Our mutual friends

Food

My local supermarket is a Co-op. Despite the name, it isn't very co-operative. The fruit and veg tend to be dog-eared. The trolleys are dilapidated. The prices are surprisingly high, except for the depressing special offers (such as "Buy one get one free" Pink Panther pink wafers). Food is stacked in weird gluts: hundreds of packets of ham one week; piles of margarine the next. As for the reward card, you have to spend something close to £1,000 before you get anything back (and even then, it's a measly 1 per cent). The contrast with the shiny Sainsbury's up the road is stark.

The CWS (Co-operative Wholesale Society) is currently running an ad in the New Statesman and elsewhere, headlined, "Who says the good guys never win?" It's a brave question, which begs another. Is the Co-op really winning?

Most of the benefits of the giant supermarkets were originally thought up by co-operative societies. Brand names, for example, are a Co-op idea, as is buying in bulk to create low prices. In the 19th century, co-operatives - led by the Rochdale Pioneers of 1844 - were among the first shops to assure the consumer of unadulterated, reliable food. Customers were also members and therefore knew they weren't being fleeced. And the famous "divvy" meant that surplus profits were shared back among members in proportion to purchases made.

Supermarket "loyalty" cards are essentially no more than a cynical version of the "divvy", stripped of its mutualist foundation. Asda and Tesco and Sainsbury's are not sharing their profits with us but increasing them for themselves by suckering us ever further into their web. Where the "divvy" promoted self-reliance, the loyalty card encourages servile dependency. And loyalty to co-operative societies was a genuine friendship, with a firm economic basis, whereas the loyalty of a loyalty card is shallow at best. In the Co-op's heyday, "divvy" pay-outs were huge. In 1900, 32 per cent of Co-ops paid between three and four shillings in the pound, or 15 to 20 per cent. No supermarket could match that.

So why has the Co-op lost its way? It seems ironic that, at a time when consumer power has never been greater, the original consumer-run retailer is fading from view. There are still more than 50 different co-ops in Britain. The CWS is the largest, with sales of £3 billion (of which food is only one part). A CWS representative tells me that it doesn't see itself as competing with the supermarkets; instead, it is a pioneer in "ethical" products, organic vegetables and honest labelling and has stores in far-flung food deserts as a point of principle. The CWS dividend is generous: 5 per cent on own brands. And its website includes inventive recipes for vegetarians, such as rhubarb toad-in-the-hole (mmmm!).

But he admits that shopping for food at Co-op is "not much different from other stores", and he's right. My local Co-op is just as soulless as Sainsbury's, only with worse ingredients (too many cake mixes, not enough simple, fresh food). What good is honest labelling on bulk supplies of plastic- wrapped bread?

A deep throat at CRS, the group that runs my local Co-op, is pessimistic: "I don't think the Co-op ethos comes through to the shopper at all." For all its community values, the Co-op can't afford to encourage local farmers to sell produce to their stores, as the uber-capitalist Asda does. For all its social responsibility, the Co-op can't sell baked beans as cheaply to the working man as Kwiksave can.

The Co-op once tried to beat capitalism at its own game. Now, capitalism is playing a ruthless version of the Co-op's game and winning.

This article first appeared in Were chimps the first socialists?

1999-07-12