WELCOME to Ways Forward III conference

Hello and Welcome everybody

My co-op, Co-operative Business Consultants, organised today’s conference.

Exactly one year ago, we held the first Ways Forward conference. And what an eventful year it has been! We have all been witness to horrible car crashes at the Co-operative Bank and Co-operative Group – with £2.5 billion of hard earned co-operative assets transferred to banks and other capitalist businesses. the Bank, pharmacy, farms, parts of insurance and the Group, no longer co-operative ownership and control – but they are brazenly still trading as The Cooperative.

At Ways Forward 2, I talked about how co-operatives are essential to movements for social change. Currently, one of the most radical movements in the UK, is the white flowers campaign to expose and end the sexual abuse of children by people right at the top of the establishment. One of the leaders of this campaign is CBC Director, Phil Frampton. Already, CBC have discussed how co-operatives could lead on best practice for disclosure and whistleblowing.

In summer 2014, over 500 co-operators signed CBC’s petition to Save The co-operative. Unfortunately, the Group now has Rules that are inconsistent with co-operative principles. 3 elected member Directors out of 11, does not make a co-operative.

Almost year ago, the main mechanism for co-operative development, the Co-operative Enterprise Hub, was suspended. One of the reasons CBC called this conference was to gather momentum for new ways of funding and organising co-operative development.

What can we learn from best practice co-ops overseas? Many countries have tax incentives for existing coops to fund new co-ops. A percentage of profit significantly helps to create a thriving co-operative sector. Many co-operative federations have membership requirement that a percentage of co-ops profit goes to coop development. No profit, no contribution. In Argentina its a 5% levy, Legacoop in Italy its 3%. Mondragon expects its co-op members to contribute 10% of profit towards mutual solidarity. Alex Bird is proposing a similar model in the UK. Housing co-operatives are talking about lending to each other to buy co-op properties. The Worker Coop solidarity fund, which is up and running, is asking for a contribution of £1 per week per member.

Clearly we can not wait for Co-operatives UK to take initiative on our behalf. Co-operatives UK remains in a difficult position. It is around 30% funded and controlled by the Group, and 70% of its Board come from only one part of the movement – consumer retail societies. Its a model of poor governance if ever I saw one. In the Autumn, Co-operatives UK made matters worse by endorsing the Bank using Co-operative in its name, thereby undermining the co-op identity for all of us.

So here is a proposal – lets agree the principle of chipping in a percentage of profit to support other co-ops. Lets take a show of hands to see who is in broad agreement with that? For (almost everyone raised their hand), Against (no-one) and Not sure (one person).

Wow an almost unanimous vote in favour. Right, lets talk seriously today about how much, and take proposals back to our co-operatives. No doubt there will be many fine ways of organising such funding, in different sectors and in different places.

One thing that has become clear to me is that the co-operative movement in the UK and globally, spans a huge spectrum, held together very tenuously by coop values and principles. Far to the right of the spectrum and beyond, are organisations that call themselves co-ops and are characterised by a values of elitism, secrecy, chauvinism, and whose managers have are no problem taking home fat cat salaries many times more than employees paid less than a living wage. These organisations have a culture that silences young people. They exclude and scapegoat whistle blowers who do us all a valuable service by bringing malpractice into the light of day, and by naming elephants in the room.

On the left of the cooperative spectrum are businesses that aspire, in words and deeds, to do business as if people‘s lives matter. They aim to be democratic, transparent, diverse and egalitarian. These co-operatives create spaces and places where another world is possible, an alternative to capitalism. This is the coop movement we are interested in building. A solidarity economy, for example that actively supports coops led by, and addressing issues for under-privileged people, and trades with Palestinian farmers living under occupation.

Highlights of the last year include over 100 students in Edinburgh forming their affordable housing co-op; and FC United building their fan-funded £6m stadium in Manchester.

One initiative that completely nailed the elephant in the room, is the young co-operative leaders declaration at Quebec’s summit. They stated, “We believe that there is an alternative to the capitalist economy. We want to be part of a cooperative movement that critiques the current system and actively rejects its focus on limitless growth. This means not emulating its institutions, [nor] looking to its leadership and theory for guidance” Gabriela Buffa is one of many authors to this statement, and I am delighted that she is able to join us today.

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