Radio 4's Farming Today recently focused on the role co-operatives might play in supporting the incomes of farmers, especially dairy farmers, and increasing their ability to withstand the oppressive power of the supermarkets. In the Year of Co-operation this is to be welcomed, and the comparisons with the situation in other countries, where more than 90% of dairy farmers sell their milk through co-operatives, are particularly useful. However, it is not just a question of transferring a business model: we need to understand how our political and economic history has left us with a different attitude towards co-operatives.
Rather than milk co-operatives, until 1994 UK farmers had the protection of the Milk Marketing Board, which set a national price for milk and thus supported production and farmers' livelihoods. Like defence and energy, milk was considered a strategic resource - too vital to national well-being to be left to the vagaries of the market. This was a typical example of the statist approach to constraining the power of the market that was favoured in Britain in the post-war period, and no doubt an interesting comment on our changing food culture to vegan readers of this blog.
The vision of socialism as being exercised through one party and at the state level was particularly strong in Britain, where the Fabian socialists fought and defeated the guild socialists during the early years of the 20th century. I have written a longer academic piece about the intellectual links between the guild socialists and the modern green movement. Take, for example, this quotation from William Morris's 1890 pamphlet News from Nowhere:
'that individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other ... Variety of life is as much an aim of true Communism as equality of condition, and ... nothing but an union of these two will bring about real freedom.' (Morris, 1890).
As the centralised state bastions were challenged and defeated one after another through the Thatcher years, both consumers and producers were left up vulnerable to the chilly winds of untrammelled market capitalism. This has led to excessive market power by banks, supermarkets, developers, and energy companies. In other countries where the market had always been more powerful, citizens had already combined to defend themselves. We are now in a situation of having to catch up.
We also need to remember the political lesson from the Blair years: while unity is strength, uniformity is weakness. The centralisation of the model of state ownership and democratic control by one party left a whole range of organisations from the Milk Marketing Board to the Labour Party itself vulnerable to takeover by those who sought to neutralise rather than reform them. The co-operatives, for all the snide criticisms they faced from the Fabians for compromising with the market, have proved more resilient. It is now the Green movement rather than the socialists who maintain this tradition of mutualism and local control.