Co-operation has always attracted visionary thinkers and Robin Murray, who passed away recently, was one.
Robin was an Associate of Co-operatives UK from 2010, alongside a host of distinguished affiliations, such as the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Young Foundation.
He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, and at the LSE. He then joined the London Business School, where he lectured in Economics, moving to the Institute of Development Studies, at the University of Sussex, where he was a Fellow for 20 years.
In the 1980s, he was appointed by Ken Livingstone, London Mayor, as Director of Industry for the Greater London Council, helping to promote a new industrial strategy which at a time of rapid economic change, with a hollowing out of industry in the capital, had extraordinary success. Robin worked with a team of talented colleagues, including Michael Ward, who went on to found the Centre for Local Economics Strategies, and Hilary Wainwright, later founder of Red Pepper.
In 1985, he helped to found Twin and Twin Trading – fair trade pioneers with a focus on the practical development of co-operatives in supply chains overseas. Twin’s sister was Traidcraft, founded out of the Christian churches, whereas Twin’s roots were in the trade union and co-operative sectors.
In the 1990s, he served as Director of Development in the Government of Ontario, returning with a passion for green enterprise. He also co-wrote the first pamphlet for the think-tank Demos on reforming taxation, which made him front page news for a short while. That wasn’t what he craved.
A true collaborator …
Robin was someone who enjoyed collaboration, with a breadth of interests and a passion for learning. As Stephen Yeo comments, Robin’s own achievements were “always drowned by his enthusiasms for what his friends and comrades had done”.
In 2011, true to that, he delivered on a commission that I had approached him to lead, which was to look at the future of the co-operative sector. The report Co-operation in the Age of Google was hugely influential here in the UK and overseas.
He made it clear that the sector had lost some of the cutting edge that it had arguably held before, identifying the extent to which co-operative methodologies had been adapted for use outside of the formal co-operative sector.
His recommendations embraced ambition – a passionate supporter of the case for co-operative education, he argued for the establishment of a Co-operative University (a concept which is moving closer) as well as an Innovation Programme, which started work at Co-operatives UK the following year, with the first Co-operative Innovation Prize, run in partnership with the Department for Business and with Robin on the judging panel.
At Co-operative Congress in 2011, Robin presented his findings and stayed talking with co-operative development practitioners in the bar with characteristic charm and politeness until 3am in the morning.
He also served on the Wales Commission on Co-operatives and Mutuals. As good as that report was, the flow of creative and substantive emails from Robin as a Commissioner encouraging a look at wider options, such as a co-operative investment bank for Wales modelled on Caja Laboral in Spain, pointed to what could have been.
… and social innovator
When the idea of ‘social innovation’ started to gain recognition, Robin travelled widely to spread the word. He emailed me after visiting Crumlin Gaol in Belfast. He was there to talk about social innovation in the context of peace and reconciliation. Later he was shown round the gaol – “so shocking” he reported “that I find it hard to write about”.
But write about he did: “I was with one of the people who had been interned there in the 70s and who had (bravely, I thought) decided to return. Talk about co-operation! The extraordinary and terrible world of the prisoners. The prisoner’s dilemma which is all about individualism is in some ways the opposite of what seems to characterise life there.
“The ex prisoner was the one who has been the driver of the Irish language movement in the Falls Road, which now has 41 schools that teach Irish across the communities. One of his favourite words is meitheal, that is pronounced mehal, which he translated as together, or what one days when there is a break in the weather and adjoining farms work together to save the hay. But we might translate as mutual or co-operative.”
In recent years, as an Associate of Co-operatives UK, Robin was active in working with Pat Conaty and Laurie Gregory among others on the challenges of social care and the kind of innovations that could develop a person-centred approach. He was drawing in part on his time at the Design Council, in part on his acute sense of how to make mutuality work in business terms, for commercial advantage. He was an active supporter of his local co-operatives, in Hackney, where he lived, and Cumbria, where he rested.
John Restakis this week called Robin “a beacon of hope, insight, and optimism for so many of us.” Hilary Wainwright said that “Robin exuded vigour and hope. And he infected those around him with his mood”. Michel Bauwens, of the P2P Foundation, has written that “my conversations with him had been electrifying, and we stayed in touch, meeting a few times in between. He was an amazing man and his life story left me speechless. He was a true hero!”
The LSE economist Carlota Perez is collecting Robin’s writings with the intention to publish these as an online collection.
My last time with Robin was spent by his bed, talking about values and how co-operatives work well when their values inspire them to be courageous, to do new things.
To the end, he was hopeful and I sign off this tribute with his own words of hope:
“The informal information economy is open and global. It is driven by interest and enthusiasm rather than money. The bulk of its traffic is free. It is taking time to digest the implications of these changes, and for those involved to work out what rules are necessary to govern behaviour. Some have seen it as a new form of the commons, and looked at codes of behaviour that have been developed by those using common land or fishing grounds. But this informal economy is more than sharing a common resource, for with the web the resource is unlimited. It is a site for relationships, and where joint projects are involved, it requires the kind of qualities found in those pioneer communities where everyone worked together to raise the roof of a home.
“It is growing with the speed and diversity of a tropical forest. It is informal and astonishingly inventive. It shares many of the same values and practices of formal co-operatives, and opens up numerous possibilities for a meshing between them. William Morris’s News from Nowhere depicted a world based on mutualism that for more than a century was seen as utopian. But in the last decade it has emerged as a reality not on the banks of the Thames but in the world of the web.”
- To mark Robin’s death, Co-operatives UK has published in an open form a chapter by Robin Murray from the recent multi-authored book, Co-operative Advantage: co-operation, innovation and how sharing business ownership is good for Britain. You can read it here.
- Read other tributes to Robin from Divine Chocolate, openDemocracy, The Young Foundation and Co-operatives Wales.