The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) was a left-wing political party that emerged in rural western Canada during the Great Depression. The party won control of Saskatchewan’s provincial government in the 1940s. While in power, the CCF created the government-run single-payer health insurance system, which was soon adopted nationwide. The CCF is the source of Canada’s universal health-care system.

Not surprisingly, much of the CCF’s original support came out of the rural cooperatives common among Canadian farmers on the Great Plains. These cooperatives not only provided an organizing and unifying focal point outside of the traditional political system, but served as an incubator for future elected political leaders in the CCF. The new political party and its leaders did not spring from nowhere, but out of existing political, social and financial networks. From Agrarian Socialism: Cooperative Commonwealth Federation In Saskatchewan: A Study in Political Sociology by Seymour Martin Lipset:

In Saskatchewan it has been possible to trace the social and economic backgrounds of leaders of an organized protest movement. Information was obtained about the social, economic, and political backgrounds of delegates attending the provincial conventions in 1945 and 1946. These delegates, who were elected from forty-five constituency conventions held throughout the province, represented the best large-scale cross section of secondary party leaders. […]

Three-quarters of them held some position in a local or provincial cooperative.

A large number of cooperatives in Saskatchewan had a high proportion of official positions compared with general membership, creating a wealth of members who served in an elected post in these member-run organizations. These people formed the foundation that became the elected leadership and candidates of the CCF.

58.9 per cent of those CCF delegates more than 45 years of age in 1945 held posts in cooperatives before the CCF was organized; it is clear that CCF did not win control of the cooperative movement from the outside, but rather that the existing cooperative leaders organized the CCF.

The elected officials in the cooperatives formed a large pool of potential recruits to run for political office and to be elected to positions within the CCF. By being position- holders, these potential candidates also had a built-in base with a trusted network of potential supporters within their cooperatives. We know that being elected to a position, regardless of how small, is a great predictor of a person’s willingness and ability to win larger elections. Nothing breeds success like success.

For example, running for Congress seems like a daunting hill to climb. But if you have been elected as the chair or treasurer of the local chapter of an organization, you might feel comfortable using that as a base of support for run for town council. Going from town council to, say, state legislature might then feel like a modest progression. The jump from state representative to Congress becomes a less frightening undertaking.

Several political movements have shared the pattern of candidate development by moving leaders from relatively modest spots in local associations to more important offices. The Christian right developed local leadership among those elected to positions in churches and school boards. The churches served a similar organizing and unifying focal point that cooperatives did for the CCF. These churches are incubators for electing community leaders: deacons, elders, prayer or fellowship meeting leaders and more that in turn use these positions as a base to run for higher office.

Progressives could learn a lesson about leadership development from the CCF and the Christian right. I’m disappointed that the progressive movement does not have an overwhelming number of small, locally elected positions in independent organizations. Nor are there many strong financial and social networks that lean progressive but are not purely political, with local elected leadership. By promoting local chapters and associations with high levels of involvement, electing minor local position holders, a progressive organization can create a broad pool of talent to draw from for future leaders and candidates for higher office.