Instant expert

April 29, 2005

Conference: Taking Stock - The Co-operative Movement in British History. People's History Museum, Manchester. May 13-14. Fee £30 (£15 students and unwaged)

What's it about? Sponsored by the Economic History Society, the Royal Historical Society and the Society for the Study of Labour History, the conference will examine the fortunes of the Co-op in the 20th century; how its network of shops and businesses expanded then declined.

Shop talk: In the 1980s, the Co-op was the country's biggest food retailer, a more dominant force on the high street than Tesco or Sainsbury's. Among other themes, the conference will consider the reasons for the Co-op's diminishing postwar success. A cheerful exception has been the Co-op's funeral service, a sales area not pursued by other supermarkets.

Advert break: Delegates will hear a paper on the Co-op's contribution to "advertising culture" from the 1890s to 1950s. But after a couple of post-conference drinks, expect renditions of Co-op adverts such as "Caring, sharing Co-op" or "It's all at the Co-op now".

Consumer politics: The conference will look at the Co-op's contribution to industrial democracy and feminism. As well as being a chain of shops, it has its own political agenda based on profit sharing and social justice. MPs are still sponsored by the co-operative movement.

Shop window: What do you think about when you think of the word Co-op? The conference will hear discussion on "popular perceptions" of the shops and the wider movement. How about that logo using the letters Co-op? It's a streamlined Sixties design classic.

Fitting in: If you want to feel you're part of the story, sigh heavily and throw in comments such as "When I was a kid, the Co-op had 12 million members. It's a lost world. I remember the time we were at the Labour club, just after the Woodcraft Folk meeting, next door to the colliery workers' library..."

Mental blocks: What does a supermarket look like? A glass-plated shopping centre unit? A red-brick barn with folksy clock tower? A giant concrete cube with car park the size of Canada? The conference will look at how Co-op shops approached their "architectural encounters".

Co-op culture: If you want to reminisce about the glory days of the movement, there are local Co-op history groups dotted around the country. A Birmingham branch has the laudable mission statement of "making our archive accessible and drinking lots of tea at our meetings".

Retro retail: The word "divi" won't mean much to anyone under the age of 40. This was the "dividend" that, from 1965, the Co-op returned to its members in the form of blue stamps - as opposed to the Green Shield stamps given away by the other supermarkets. Like all other Seventies cultural icons, these are presumably hugely collectible and bought by nostalgics on eBay.

Ethics man: Although the shops have struggled, the Co-op's financial arm has consolidated its position by promoting an ethical image. This investment policy, which includes not putting money into arms manufacturers or firms with a bad human rights record, is credited with attracting one in three new customers.

Local knowledge: The conference is held in Manchester, not too far from the spiritual home of the co-operative movement in Rochdale, where in 1844 the "Rochdale Pioneers" opened their first shop. This first Co-op store, in Toad Lane, is now a museum.

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