How Nick Boles could learn from founders of the Co-op Party

Tory MP Nick Boles is one of the more interesting Conservative characters in the 2010 intake. As the founder and former director of Policy Exchange, he was one of the key architects behind Cameron’s modernisation project and was an early supporter of a Coalition between Liberal Democrats and Tories. He saw it as an opportunity to finish the modernisation project by presenting a potentially attractive version of Liberal Conservatism to the electorate in 2015. Alas, like so many of us, he was let down by Nick Clegg, and now describes his namesake as slowly becoming a ‘principle-free zone’ (c’mon mate, didn’t this give you any clues?).

His latest proposal for the continuation of Tory modernisation is an interesting one. Though dressed up as his long stated aim to reunite liberalism and conservatism by having Tory candidates co-badged with the National Liberal Party, it amounts to effectively sticking a new badge on an old product and hoping people don’t notice it tastes the same. In citing the Co-operative Party as the model on which this new model is based, Nick Boles fundamentally misunderstands both the premise on which the Co-op Party was founded and the nature of how such a new political movement could come into being in the modern world.

The Co-op Party was formed from the Co-operative movement and that movement was started by a group of people in Rochdale who opened a shop in order to better the lives of ordinary people living in their town. As the movement grew it was repeatedly ignored by those in power and the party was formed in response to give it a voice in Parliament. Eventually this evolved into an electoral pact with Labour so that Co-operators could have a real say in Government. It was what we call today a “bottom up” movement that used the tools of the time to make its voice heard.

Boles’ suggestion for appealing to a new electorate, modelled on the different brand lines and product ranges corporations use to attract a wider pool of customers, speaks to a kind of 80’s corporatism, when a big launch and large PR spend could launch new products into the national consciousness. It is, even with the revival of an old brand, very top down in its nature.

Boles’ rightly identifies the Tory Party as a monolith, and it is this which would stop his plan from working. In the modern marketplace a large corporate bureaucracy trying to create this kind differentiation from within would quickly find itself out manoeuvred and out gunned by smaller players with nimbler structures and less brand baggage.

If Boles really believes in a renewed form of Liberalism, and Richard Morris is already calling foul, then he only needs to look at our friends from Rochdale for inspiration. Step outside the bubble, start small, aim high. These might be challening times for the co-operative movement but our forefathers weren’t called the pioneers for nothing, and they are still one of the finest examples of how individuals can make change happen.

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