A fond farewell: Ed Mayo looks back on his time at Co-operatives UK

Co-op News speaks to Mr Mayo as he moves on from his role at the helm of the UK co-op movement's apex body

Ed Mayo joined Co-operatives UK as secretary general in 2009 from the National Consumer Council, where he was chief executive. He previously led the New Economics Foundation and helped establish the Fairtrade Mark. “All my working life has been about promoting aspects of an ethical economy,” he said in an interview with Co-op News at the time. “Coming into the co-operative movement is a chance to build an ethical economy in practice. It’s a dream role.”

Related: Ed Mayo to leave Co-operatives UK for charity role

Eleven years later, did the dream role live up to the expectation? “Yes and no,” he says. “I’m still dreaming. The work of Co-operatives UK is written on my heart. But our vision is a fundamental reordering of relationships within the economy and a different role for capital, where capital is at the behest of people and nature sits in balance. We are so far from that as an economy that the co-op sector remains an alternative, rather than an emerging reality.”

Co-operatives for all 

When he joined the co-op movement, Mr Mayo believed it would be open, innovative and values-based. “The movement is very strongly values-based, but it’s not always open. It was a relatively introverted sector that I walked into and that was a real shock. One of the things we have done is be far more outward looking.” Under his leadership, the organisation launched Co-operatives Fortnight, led numerous practical policy changes for the benefit of the sector – and even coined the now-popular #coops Twitter hashtag.

The challenge for the co-operative sector now, as then, is not one of just explaining about co-ops. “In 2020 the challenge is about connecting to the huge drive and rise that we’re seeing in people wanting to collaborate and co-operate,” says Mr Mayo. 

“My heart goes out to co-ops that have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. But what we have seen is the extraordinary rise and rediscovery of self-help and mutual aid. People’s expectation to have a voice, a willingness to connect and to participate – these are the fundamental wellsprings that led to the emergence of the co-operative movement and they’re here again today. We need to be where those wellsprings of energy and connection are. 

“If the co-operative movement is not at the core of the recovery programme for the country then the country will suffer, because the UK needs co-operation, it needs co-operatives.”

For this to happen, he says, the movement as a whole needs to be open to a much wider range of co-operation than it is used to seeing. “The Covid Mutual Aid groups that have emerged are essentially pop-up co-ops. They’re not formalised. They’re not registered as societies. But I think the first thing the co-op movement can do is recognise those initiatives as part of a wider co-operative sector. There we’ll find new talent, new ideas and a new vision that will give rise to new opportunities.”

But alongside this, the movement has to build partnerships and alliances, to win the case for change at a larger level. “This is not new,” says Mr Mayo. “But it is something we’ve made progress on. When I came in, the co-operative movement had a pretty awful relationship with the trade union sector. And now the labour movement and the co-op movement are much closer. We need those allies – those who are involved in social innovation; social entrepreneurship; new economics; community wealth building; working in the public sector. We’ve tended to lead with ‘let’s talk about co-ops’, rather than ‘this is what co-operatives can bring for justice and sustainable development, for inclusion and equality’.”

That’s not to devalue co-operatives as a model of business. “When I started, Pauline Green [his immediate predecessor] said to me: ‘governance is the most important thing’. She was right. Governance is at the heart of the co-operative model. We are a participatory form of business. You can’t have a great co-op unless you have great, great governance. Conversely where co-operative governance is weak – through over-large boards, capture by activists or a stuffy inward culture – you get problems.” He believes that in the UK, co-ops rely too much on the representative model of participation, when instead they should also be using digital tools and other forms of engagement to give people a voice. 

A decade in Holyoake House 

Alongside Dame Pauline, many other people and places have punctuated Ed Mayo’s decade in Holyoake House. One of his earliest friendships was forged with the late Robin Murray.

“About 48 hours before I officially started at Co-operatives UK, I met with Robin at a Saturday evening party. I knew of him and his reputation as a leading, progressive economist and as the co-founder of Twin Trading [which focused on supporting producer co-operatives around the world], but had never worked with him. One of the first things I did was to sign him up as an associate; lots of what we’ve done over the last 10 years have followed the insights that Robin gave us.”

Among other friends over the 10 years were Suma’s Bob Cannell (“wonderfully generous, and a radical voice. He was on the board of Co-operatives UK, I learned a lot from him”), and Ursula Lidbetter. “Ursula is not only an independent society chief executive [Lincolnshire], but she was also chair of the Co-op Group [2013-2014] at the time of the organisation’s crisis – and was at every co-op event, staying in the bar until late at night. Those three things put together made her, amongst other people, a key source of support.”

Related: Ed Mayo looks at co-op values in the modern world

His most inspiring times were visiting co-operatives. “It’s one of the joys of working in the co-operative sector – the stories and the people are simply extraordinary,” says Mr Mayo. But another highlight was the 2012 International Year of Co-operatives, as designated by the UN.

“It was an amazing year that got off to a phenomenal start,” he says. One of Co-operatives UK’s big plans for the year was work towards a new parliamentary act for co-operatives, consolidating 17 different pieces of legislation.

“We had a year-long campaign planned,” he says, “but we got lucky.” Co-operatives UK led some extraordinary lobbying and the then-prime minister, David Cameron, gave a speech committing to introduce a new co-operative act just 442 hours into the International Year. The act was finalised as the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014, the first consolidated legislation for 50 years.

“Later in 2012 I also had the privilege of recommending to the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) board that they develop an international marque as a visual identifier for all co-ops around the world.” Following a brief sent out globally, Mr Mayo led the process with Siôn Whellens and a team from UK worker co-operative Calverts, Argentine designer Sebastian Guerrini and, later, BrandOutLoud, based in The Hague. The international co-operative marque is now used in over 100 countries.

Co-operation in crisis

2013 was another extraordinary year for the UK co-op movement, but for very different reasons. 

“The crisis at the Group and the demutualisation of the Co-operative Bank was one of the most traumatic episodes that the co-operative sector has faced for decades,” says Mr Mayo, “and at this time the role of Co-operatives UK was absolutely essential.”

Related: Ed Mayo on co-ops and the SDGs

In 2013, failings in management and governance led to a capital shortfall of £1.5bn at the Co-operative Bank, which at the time was wholly owned by the Co-op Group. The Group sold 80% of its shares to hedge funds as part of a stock market flotation rescue plan. What followed was an existential crisis: in 2014, Paul Myners (a Labour peer who was appointed as senior independent director) led a governance review of the business and a special general meeting approved sweeping changes; in 2015 the first full elections took place for the Group’s new National Members’ Council; and in 2016 the Group rebranded, bringing back a version of its cloverleaf logo. By the end of 2017, the Co-op Group’s shares in the Bank were nil. 

“In this crisis period, Co-operatives UK was essential for keeping the sector united, and for standing up for the co-operative model in the media at a time when there was outright conflict between different groups,” says Mr Mayo.

One of Co-operatives UK’s most tricky decisions was around the stance it would take on the name of the Co-operative Bank. “We consulted with our members and the ICA around whether there were ever circumstances that an organisation that’s not a co-op can use the name. What emerged out of that was a set of compliance criteria that we continue to use to monitor the activities of the Co-operative Bank.” 

He acknowledges that there was “a fair dose of pragmatism in that process” and that “it would be a very long journey to ever get it back to a fully co-operative Co-operative Bank”.

The Bank continues to adhere to a robust ethical policy, and supports co-operative development through funding the Hive programme, managed by
Co-operatives UK. 

What next?

The last few months of Ed Mayo’s role coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic and UK lockdown; after his departure Co-operatives UK will be led by the management team until recruitment can begin. He was the ninth leader of Co-operatives UK since its founding 150 years ago as the Co-operative Union. 

“Our position is always that of stewardship, because there’s something larger than us here,” he says of the role. 

“In passing over the mantle I feel I am passing over the organisation in good shape.” 

His next role is chief executive of a social enterprise called Pilotlight. “Pilotlight connects businesses with small social enterprises and charities in order to provide support,” he says. 

“It was founded by an inspiring woman called Jane Tewson, who also founded Comic Relief. For me it’s a beautiful way of making a circle of my own career; I’ve always worked for small non-profits and now I’m going to work for an organisation that believes in the power of those smaller organisations and finds ways to support them. I’ll take lots of learning from the co-op sector – above all, the combination of business practicality and a belief in people.”

But he won’t be leaving the co-op movement entirely. “I am a member of many, many co-ops and I’m proud to be a co-operator. I’ve loved my 11 years at Co-operatives UK and I want to thank members, colleagues, the board, partners, funders over that time. Don’t be a stranger. Stay in touch.”

In this article

Join the Conversation