Co-operative businesses have unique strengths that capitalists would give their right arm for – not that they need to. Before our eyes we see capitalism buying up co-operative businesses and shamelessly continuing to operate them under The Co-operative name – thereby undermining actual co-operatives.
It is difficult to under-estimate the breadth and depth of anger and betrayal felt by ordinary members. The way forward is through meaningful engagement with UK and international co-operative and social movements.
Over the coming months, the Co-operative Group should focus on four aspects as it goes through a restructure.
Real powers for the National Membership Council
Myners Plus, published by Co-operatives UK in May, draws on international experience of large successful co-operative businesses. Myners Plus proposes that the national membership council has real powers, including control of the Nomination Committee – rather than the Group board being effectively self-appointing.
Welcome member capital
The Group must pay down its debts to have more autonomy. Many members are willing and able to invest more than £1 for life in the Co-operative Group, or its specialist businesses. There is a substantial, untapped appetite for members to invest to “Save Our Co-op” – in the short term and over the long term.
If the Group had successfully applied models from Japanese consumer food co-ops and Calgary Co-op in Canada, it would have £4.2bn or £3.6bn of capital respectively – more than enough to recapitalise the business and regenerate an engaged membership. As David Thompson explains in a previous Co-operative News article, “the equity co-ops need is sitting in the pockets of the members”.
We have many examples of ‘crowd funding’ of capital, in the UK co-operative movement, from the Rochdale Pioneers to the Phone Co-op and Midcounties. Since 2009, over 200 community share offers have been launched, raising £40m and mobilising 40,000 people as members.
Sell assets to co-ops first
More of the Co-operative Group’s assets could be sold to new co-operatives and independent societies – if the Group engaged with the wider co-operative movement in a timely manner. The Group should, for example, offer first refusal on disposals to members of Co-operatives UK and the International Co-operative Alliance.
Align the Group with progressive social movements
The co-operative movement is essential to all progressive social movements – global movements of collective action that aim to build a better world, by and for the many, not the few.
I am referring to social movements for the rights of women and girls, trade union rights, civil rights, human rights. Social movements for justice, peace, freedom and for the environment; and from diggers, chartism to contemporary pro-democracy movements.
Co-operatives come out of social movements. Co-operatives help to organise and sustain social movements and the people in them. Co-operatives find expression in, for example, wholefood and local food, housing, credit unions, fair trade and renewable energy. This is the wider co-operative movement. Fascist political parties ban co-ops – in the 1920s to Legacoop was banned by Italian fascists.
Legacoop’s member co-ops support the development of other co-operatives with 3% of profit, thus leveraging positive press coverage, community and stakeholder engagement, supply chain development and better governance.
When co-operatives do not reflect social movements, they become just like any other business, for example rewarding executives over 200 times more than front-line workers.