“We have to work harder to explain the co-op way of ownership and doing business,” Steve Murrells told delegates at the Co-operative and Mutuals Business Summit on 5 September.
The CEO of the Co-op Group set out some of the the questions and challenges facing the co-op movement. “I don’t think the average person on the street truly ‘gets’ what we are about,” he said. “They certainly don’t see the Co-op Group, or the movement as a whole, as part of the solution to the failings and frustrations of modern life.”
The Summit, hosted by Co-op Insurance and Co-operatives UK at the Group’s Manchester head office, gathered co-operative business leaders from different sectors to explore how to build a stronger co-operative movement.
The secret to that, according to Mr Murrells, is to “give greater emphasis to the idea that we’re not merely a loose collection of diverse businesses. We’re something much more than the sum of our parts. Or at least we should be”.
Mr Murrells became CEO in February, after five years as chief executive of the Group’s Food division. While he is “proud of the progress we’ve made at the Co-op Group over the last year to radically revitalise our membership offer and return to our community and campaigning roots,” he believes there are several reasons why co-operatives are not more widely recognised.
Describing how businesses studies courses, economics degrees and history lessons generally omit co-ops, he explained how as a society we are “encouraged to think in terms of ‘rights’ rather than ‘responsibilities’”.
“We’ve become ‘consumers’ rather than ‘citizens’,” said Mr Murrells. “A nation, not of shop-keepers, but of shoppers. So the challenges that face the co-operative movement today are ones of ‘trust’ and ‘individualism’.”
He admitted that “none of us will be able to work this out on our own” and stressed that because of this, he wanted the Co-op Group to “engage more fully with the wider family of co-ops and mutuals”.
He also questioned if organisations – including the Co-op Group – were still addressing the most important needs of members, giving the examples of affordable housing for the young and social care for the elderly as stand out contemporary pressing social needs.
“Should we be looking to enter that space?” he asked, “or is that too ambitious? Would smaller local co-ops be better placed to do that in towns and cities across the country? Or can we learn from the small-scale housing and social care co-ops that already exist and think through how to scale up their ideas to a national level?”
Other issues discussed include how to attract younger members, how to make membership more diverse, and how to address the major technological changes that will “radically alter our lives”.
“I want to see a lively debate,” said Mr Murrells. “I want people to talk about co-ops and understand why our way of working can address today’s social and economic needs in ways that put people first without sacrificing quality or service.”
He added that co-ops should feel “inspired and exhilarated by the challenge”.
“As individual co-ops, and as a movement, I think our time has come again if we can find the path to economic and emotional relevance.”
- Steve Murrells’ blog, based on his speech at the Co-operative and Mutuals Business Summit, can be read in full on the Co-operatives UK website.