Meet… Jo Bird, director of Co-operative Business Consultants

'I find the situation very hopeful and exciting now. This period is our best chance in a generation to mainstream co-operatives and solidarity in the economy'

Jo is a director of Co-operative Business Consultants, a co-operative consortium of individuals and organisations committed to social justice through solidarity co-ops, which has organised six Ways Forward conferences. A leader of pro-democracy responses to situations in the co-operative movement, she is also standing as a Labour & Co-operative candidate in local elections in Eastham, Wirral on 3 May.

Why did you start getting involved in the co-op movement?

Collective action is normal in my culture. My parents raised me in the Woodcraft Folk, where we played co-operative games in Birkenhead Co-op Hall. I remember a mini-bus co-op taking our group – and families of striking miners – to summer camps, peace protests and picket lines.

As young adults and protestors, we were vulnerable to private sector landlords and prosecution. Housing co-operatives were the best way to own and control our homes – as bases for a better society and world. Setting up housing co-ops was relatively easy thanks to advice and finance from Radical Routes, a secondary co-op. Property purchase was more affordable 25 years ago.

This co-op experience helped me gain employment at the Co-operative Group’s Manchester head office (1999-2003). I promoted co-operative solutions in every sector – from care co-ops to car clubs – as head of Co-operative Action, which later became the Co-operative Enterprise Hub.

A solidarity visit to co-operators in Palestine-Israel in 2002, inspired me to co-found the Olive workers co-operative. We promoted responsible tourism and fair trade through study visits to many parts of the ‘Holy Land’ and crowd funded to replace destroyed olive trees. We also worked with Zaytoun CIC to bring fairly traded Palestinian olive oil and other products to the UK market.

You are involved in a lot of different co-op projects. Which one are you most proud of?

It’s a privilege to work with the Belfast Cleaning Society. Members of this co-op come from across divided and traumatised working class communities. Since they started in 2012, I’ve seen women become directors of their own workers co-op, work together to sustain livelihoods, win Living Wage awards, gain contracts in competition with exploitative private sector agencies, and give surplus to refugees. Belfast Cleaning Society are a total credit to themselves and the co-op movement.  

What does a typical day look like for you?

There’s no such thing as a typical day for me! I am regularly talking with voters (stomping), meeting elected politicians, speaking at events, raging about injustice, and making people laugh in comedy improvisation workshops.

What challenges have you faced?

As a director of Co-operative Business Consultants (CBC), I loved supporting hundreds of new and existing co-ops and credit unions in North West England, Yorkshire and Northern Ireland. However, most funding for co-op advice programmes has been cut. All kinds of co-ops are struggling to access experienced, principled advice on their unique challenges around start up, decision making and finance. CBC doesn’t work for the Hive programme as it is funded by the “Co-operative” Bank.

It seems to me that the co-operative business sector is like a flotilla of ships travelling on economic seas. We have flagships, container ships, careful pilots, ferry boats, leisure cruisers, speed boats, house boats, sail boats, life boats, rafts and ship wrecks. We sometimes share crew members. Some boats build and launch new boats. Some boats have leaks. Brexit makes choppy water and uncertain seas. Ways Forward conferences, organised by CBC, are one way of signalling to each other, to offer and receive solidarity.  

The co-op flotilla gets undermined by incompetent managers, fat cat captains and organised pirates. My CBC colleague, Bob Cannell calls them players, parasites and predators. Big Finance has an insatiable appetite to privatise the commons – trying to capture all assets held by public and mutual sectors. Collectively, we need better legal and political protection. Their policies must be challenged, contained and replaced.

Given the current political context, what do you think the future holds for the co-operative movement in the UK? 

A lot has changed in the last few months for the co-operative business sector. The General Election was almost won by a mainstream party with the most pro-co-op manifesto in living memory. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn agreed with Conservative Chancellor Philip Hammond, saying “We are an existential threat to their economic system.”

Also, the Co-operative Bank has become 100% owned by hedge funds – yet still misleads people by using the Co-operative name. The crises at the Bank was the reason CBC started organising Ways Forward conferences four years ago.

I find the situation very hopeful and exciting now. This period is our best chance in a generation to mainstream co-operatives and solidarity in the economy. Together we can do this, if we are principled, put in the work and are kind to each other.

For me, co-operative solidarity means equality and democracy, and working together for the common good – alongside our sisters and brothers in trade unions, political parties and other organisations that share co-op values.

The new president of the International Co-operative Alliance, Ariel Guarco, has sent Ways Forward 6 conference a video message . He builds on his experience with utilities co-ops and factories recovered during Argentina’s economic crises. He says, “We are the only economic model that pursues economic actions based on mutual aid, responsibility, solidarity, equity, equality and democracy. We put the people in first place and this is the reason why we exist.”

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