Speaker Notes: Cilla Ross, The Co-op College

VP Co-operative Education and Research

Abstract – reflecting on new frontiers for the cooperative movement

In 1844, at a time of tumultuous political and social upheaval, the Rochdale Pioneers wrote Law First – a co-operative blueprint for changing the world and supplanting capitalism. Now, in similarly chaotic times, politicians and policy makers are paying close attention to alternative economic, social and cultural paradigms.  In the UK co-operative councils, schools and social care have emerged and co-operative and other solidarity economy initiatives are promoted as having resilience at times of crisis. Yet how do we ensure that these developments offer a genuine, values driven democratic alternative and are not simply, as one commentator has observed, privatisation by the good guys? How do we make a co-operative future which is characterised by integrity and which contests poverty and inequality and embeds decent work in a better society?  Cilla Ross will speak about how the work of the Co-operative College and the Co-operative Heritage Trust is pushing new frontiers through its futures critical thinking on co-operative  education, research and capacity building in Rochdale, which now tops the Joseph Rowntree Foundation index of absolute decline and is the UKs most struggling city (2016). How can co-operative placemaking and the making of co-operative social capital cross-pollinate with a transferable, participatory, democratic methodology that combined, changes the world?   


1. Introduction

What I want to do in the time allotted to me is to sketch out some of the thinking I have been doing since I came into post at the Co-operative College on the ways forward not only to a democratic economy but also to an effective, agile and democratic co-operative movement which has social justice, co-operative organising, identity building and education at its heart. A lot of this is not new to you but I want to share it anyway.

I have spent most of my working life as a researcher educator, working in Higher, adult and trade union education and as a work sociologist and learning practitioner. This means that the lens I bring to thinking about where co-operatives and the co-operative movement sits in 2017, what the role and meaning of co-operative education is and for me, how the Co-operative College can be vibrant and relevant in the present, is informed by a complex frame of reference.

For just as when the Rochdale Pioneers at a time of technological disruption and political mayhem put together their co-operative blueprint for changing the world, an assertive, strategic and joined up co-operative response is urgently called for. Many people are doing fantastic things, many of them are in this room. Explorations of co-operative platforms, the commons and commonwealth are all pushing innovative thinking about co-operation. But how joined up is our collective response to the current political landscape? And how do we address this in our cooperative thinking and practice? We know the backdrop. Politicians and policy makers are exploring alternative economic, social and cultural paradigms. In the UK co-operative councils, schools and social care have emerged and co-operative and other solidarity economy initiatives are promoted as having resilience at times of crisis.   All of us will have different views on the desirability of current government policies and privatisation but ‘we are where we are’. What I would suggest is that it is our mutual responsibility to ensure that what results under the mantle of ‘co-operative’ is a genuine, values driven democratic model. A model which is characterised by co-operative integrity and which contests poverty and inequality and embeds ‘decent’ work in a better society.

There is a massive critical thinking job to be done here but there are two areas I want to discuss which reflects some of the work that the College and many of the colleagues here are currently focusing on and getting to grips with. My continuous challenge to myself runs across two closely related imperatives. How can we ensure

  • A co-operative position which insists on and is a beacon for decent work
  • A co-operative insistence and focus on challenging poverty and inequality.

For me, we can only properly explore and move forward on these two issues if we frame them in three key commitments. The first is a commitment to revisiting / ripping up assumptions about what we mean by the co-operative movement, where it is located, what its frontiers are, what it actually is and who it is for. If you like, a commitment to openness and critical distance. The second is a commitment to the notion of co-operative organising through education and networking which takes a movement responsibility to the immiseration and chaos in which we currently find ourselves. Following on from that is a third commitment – the need to have an open and honest contemporary conversation about the relationship between public and private, between co-operativism and collectivism, between co-operatives and the state and the current political agenda. I don’t see much attention being paid to that conversation and without it, I would argue, trust between co-operators and trade unions for example, will remain elusive. For me I remain passionately committed to public provision with greater local accountability – I want a national health service! – but that is for another day.

2. Decent work and Co-operatives

Let’s look at decent work first. I left school at 15 to work in a factory and that was pretty awful work but it was nothing like it is today – precarious, casualised, immiserating. ‘In work poverty’ now accounts for most of the poverty in the UK. Yet where is the joined up co-operative voice to challenge this race to the bottom? Co-operatives should be where decent work takes place – indeed they should be beacons of decent work. Yet there are numerous tensions. Whilst the privatisation of welfare services for example clearly brings opportunities for co-operative and social enterprise formation… (and a broken state which has been captured by neo-liberalism is hard to defend), I am disconcerted to find that many co-operatives and social enterprises are simply not addressing the decent work issue. Of course it is entirely proper that the experience of service users is a priority and I understand the challenges of procurement – but surely equal priority should be given to fighting low paid, casualised and poverty inducing work? Why isn’t the co-operative movement building strategic alliances with those most affected by the dismantling of the state and the rise of the informal economy – citizens, service users and trade unions – to fight the decent work battle? One great challenge to the existing 22 co-operative councils is that whilst they are forced to ‘spin out’ public services – which they are – there is a tremendous opportunity to act as democratic co-operative incubators – as pioneering examples of excellent democratic and co-operative practice which remains publicly accountable and prioritises decent work.

We already have the global instrument ILO 193 on co-operatives. Pat Conaty, Alex Bird and others put together a great report on precarious work and we are currently researching co-operative and trade unions joint working for the TUC. Trade unions and co-operators should fight together on this one and make it work – it is also the job of cooperative educators and researchers to locate this discussion at the heart of the co-operative movement and it’s thinking.

3. Challenging Poverty, Inequality through Co-operative Organising

A second way of thinking about ways forward for the co-operative movement and closely related to what I have already said is to respond to poverty and inequality by knitting together a clear co-operative organising strategy which builds member/ citizen empowerment. From my perspective, every single person is a potential co-operator. Co-operative organising means working out and beyond the traditional movement and its boundaries. At the College this is something we are still working through but it is something we are committed to exploring.

For example the Co-operative College and the Co-operative Heritage Trust is in the process of pushing new frontiers through its ‘futures critical thinking’ on co-operative education, research and capacity building in Rochdale, which now tops the Joseph Rowntree Foundation index of absolute decline and is the UKs ‘most struggling city’ (2016).

How can the co-operative movement, with its enormous debt to Rochdale, stimulate co-operative placemaking and the making of co-operative ‘social’ capital, help to foster co-operative livelihoods and support and facilitate a dynamic and active membership? In Rochdale we are working with BME communities, young people and adults on cooperative identity, Placemaking and the making of cooperative futures. We are working with CUK to explore ways of encouraging cooperative livelihood building and with partners like the WEA on active cooperative citizenship education. What might future cooperative community leaders look like?

It is early days and of course it doesn’t stop at Rochdale. The model is totally replicable to all struggling communities, globally. In Rochdale, it is about cooperative belonging but the issue is the same all over the world. It’s fundamentally about Decent work – a human right – there is an real opportunity for cooperatives to be self- responsible and push this forward.



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