Can a new era dawn for the co-op movement in Blair's Britain? Is the new Commission the last best hope to do what needs to be done? The Grocer news team investigates Once they were strong partners. But for many years the Labour Party and the Co-operative Movement have been moving apart. And as the split widened, so the Co-op declined. Veteran co-operators can remember the days when the National Council of Labour brought the two together, with the Trade Unions as well. But if the NCL has never actually been formally buried, it is the best part of a generation since it had any teeth. So last week's announcement of a new Co-operative Commission would seem to herald a spectacular shift in opinion ­ as well as a last throw of the dice for co-operation. After all, this is a new body with which Tony Blair himself is happy to be associated. He was also prepared to say good things about the Co-op. "The Co-operative movement represents a vital part of UK business," he declared. "Not publicly, not privately, but co-operatively owned and controlled by its members to ensure its commercial and community interests go hand in hand. The Commission will help identify new opportunities to foster a strong and successful movement for future generations." For CWS chief executive Graham Melmoth, the key job of the Commission is to examine the values and structures, "which make us different from a plc". He said: "We want the Commission to help us identify opportunities to modernise and change so our unique consumer ownership, once again, becomes the major asset of our brand." Some might feel that a body devoid of Melmoth's driving personality has the taste of bacon without the eggs. It can be assumed, though, that he will play his part behind the scenes. In patting themselves on the back for achieving this coup, Co-op leaders also point to the precedent set by the previous Commission. That took office in 1958 under the chairmanship of Hugh Gaitskell after some far sighted Co-op folk had recognised the growth of the movement had peaked and problems were looming. Appointing Gaitskell to chair the Commission was a shrewd move as he had the clout to go where he wanted and report as he saw fit. His report was taken seriously and was largely implemented, leading to many changes for the better in the Co-op of the day. However, his recommendations for more mergers between societies took a long time ­ some would argue too long ­ to become a reality. While Blair is not going to have the involvement of his 1950s predecessor, there are still plenty of big hitters on the new Commission. Its difficult to predict what they will come up with. But given the Commissioners are a mix of the movement's better thinkers and "outsiders" who are not bogged down in its traditions, you can expect they will come up with some interesting stuff. For starters, they will clearly look at how the movement can become more efficient. And they will undoubtedly explore the thorny issue of the Co-ops and their management boards. The big weakness of the movement's democratic process is that you often end up having jolly nice people with no management experience sitting on the boards of multimillion pound businesses telling chief executives what to do. What the movement needs instead are strong, well educated, experienced directors who are democratically accountable. And once you have got these people in place, how do you reward their achievements? If there has been a discordant note sounded in the euphoria of the announcement of the Commission, it has been to do with its focus. This is clearly a body concerned above all with retail Co-ops. Yet, in the 1990s, the CWS and its subsidiaries such as the Bank placed great stress on their interest in other forms of co-operation. Worker and housing co-ops and credit unions will await developments with interest. The counter argument is obvious. Despite the best efforts of a new breed of good manager, Co-op retailing is still heading in the wrong directions. Dire predictions continue over its future. The pundits never tire of forecasting Co-op Armageddon. One day they will be right. Unless, that is, the Co-operative Commission comes up with new solutions ­ that nobody has dreamed of yet. {{NEWS }}