Co-operative Conference – 2. Webb’s Paper

October 1891

Mexborough & Swinton Times – Friday 09 October 1891

Co-operative Conference at Denaby Main.

How to Reach the Poorer Classes.

Webb’s Paper

Proceeding Mr Knowles said the paper to be laid before the conference was a most important one; it was one of the most important that could engage their attention and the Central Board were anxious about such paper should be made good use of and that such subjects should be thoroughly discussed.

Mr W Knowles read the paper of Sir Mr Sidney Webb L.L.B., of London, which was laid before the Congress at Lincoln at Whitsuntide. The subject was “the best method of bringing cooperation within the reach of the poorest of the population.”

The writer said complaints are made up lectures and classes on cooperation are apt to fall flat and just failed to collect an audience. This is because we are usually preaching to the converted. Would it not be better, instead of nearly always holding these lectures and classes on our own premises, if we diligently promoted the holding of lectures on cooperation in other organisations?

Some good work is being done in this way by the women’s Guild, the Guild of cooperators, and by one or two other bodies. But no single centre can by itself reach more than a few organisations, or promote more than a limited number of lectures. If the Co-operative Union were to get together the names and addresses of 50 or 100 persons all over the country, are able and willing to speak intelligently on cooperation, if this lecture list were supplied to all the 1400 societies for free distribution; if 1400 propaganda committees circulated it diligently, once a year to all organisations in their neighbourhood under whose auspices a lecture could be delivered, it might soon be found that instead of having to force the lectures unwilling audiences, there was actually a greater demand for speakers on cooperation than could easily be met. And these lectures would be effective, because they would be delivered mostly to the unconverted.

However energetically the machinery of propaganda is work, we know from sad experience that comparatively few of the destitute class will avail themselves of its advantages. The store fails to “catch on” amongst them and succumbed after a brief struggle to their indifference. If cooperation is to be made common, in the agricultural villages and the small rural towns, it was come in the shape of something more attractive than it new shop which gives no credit even in the coolest winter. What the village wants, is not so much a new shop as a club – not so much means of saving money as an opportunity for social life. Working men’s clubs flourish in some places where co-operative stores languish.

It might be worth trying the experiment of reversing the usual order, and seeing if the store would not develop one out of the reading room, rather than expect the reading room to grow out of the store. If the men in any village could be got to combine for the inexpensive maintenance of a club room, where, free from patronage or control, they could smoke and read the papers, this might lead the way to the common purchase of supplies. Even where the stores come into existence first, it is worth considering whether it would not pay to make it more attractive than at present to the man who is not yet a convert to the co-operative faith. But much more might be done to make the co-operative society attractive to the poor. The store might easily become the centre of associated life in the town. No one yearns at all times to save money or to improve his mind. What the ordinary man is usually seeking is social recreation. At present he too often discovers it in betting, or at the beer house, from sheer lack of anything else.

If he is energetic he finds the country or the small town to dull for him and moves to London. The store cannot, and ought not to compete with the little shop in pandering to the demoralised commercial habits of the poor population. To give credit to supply worthless articles, to make up improvident “penn’orths” of tea, to keep open Sundays and weekdays, and for unduly long hours, to pay low wages to assistance – all this would be to cater into a “struggle for existence,” in which the fittest to survive would not be the best but the worst of the competitors.

We see more clearly the important principle underlying the poignant words of Mr Arthur Acland, MP for the Rotherham division.

“It seems pretty certain,” says he, “that cooperators will be compelled, sooner or later, through the steady working gradual process alignment, to take active part in social politics, that is, in those so-called political matters which are directly and immediately concern the moral and physical well-being of the masses of the people.”

It appears, indeed, as if the hour for this predicted leavening of politics by the copy faith was now come. The time is right for a great extension of municipal activity, a wide diffusion of local government, a great development of the collective protection of our less capable fellow citizen.

Cooperators are now rightly coming to insist that the advantage of their movement must and shall be extended to the very poorest of their fellow citizens. But out of a sow’s ear can no silk purse be made. It is hopeless to seek to spread cooperation in the slums as they are now. We know from experience of the Lancashire and Yorkshire towns at every development of municipal activity will be accompanied by an increase in corporate activity; every hour’s additional leisure resulting from a new factory act by an additional store membership; every rise in the standard of comfort by rise in the amount of copy sales. The only effectual method of bringing cooperation within the reach of the poorest of the population is to raise their condition as to make them fit to join its ranks. (Cheers).