Seeing the need for a political watchdog in the co-operative movement, The Joint Parliamentary Committee was set up in 1881. It was primarily a watchdog on parliamentary activities. They looked at the problem of under-representation and lobbying. Issues and legislation could only be raised in the House of Commons by lobbying sympathetic Members of Parliament. 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, societies would not commit funds and were divided on whether or not co-operatives should become involved in politics.
At the start of the First World 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.In response to the treatment of the co-operative movement by the wartime government, 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.
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 re-named the Co-operative Party. 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 1918 Prestwich by-election. Ten then stood in the 1918 general election. 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 who 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.
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 for the Co-operative Party at the polls. 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, in 2001, only one was defeated, Faye Tinnion who had stood symbolically against the Leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague. The favourable stance of the Labour government, particularly Gordon Brown, to co-operative principles of self-help, enterprise and accountability allowed the co-operative movement to make representations and sponsor important bills on updating company law, employee share ownership and micro-generation of energy.
The Co-operative Party is the political arm of the wider British co-operative movement, and all members of the party must be members of a co-operative enterprise. Those who wish to stand for election must also be members of the Labour Party.The majority of the Party's income comes from grants made by the retail co-operative societies, and from fees received for managing the political affairs of Co-operatives UK, formerly known as the Co-operative Union. The Party is organised around the basic trading units of the major local retail society, which provides the majority of funding for local Party Councils. Some Parties exist without Society support, known as voluntary parties. Party branches exist at an even more local level to organise local activity and liaise with Constituency Labour Parties.
In its formative years the Co-operative Party was defensive, almost exclusively concerned with the trading and commercial problems of the co-operative movement. Since the 1930s it has widened its emphasis. 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. They also claim to stand for a sustainable economy and society, a culture of citizenship and socially responsible business.
The Co-operative Party seeks to advance its agenda through the Parliamentary Labour Party. In 2005 there were 29 MPs in the Co-operative Parliamentary Group, 8 Members of the Scottish Parliament, 4 Members of the Welsh Assembly and 11 Members of the House of Lords, as well as over 700 local councillors. There is also an informal Co-operative Party group in the European Parliament.
As a result of the electoral agreement with the Labour Party, "Labour Co-operative" candidates receive financial help with election expenses from the Co-operative Party. Nevertheless, there are many 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. The Party has not registered a logo with the electoral commission for use on ballot papers, as candidates use the Labour Party "Rose" logo.The Party holds an annual conference. The inaugural conference was held in 1920 in Central Hall, Westminster, with the first annual conference in Preston in 1924. Local parties and societies send delegates and motions to the conference.
Chairs of the Co-operative Party
- 1918-1924 Mr W. H. Watkins
- 1924-1945 Alfred Barnes MP
- 1945-1955 William Coldrick MP
- 1955-1957 Mr A. Ballard
- 1957-1965 James, later Lord, Peddie
- 1965-1972 Mr H. Kemp CSD, JP
- 1972-1978 Mr A. J. Parkinson
- 1978-1982 Mr T. Turvey JP
- 1982-1989 Mr B. Hellowell
- 1989-1995 Mrs J. Carnegie
- 1995-1996 Mr P. Nurse
- 1996-2001 Jim Lee
- 2001-present Gareth Thomas MP