Lord Adebowale: Co-ops should work more closely with social enterprise

'The form that we choose is largely a matter of choice. We need to spend less time naval-gazing and more time holding hands'

‘Co-operation among Co-operatives’ is a core co-op principle. But as society and business types evolve, and other ‘for-purpose’ organisations emerge, shouldn’t co-ops be open to working more closely with other business models?

One person well placed to answer this is Lord Victor Adebowale, a director of the Co-op Group and chair of Social Enterprise UK (SEUK, the national body for social enterprise), who started his career volunteering at Newham Community Housing Co-operative in east London.

“Very early on, co-ops seemed to me to be a very sensible, very progressive thing,” he says. 

While co-operatives trace their roots to groups such as the Rochdale Pioneers (1845) and the Fenwick Weavers (1761), social enterprises were first developed as a distinct concept in the late 1970s, during attempts to steer economic criteria from capital to social interest. Today SEUK describes social enterprises as ‘businesses with a social or environmental mission’. 

A 2019 report from SEUK, supported by the Co-op Group and Nationwide Building Society, stated there are 100,000 social enterprises in the UK, contributing £60bn to the UK economy and employing 2 million people. Co-operatives UK’s Co-op Economy Report 2021 revealed the country has over 7,000 independent cooperative businesses, with a combined turnover of £39.7bn, employing more than 250,000 people.

Social enterprise is the fastest growing form of business in the UK, and the fastest growing form of employment (four jobs for one created in a traditional business), and they also operate in the poorest communities, employing black people and women in leadership positions. He is shocked at the lack of diversity in co-ops. “Why is the leadership of the co-op movement so white? Diverse businesses make better decisions and diverse leaderships reach more people. It is unjust and unhealthy to have a movement like this which is only led by one monoculture. It’s inefficient and inappropriate. We need to be brave enough to ask why this has happened, to arrive at the correct answer, and then we need to do something about it.”

What’s in a name?

Some co-operative activists are irritated by the way phrases such as ‘social enterprise’, ‘community businesses’, and ‘employee ownership’ are seemingly used as synonyms for ‘co-operative’, which could potentially devalue co-op identity. Others view both co-ops and social enterprises as important forms of mutual business and are in turn irritated at the perceived exclusivity of co-ops –  which in their view could help account for the general lack of public awareness.

Related: How do co-ops stack up against other purpose-led models?

“For me, the similarities between co-ops and social enterprises are far more interesting than the differences,” says Lord Victor. “Both are a form of mutuality, in the philosophical sense. They are engaged with connection, community, culture, and sustainability – both economic as well as environmental. Both challenge the orthodoxy of individualism that is going to wreck the planet; we have common calls in that regard.”

The two models are “different forms of doing the same thing”, he says, with that thing being a collective effort to formulate progress.

“I’m interested in intention and process. If the intention of a co-op is collective distribution and ownership, then the process by which it delivers that seems to me to make sense. Similarly, if the intention of social enterprises is accountability, responsibility, collective ownership and sustainability, the process seems to match that. 

“Don’t get me wrong, you do need a certain legal frame and governance, but I think that sometimes process can become more important than the intention. In my view, it’s one of the reasons why co-ops are a niche thing when in fact we should be, and at one point were, the popular form.”

He takes no truck with people who seek to create separation between organisations who have a shared basic vision. “We haven’t got time for that. It’s not a war. It’s and/and not either/or. It’s a case of a common view of the progressive economy, within which commerce serves a purpose, that we look to impress upon the economy a set of values. The form that we choose is largely a matter of choice. We need to spend less time naval-gazing and more time holding hands.”

Changing the rules

One of the reasons for his impatience is an acute awareness of the climate emergency. “We’ve got 10 years. The worse the problem gets, the more extreme the responses are going to need to be,” he says. “These people who think we’ve got some choices need to be reminded that the more time we spend making them, the less choices we have about what we’re going to have to do. Business models need to change and economies need to change, and the sustainable models that we need to change to are staring us in the face […] We need a mixed economy, which is more balanced towards social enterprises and co-ops than it is at the moment.”

What’s holding co-ops back, he thinks, is a tendency to be “too inward looking, too obsessed with nomenclature and less with purpose and intention”. 

Related: Raising awareness through co-operative education

“In many other countries, particularly African countries, co-ops are thriving. In Spain, co-ops are sitting around the table with ministers and policymakers. In this country? Nada. Why? We’re too insular, too closed, too obsessed with the rules, less obsessed with the purpose of the rules.” 

He likens the co-operative movement to a private club more interested in its own survival than its purpose. “The purpose of co-ops was never to create a self perpetuating clique of insiders, they were meant to improve communities.”

So what do we do about this? “Firstly, invest in and appoint more people like [Co-operatives UK CEO] Rose Marley, who can communicate, who can express themselves, who have a strategy which is inclusive, not exclusive, and who have a mission and values that align with different movements. Her appearance on Newsnight a few weeks ago was the first time I’ve seen a co-op leader on that programme who explains in plain English and speaks to an audience beyond the co-op bubble. Co-ops need to grow presence, relevance and passion. They need to be inclusive, not exclusive. They need to be reaching out to other businesses.

“Secondly, take a look at the rules, because there’s something that’s stopping people from joining co-op particularly amongst the young, and I suspect it’s in part the labyrinthine, Gormenghast-type practices. Young people are crying out for a model which is credible, because they know the current model of our economy is incredible, and it’s them who will suffer. Yes there are some young people involved in co-ops but it’s not a mass movement. We’re not making it attractive, we’re not making it easy. It should be the easiest thing in the world to form, work for or join a co-op – it should be easier than falling off a log.”

He adds: “I know people get very passionate about co-operatives and co-op models and the rules, and I’m seen as a bit of an outsider. But I’ve spent a lot of time, including my formative years, with co ops. I can just see things from the outside, and it doesn’t look too sweet. But as a model of commerce, co-ops have the potential to change the way the country operates its economy and save the planet. There aren’t many other ideas currently running that can do that.”

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