Party, is linked with the Labour Party, although Cameron didn't quite get around to mentioning that.

There is a reason for that, because, as Cameron noted, cooperation is what his hero, Mr Blair, might have called a "third way", avoiding questions of state control, but it's also very consciously set against the idea of business for profit. The central motif of cooperation is the "divi" - the return of any surplus to the members of the coop who in turn control its activities through democratic meetings.

That relationship has become institutionalised since the Rochdale Pioneers started things in the north-west of England in 1844, but it remains distinct from how big business does things.

It remains distinct too from the symbolism and iconography that dominated late 20th century Toryism - the image of Mrs Thatcher, the daughter of a grocer from Grantham. Cooperation was something organised by working people against the dodgy practices, profiteering and adulteration of products, of small businessmen.

Cameron's specific initiative in Manchester was to launch the idea of cooperative schools, run locally outside of central control, something which he argued works elsewhere in the world. The problem he has, underlined by the fact that his speech could point to no earlier British examples, is that it is not in fact the tradition of British cooperation precisely because of the links to the Labour Party.

The early cooperative stores, which were strongly influenced by socialists who derived their ideas from Robert Owen, certainly did run libraries, reading rooms and Sunday schools, financed using profits from the stores. But as the Labour movement developed, and in particular with the possibility and actuality of Labour governments, provision in this area was left to the state.

The original Rochdale pioneers set up a cooperative store in part because they were Chartists fed up with defeat and looking for something that worked for working people. One might argue that Dave Cameron's Manchester speech was a recognition that capitalism can't deliver for working people and that other methods are needed. But one suspects that this would credit the Tory leader with a much greater grasp of the history of the matter than he in fact has.