Jeevan Jones is involved in several parts of the UK co-op movement, alongside his day job as an economist. He has sat on the Co-op Group’s National Members’ Council (NMC), the membership body which holds the board to account, since 2018. He was elected onto the Council Senate in 2019 and in July was voted the Council’s vice president for business performance. In this role he is part of the council leadership team. He is also branch secretary of the Birmingham Co-operative Party.
How did you get involved in co-ops?
I got inspired by the model at university. I was studying economics, and living in Birmingham and got really close to the co-op scene there. There are a lot of community co-ops and worker co-ops in Birmingham, as well as the big retailers. I think the co-op model is fantastic – it’s really empowering. It’s very democratic, and I think it can be quite sustainable. Four years ago, I took the leap and stood for the NMC, and I guess the rest is history – as you get more involved and volunteer for more roles you get sucked in, don’t you?
What is special about the co-op model?
It’s the member angle, really. I think members are some of the best bits of the co-operative movement. There’s a long and familiar history but some of the more interesting stuff happens here and now – in the retail organisations where the focus is on ethics and on member value, and in the community grassroots co-ops that are solving practical issues on the ground, like housing and energy. The challenge is how you scale it up … There are some questions there – legally, politically, socially, culturally – we need to think about, but in terms of solutions I think co-ops really do stand out.
What is your role at the co-op Group?
We have around six full NMC meetings every year, where we bring the full 100 council member together. We use those meetings to question and challenge the board and the business, develop our own strategy, and collect our insights together. In between that we’ve got various committees where we meet remotely. I lead on the Business Performance and Member Value Committee – that’s focused on a more detailed look at the financials. I have various meetings with senior leaders to understand what’s going on there to gain insights, and meet the directors to provide our views from a member perspective. Also, where I can, going out in the field and actually meeting colleagues in stores. I’ve also started to look at social media … I’m interested in growing that as another channel to get the insight. We’ve got over four million active members, I want to be able to tap into that.
What are you hoping to achieve in your new role on the NMC?
It’s mainly focused around influence. You provide that member perspective, and you try to get the board and the directors to do what you want on behalf of members. You need to build your influence, and that’s mainly building good strong relationships with the directors, the executive and the board members. And then to have that impact, making sure that all our processes work effectively, and that the council is as effective as possible.
What is your role at the Co-op Party?
I’m involved locally. There are some big issues when it comes to legal barriers – are co-operatives on a level playing field? The Party has a role to campaign and change laws when it comes to that. Then at a more local level it’s about having influence with local politicians and helping them understand what they can do to help the co-op movement – for example, for the retail sector when it comes to crime and colleague safety.
How does your age affect your role as Vice president of the NMC?
All of the presidents and vice presidents have been either middle aged or retired. At 28, I’m pretty sure I’m the youngest person [to be elected a vice president]. And that was a big part of my campaign, that we need to be representative of our members … and I can bring that new-generation perspective. The average age of the council has gone down dramatically since it was founded seven years ago, but it is still relatively mature.
How well do you think the Group and the wider movement engages with youth?
The short answer is not well enough. Co-operatives [need] to make themselves more relevant to younger people, so they feel connected to it. And they need to focus on recruitment. When you look at our values and principles, they align strongly with some of the ethics and campaigns that younger people are interested in – fair treatment, fair pay, environment, climate change. The co-op movement struggles a bit with how it brands itself. There are some promising signs – the Co-op Group is doing a lot of work with younger people, starting with its academies, and flowing through to membership propositions. And Co-operatives UK recently ran a youth summit. My challenge to younger people, would be to stand [for positions within co-ops]. By encouraging younger people to stand and get onto the council, we’ve had to start to change the culture, the language and the discussion around how the council operates.
How can the Group better engage with people who don’t identify with co-ops?
It’s really hard. I think a large part of that is communication and language. I know the word values, I know the word principles, but when you put it together in the co-op movement it suddenly means something unique and history-laden. And beyond language there’s doing things that are relevant for people, whether that’s local campaigns, local funding, things that younger people can connect with. And I am starting to think, for younger people in particular, are their communities a bit more global? If their interest is climate change, maybe they connect online with a global community … do our campaigns need to be run in that global context? But it’s a challenge. I think some people may find that really hard, because change is hard. If we don’t change then I think we’re in trouble.
What big impacts has the NMC made?
There was the big issue around retail crime, and campaigns around loneliness, young people and empowerment. Then there’s lots of stuff behind the scenes where we’ve been critical over how the Group has implemented the values and principles. I think where we’ve had a strong influence, the directors have changed their approach.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your co-operative work?
Sometimes there are people in the co-op movement who think, “You’ve not served your time. You’re a young person, what do you know?” My comeback is: I’m a working person. I’m close to the average member as a result, and many of our members are our young shoppers and younger members. One of the original principles of co-operation was about meeting member needs, and you do not need to be highly qualified to do that. It’s got better but I really want to focus on that culture change. We are more welcoming and accepting, but it has been hard.
What are the main challenges and opportunities facing the Group?
We have our members, and our members are loyal. Also our rootedness in the community puts us in a strong position. I think we have an open door to push if we take it, when it comes to climate change and the environment and sustainability. The Group has been a leader in lots of ways in how it approaches packaging, recycling, green delivery, all those kinds of things. We just need to make sure that we do it right. I think that’s the bit that we need to be careful about – are we in the right place to try these things? And if we are, how do we scale it and how do we make sure it all sits within our values? But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we are facing some really tough headwinds.
What else is coming up with the NMC?
There’s an engagement piece which I’m really keen to work on … the Join In Live events (you can find out more about them and register here). They happen every autumn and they’re an opportunity for members to get involved. We’ll have a few setpiece events across the country, virtual and online, and lots more localised events. My big call to action for people is to go to their Join In Live events, use them to ask questions and understand what’s going on in the business, and also provide ideas for what the campaigns and ethical focuses should be. I’m hoping to attend as many of those as I can.
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