SHEFFIELD Co-op – formerly known as the Brightside & Carbrook Co-operative Society – has come a long way since its first shop opened in 1868.
Today there are 35 food branches, six travel units, four petrol stations, seven funeral parlours and three non-food branches.
In my constituency, we have not only Sheffield Co-op but also United and the Co-op Group. The Co-op, whichever co-op it is, does make a difference. They are in every shopping area, including the poorer areas. The commitment to local communities has continued over many years.
The retail sector is important for the Co-operative Movement. Our origins in the 19th century lie with what we now call ‘ethical trading' and this continues to be an important part of how we do business.
In today's world it's not about adulterated flour, but new forms such as promoting Fairtrade products. Indeed, the Co-op remains the dominant force in Fairtrade.
Most retail societies put something back into the community – through community dividends, grants to local organisations and sponsorship of events. But I wonder just how many of our shoppers know that, let alone the wider public.
Compared with other supermarket chains, with their promotions for computers or sports equipment for schools, we miss receiving any ‘social dividend' from the wider community for our efforts.
To be able to do these things we have to make a profit, or as we often say, a surplus. I've always liked Lord Ted Graham's joke – "The Co-operative Movement? – it's not very co-operative and it doesn't move a lot." Like all good jokes it has truth at its heart, and we laugh because of that truth. But it's also depressing.
That truth has been with me all my life. But it needn't be like that. The manifesto of the Social Enterprise Coalition is entitled "There's more to business". This is how co-operation should be – there should be more, we should expect more.
The presentation by Peter Marks, Chief Executive of United Co-operatives, about a single retail society has made an impact. His message is that when looked at over a number of years the Co-op is clearly failing – in sales, trading surplus and market share. We have discussed these issues over many years, but the story of retailing is one of continual decline. That decline means we also fail in our social aims.
If the answer is a single society, let's be clear what the question is. If it's "How do we stop Co-op shops disappearing?" then it's the wrong question. There has to be a better reason for survival than just that we own a number of shops. If I want tea and a loaf of bread I can get them from any number of other outlets. I can even get Fairtrade coffee.
Co-ops grew from small groups of people meeting a collective need; economic necessity coupled with the values of community.
Over time, in response to differing pressures, the groups in the retail sector merged and became larger. How do we keep hold of those very elements that brought the Co-op into being; that give expression to our values?
Alan Middleton, Congress President in 1998, said then that "successful consumer co-operatives were born out of the communities they served; have we detached ourselves?"
There appears to me to be confusion with what we are supposed to be about, combined with poor management – lay and professional. As a lay co-operator, I've never seen any conflict between the values of co-operation and economic efficiency. We need to think more about how we implement our values, how we involve lay members and how governance is undertaken. Unless we have these, the Co-op may well no longer be a co-operative.
My concern is not with a particular structure for the co-op retail sector; one national society, a few regional societies, or perhaps one national focused buying and distribution network with smaller more local groups of shops.
I'm not qualified in a business sense to know which is better for us in the trading conditions of today. I do want one Co-op brand, a brand that carries our values of community involvement; good value and concern for the producer and consumer.
I agree with Peter Marks when he says the Co-op needs focus, discipline and centralisation. Reading a copy of the Sheffield Co-operator from November 1930, I was struck by one heading about co-operation in the city – ‘efficiency, economy and enterprise' – key issues for the co-operators of those days and perhaps even more so today.
Recently I visited the Big Life Company in Manchester, publishers of the Big Issue. The name Big Life suggests a company that has its eyes on larger issues, but upon entering their building I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw that their mission was to ‘change the world'.
I put the question to their Chief Executive, Fay Selvan, as to just how they intended to do that.
They have four objectives. The first is creating opportunities for people to change their lives – the focus is on those who are least well off and have had the fewest chances in life.
Secondly, they seek to do good business – clear objectives about developing more profitable businesses, targets for turnover and profit and targets for supporting other social enterprises.
Thirdly, improving what they do is part of their life, including achieving quality standards as well as excellent management and customer feedback systems.
Finally they are seeking to change the world. They believe they can make a difference and be an example to others.
The Big Life group believe that first-class services, whether healthcare, training and employment, or childcare, should be available to everyone. All their businesses have social as well as financial ambitions – what they call a double bottom line. They help to create wealth and opportunities for people who are overlooked by mainstream employers.
I was particularly struck by a sense that they wanted to do what they did well, but they wanted to do more. They were not going to stand still but continually move forward, however hard or difficult that was. Of course an organisation the size of the Big Life Company is not comparable to one of our retail societies, but many of their principles could be carried across.
During the last Parliament the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) set up a unit dedicated to social enterprise. It aims for growth in the social enterprise sector, enabling it to secure its place in the economy as part of the mainstream.
This includes working with Government departments and local authority purchasers to remove barriers within the procurement process for third sector organisations. Recently a Minister in the Cabinet Office was appointed to support the potential of social enterprises as partners in social delivery.
Government will be launching a new social enterprise action plan. This will seek to confirm the value and credibility of social enterprises, helping achieve recognition as a business model in order to secure regional development assistance funding and to encourage emerging entrepreneurs to adopt it.
Securing the position of social enterprises in the wider business world is important for the continued prosperity of the economy.
Latest figures from the Annual Small Business Survey show that there are about 55,000 social enterprises in the UK, around 4.8% of all businesses with employees, with a combined turnover over £ 27 billion. They contribute £ 8.4 billion a year to GVA, 0.85% of total GDP.
We have introduced a new form of company – the Community Interest Company; designed for social enterprises that want to use their profits and assets for the public good.
Indeed Co-operatives UK has just recently announced the availability of its first model for a Co-operative Community Interest Company.
Community Interest Companies are easy to set up, with all the flexibility and certainty of the company form, but with special features ensuring they work for the benefit of the community.
The first Community Interest Companies were registered from July last year, and there are already over 200 – ranging across recycling, radio stations, farmers' markets and housing.
When we look at our Movement in its widest sense of social enterprise, mutuality, community interest, there is a great deal going on and a great many ways in which entrepreneurial spirit and community interest come together.
Like many in the history of the Co-operative Movement, I'm a Christian Socialist, a Methodist. A sermon by my minister struck me as relevant to many walks of life.
He spoke of the need for the church to constantly move forward, to try new ways of worshipping; new ways of reaching out to new people.
It's not always comfortable for many church members happier with the familiar routines, hymns and prayers. But he put the choice starkly – progress or stagnation.
There is not an option to stand still, to continue to do what we have always done. Everything changes. If we don't change we stagnate, we don't appeal to new people, we find those who were involved with us lose interest and we become irrelevant. How do we constantly update our co-operative values in a changing world?
I asked a few friends what their immediate thoughts were when I said "the Co-op", and they said that while they value it, they felt it was outdated or dying out.
Yet if asked "how do you value organisations where ownership is spread amongst the community, people who work in it, and who are involved in the key decisions about it?" – it would be called forward thinking, participative, even modern.
Let's be clear about our values and ensure that when we talk about the Co-operative Movement we mean the Movement in its widest sense – one that embraces co-operatives, mutual organisations, social enterprises.
Recently I heard former President Bill Clinton speak about successful organisations and their three characteristics: Creating opportunities for all; feelings of shared responsibilities; and a sense of community. Surely we should find these in co-ops?
These values, and the actions they inspire, have to be built into a stronger brand.
The retail sector has long struggled to get a brand for the products they market. How much more are we in need of a brand for the whole sector?
The 2004 mutuo pamphlet Mutuals and their Communities, found that the mutual and co-operative sector plays a vital role in British society, with one in three people a member of at least one mutual organisation. A strong network of mutual organisations supporting their local communities benefits the UK economically and socially. Social capital is important for economic functioning.
We have to understand the challenges of the future to use the advantages that our values give us.
Are we looking for new opportunities? Already the Co-op Group is involved in sponsoring Business and Enterprise Colleges. Why not Trust Schools? Midcounties Co-operative not only operate nurseries in their trading area, but have a childcare voucher business enabling employers to provide them for their employees.
There are good examples of health provision by social enterprises. Surely the co-operative sector should be looking to expand its involvement in a whole range of service provision?
If we focus on customers through membership, our sector can achieve what state provision struggles to do – an understanding of customer need taking precedence over the interests of the providers of the services.
But despite all the problems and challenges, I'm optimistic. Our values are alive and well. They are values that are shared by many people and reinforce what is good in society.
Our values are surfacing all the time in new and exciting ways. But if many people do not understand that co-operative and mutual organisations are different – why should they choose us?
We must continue to make a profit, but doing so whilst meeting our social goals, indeed emphasising them more – explain what is our difference to that of the company next door.
We can stick to our values and be successful.
If our actions are the embodiment of our values, we can create a new Co-op brand of which we can all be proud.
• Meg Munn is Labour/Co-op MP for Sheffield Heeley and Minister for Women and Equality. This article is an edited version of Ms Munn's speech given to Congress 2006.
In this article
- Alan Middleton
- Big Life Company
- British co-operative movement
- building I
- chief executive
- Co-operatives UK
- Company Location
- Consumers' cooperative
- Cultural economics
- Midcounties Co-operative
- Peter Marks
- Social economy
- Social Issues
- Ted Graham
- The Co-operative brand
- The Co-operative Group
- Types of companies
- United Co