When is a co-op not a co-op?

There’s a famous surrealists’ riddle that asks “what’s the difference between a duck?” To which, most people will pause, realise

There’s a famous surrealists’ riddle that asks “what’s the difference between a duck?” To which, most people will pause, realise that its probably going to take them a bit more time to figure something out that has no immediate or direct relevance to them and so ignore it.

Why am I telling you this? Well, because I’m concerned that the co-operative movement might be starting to become a surreal riddle.

Co-ops are high on the political agenda at the moment, with all the talk of ‘mutualism’, co-op councils and even a cushion manufacturer who’re presenting themselves as a new hybrid co-op model that makes it easier for co-ops to attract external equity investment.

However, co-ops are identified universally by a set of core values and principles. Anything that does not conform to these is not really a co-op (but perhaps an admirable venture based on social values). And if you start to look more closely at these ‘exciting new co-op models’, you might start to get a bit confused:

1) The ‘mutualism’ agenda – if you look up the term ‘mutualism’ you realise that what the politicians mean isn’t a true mutual (which would be run solely in the interests of its members – not a good fit for public services), but rather a workers or multi-stakeholder co-operative

2) The Lambeth Co-op council model states that it will work to an agreed set of principles – not all of which look very complementary or comparable to co-ops’:

Lambeth Co-op council principles:

  • The council as the local democratic leader and civil society partner;
  • Public services planned together and delivered through a variety of organisations which will improve outcomes, empower citizens and users, and strengthen civil society;
  • Citizens incentivised to take part in the provision of public services;
  • Public services enabling residents to engage in civil society through employment opportunities;
  • Public services accessible from a variety of locations.

(taken from ‘The Co-operative Council Sharing power: A new settlement between citizens and the state’)

International co-op principles:

  • Autonomy and Independence;
  • Voluntary and Open Membership;
  • Member Economic Participation;
  • Education, Training and Information;
  • Concern for Community;
  • Co-operation among Co-operatives;
  • Democratic Member Control.

(and there is also an additional values set that goes with these, too…Lambeth obvioulsy don’t seem to think that a co-op needs values)

3) And the cushion manufacturer – well, they’re essentially looking at a nice profit share model to incentives employees, but not showing any intent to actually share ownership and power.

But does this really matter?

YES! Co-operatives are only as powerful as they are, and attract the support that they do because of their unique identity (an identity that many fear is only loosely protected in law…) If the co-operative movement is to remain as credible and powerful as it is, it needs to ensure that its unique identity remains ‘pure’ and not able to be ‘hi-jacked’ by others masquerading as co-ops when in doing so they only serve to ultimately confuse the general populace as to what co-ops actually are and so damage the movements’ brand and our shared heritage.

…so – when is a co-op not a co-op?

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