How the co-operative movement has responded to Covid-19

Joe Fortune

Co-operation is an inherently practical part of Labour’s radical tradition. We are a movement of action, putting our values and principles into practice every day to create the kind of society we believe in – from the early co-operators from Rochdale providing affordable food, to the modern movement who are stepping up to meet the challenge of Covid-19.

As businesses owned and run by their staff and customers, co-operatives have always led the way in giving back to their communities. During this crisis, co-operatives have consistently set an example that other businesses and even the Government have since followed.

Perhaps the best-known face of the co-operative movement is your local Co-op supermarket. These co-operative retail societies and their workers are on the front line of this crisis, helping to keep the nation fed. To reflect this, it was Co-operative MPs who made sure that retail workers were designated key workers, giving them better protection and recognition.

And co-operatives are doing much more on food justice during Covid-19 beyond simply staying open. There are almost too many examples to count of co-ops making generous donations so that others don’t go hungry, from co-op pubs to community cafes. The Larder in Preston, for example, is fundraising to provide 10,000 meals for people in their community, and the community-owned Bevy in Brighton has transformed from a pub to a delivery service getting hot meals to elderly diners.

At the other end of the spectrum, the retail co-ops like Central England Co-operative have made a substantial donation so that FareShare can continue delivering food packages to the most vulnerable, and are providing discounts for NHS staff. Co-operative farmers are doing their bit to keep the nation fed too – Arla farmers are contributing 900,000 litres of long-life milk to government grocery packs for vulnerable people.

Beyond food, the co-operative movement exists in almost every sector and all are doing their bit. The Little Pioneers nurseries, run by Midcounties Co-operative, are keeping nurseries nearest hospitals open and affordable for children of key workers. They’re offering additional temporary places for key workers who are unable to rely on their usual childcare arrangements and are developing a Frontline Hero Support Fund to subsidise fees for key worker families. For those parents keeping their kids at home, they’re not charging fees unlike many private nurseries, and for their staff who have been furloughed they’re topping up the 80% salary from government so workers see no drop in income.

Co-operative academies are staying open over the Easter holidays to support parents in critical frontline jobs. To tackle holiday hunger for those children no longer attending school, the Co-operative Group is donating £20 a week in food vouchers to children who would usually receive free school meals for every week they have to stay home. To make homeschooling work for children with special needs, the Phone Co-op sourced phones so that their teachers could keep in touch.

This is just the beginning. As the political voice of this great movement, the Co-operative Party are glad we can work together in our near 100 year electoral partnership with Labour to represent the co-operative movement in Westminster, the Welsh Assembly, Holyrood and town halls across the country.

Our strength at a local level has been crucial during this crisis – there are over 1,000 co-operative councillors across the UK, and their co-operative values are shining through. Liverpool councillors have supported cycle co-op Peloton Liv and Agile Liverpool, using some of their Mayoral Neighbourhood Fund to fund free home deliveries on cargo bikes. And co-operative councillors are volunteering in local co-op stores too – helping out at the busiest times to keep customers safe.

As Labour’s new leadership turns its focus to responding to the coronavirus crisis, we can be reassured that the new shadow cabinet is full of co-operators. Nine shadow cabinet members, over a quarter of the total, are Labour and Co-operative MPs, and these MPs draw from the same practical values as the wider co-operative movement and are poised to put them into practice in their new briefs. As we look at this crisis and beyond, the work of our movement and its representatives gives us hope that beyond a difficult present lies a fairer future for all.

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