Co-op ideas are moving towards the forefront of discussion around social and economic inequality in the UK, with widespread discussion of the Preston model and co-op councils – and the Co-op Party continuing to push co-op solutions.
On the ground, there are many examples of co-operation in working class communities – from pioneering housing mutuals like Rochdale Boroughwide Housing to community businesses such as Kitty’s Launderette in Liverpool.
This is only natural, says worker co-op advocate Siôn Whellens, of Principle Six and Calverts: “Co-operatives are one of the two main historical products of working class inter co-operation – the other being unions.”
He argues that the strategy of the movement should be to “identify when and where working class groups are organising to further their interests, get involved on a solidarity basis, learn what the problems and potentials are, and when appropriate offering co-operative organising technology and the co-op system as useful additions to the ‘toolbox’.
This is the opposite of proposing co-ops as the ‘solution’ to poverty and inequality, which is the ideology of social enterprise, charity, David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and state-sponsored co-ops, says Mr Whellens. Instead, he believes co-operatives should be projected as a means of working class mutual aid and independence.
He gives the example of Kitty’s Launderette: “This is shaping up to be a success because the group did careful market research on the working class demographic of its potential customer base, and carefully aligned the project with the traditions of working class self-organising in the city.”
One success story of grassroots co-operation is the Bevy, a community pub on the Moulsecoomb and Bevendean estates in Brighton.
General manager Iain Chambers said the community was engaged using the message that an important local resource – the sole pub in the neighbourhood – would be otherwise be lost.
He says it’s important to use this sort of campaign to win people over – “that sense of peril, of something that will be lost forever. Talking to the community, it was a sense of, if we don’t have a pub, we have nowhere to go.”
The best way to organise, he adds, is to put everyone in a room together to source their knowledge and make the project inclusive – in the Bevy’s case, this also meant the minimum buy-in for community shares was set at £10.
“If you want to raise a large amount, that can be a disadvantage but on that estate, which has pockets of extreme low income but also people with decent jobs, it’s important to bring everyone in,” he says.
The large number of members also helped change the narrative, he adds, “from one of an antisocial, abandoned, estate pub to one that says, these people are pitching and joining together, even the skint ones are sticking a tenner in.
“It was a dream. The premises had no bar, no cellar, no nothing, it had been gutted – these people had to buy into a dream.”
Bringing in large numbers of people meant “a lot of door knocking”, he adds. “People were totally new to idea of community ownership. It took a lot of meetings to really get that message through that you can come along and contribute – even if it’s stuffing envelopes, sweeping up, painting some walls, there’s so much you can do because there’s so much to be done.
“I say it to any group – to take a community space, knock on as many doors as possible, meet as many people as possible. There’s a humility involved to asking people rather than just saying we know best.”
Once the idea gained momentum the local authority and health department came in. “They realised it was important for people to have somewhere to meet; loneliness is as dangerous as alcoholism.
“The local vicar got involved – he is deeply embedded in community and he gave it respectability – we held meetings in the church, on the pews.”
Now, the team is looking to refurbish the pub. “We’re knocking on doors again; it reminds people we’re there, and we can ask if they have anything
to offer. You get a better outcome than if you just spend money without consulting people. Collaboration brings good ideas.”
In this way, says Mr Chambers, “our spirit of co-operation is deeply embedded in what we do – not because people believe in the co-op movement, but because it’s a natural thing for neighbours to do when needing a resource.”
That sense of collaboration is spreading across the estate, he says; for instance, the team from the Bevy introduced the local school and table tennis club; as a result, the school now provides the club with a venue. “It felt like pushing at an open door because this area is now used to working together.”
He adds: “I hope this will mean that when the next issue comes up we can say, ‘we can do it’, rather than have it done to us.
“There’s a sense of planning being done to us, without us being consulted. The new report from Oxford Consultants for Social Inclusion says that when there are no spaces to gather, you don’t even have a place to protest about not being helped. We need to count communal spaces as positives.”
For such ideas solutions to be adopted by more communities like Bevendean, the co-op movement needs to work hard on its communication, says Mr Chambers. “More Than A Pub is well resourced, they’ve put up some fantastic and inspirational stories but in areas like this, you need more examples that look like people you know.
“When those stories are represented, you get a picture of the people involved, the area involved, and more rounded stories.”
He adds: “Working class means a great many things – it’s not just about deprivation, although working class people can be in difficult places. You’ve got to show what co-ops can do – for instance in care; care co-ops are an amazing example of what can be achieved; it’s needed, it works, it’s what people can understand.”
It’s also important to stress that there’s no real risk. “You’re putting in sweat and commitment but you’re not going to lose your house if things go wrong. There’s a feeling that ‘it’s not for me’ so you need to show that people can do it, in a very ordinary way. I’d love to see co-op hairdressers, dog-walking co-ops – you can give yourselves jobs that way; you’re not going to make yourselves rich but you will keep things going.”
But, he warns, there is a danger in telling too positive a story. “We’re very open about how hard it is. It’s important, ethically, to be honest; and it makes people get ready and robust.
“I’ve seen people with poor health drop out or become ill from the graft of setting up a project like this and it concerns me that people aren’t given the full picture. Working class people aren’t stupid, they can see through things that are happy clappy.”
He says the lack of secondary co-ops to support the movement is a key obstacle. “It’s too difficult on your own; you need someone to ask advice. We were tired from setting up the Bevy and we then we found we had to work out how to run it.
“Running a community pub is not the same as running a normal one – you can’t say ‘my gaff my rules’, it doesn’t work. And barring someone from the only pub in the area is a big deal.
“But it’s also important that nothing happens that might close us down – there are people at risk of isolation, such as elderly people with dementia, who would have nowhere else to go.”
Despite the difficulties, there is a power in the Bevy’s co-op nature, he says. “We own the building, we are allowed to do things in it – that is very powerful. People realise they can piggyback on our trust – local councillors and our MP have their surgeries at the Bevy. It reflects well on them.”