The contrast with Ed Mayo could hardly be more stark. He is not a member of the Co-operative Party, nor of any other political party. He is definitely a political animal, but not in the party membership sense. His background is from what might be regarded as a left-of-centre, intellectual, ecological and humanitarian direction — though this is not his description. Instead, Ed emphasises his commitment to fair trade and consumerism, both of which he sees as being highly compatible with the Co-operative Movement.
Ed joined from the Consumer Council, where he was Chief Executive, and he also previously led the New Economics Foundation, a body that put forward many interesting ideas bringing together the interests of environmental protection and a fair society. He also helped establish the Fairtrade Mark. “All my working life has been about promoting aspects of an ethical economy,” says Ed. “Coming into the Co-operative Movement is a chance to build an ethical economy in practice.” He adds: “It’s a dream role.”
Taking the Co-operative Movement into a less politically partisan position reflects the zeitgeist. “When I joined, the board confirmed that Co-operatives UK is not party political, that we will work with people open to co-operative ideas from any political party,” elaborates Ed. “That is not to undermine the incredibly valued role and outstanding track record of activists and politicians within the Co-operative Party, but it’s also to recognise that politicians from all parties can make a contribution. We are seeing that in the all-party groups in Holyrood and in the Welsh Assembly and we are hopeful we will see a cross party committee emerging in the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
Speaking shortly before the General Election, Ed declines to give a view on whether the connection between the Labour and Co-op parties is now helpful or a hindrance. “I don’t want to get involved in this at all!,” he insists with fervour. He adds: “The Co-operative Party has an outstanding record of influence over the life of the Labour Government. If there is not a Labour Government, its influence is much more limited. But we will work with whoever we can, across the parties. Co-operatives UK has a conscious decision not to be party political and also to engage vigorously in policy making and in the political process to put forward the cause. We are not absenting ourselves, but we are doing it in a way that makes clear that we are not party political.”
Now that Ed has settled into his role, he is able to reflect clearly on his priorities. “We need to raise the bar in terms of our own work at Co-operatives UK,” he says. “It’s our role to serve our members and we need to make sure we do a great job on that. I think we have been patchy with some of the bits of work we have been doing and sometimes lacked focus. That is the view of our members.
“We did a reputation audit. An independent agency — the Centre for Brand Analysis — said that by and large Co-operatives UK is very well regarded in the Co-operative Movement, played a unique role and that if it didn’t exist you would have to invent it, but outside the Co-operative Movement we have an almost zero profile and impact.
“When I started one of the first questions I asked was, what do our members want us to do. I got different answers on that — good answers, but different. So we also ran a membership survey. That said in very clear terms what our members wanted us to do. First, promote the co-operative economy. Second, promote the co-operative business model. Third, alongside others, develop new co-operative enterprise. That is a fantastically clear mandate.
“We have to move very fast on delivering on that because the time is right for co-operation. The Co-operative Movement has got its act together. Co-operative businesses are in a more robust state of health than before. With everything that has gone on in terms of the credit crunch, the collapse in faith in investor-led [business] models, there is a greater public receptivity than ever before to co-operatives.
“We just need one thing to move forward and that one thing is confidence. It is no good being introverted. It’s no good sitting around, waiting for people to tell us we were right and that the free market model is failing. It is up to us to make the case for co-operatives. In many ways, I see 2010 as about learning and experimentation. We are playing with different things to see how we can do what our members want us to do, how we can best serve our members.”
This new approach has involved Co-operatives UK running different types of campaigns. One of these promoted the use of the co-op model for community ownership of pubs, which persuaded the last Government to invest £3.3m behind it. Another mini-campaign involving members promoted community ownership of sports clubs, including football teams, which influenced two party election manifestos.
But while there is a positive response across the political spectrum to such campaigns, this can lead to problems where those who are persuaded to back the use of co-operatives have little real understanding of the structures and principles that underpin them. Where knowledge is shallow it can lead to proposals for what Ed calls a “co-operative-lite” model, as with suggestions to convert British Waterways into a co-op, where the Treasury argues that a charitable trust is a co-op. “So we have to fight not just for co-operatives and co-operation, but also for quality,” says Ed.
He argues that it is essential that Co-operatives UK acts now as “an agent for renewal” in the Co-operative Movement, involving not just renewal of the business model, but also renewal of co-operation as a social movement, with the renewal of co-operative activism and engagement, a widening out of diversity and a renewal of international connections. “One of the things we are trying with Co-operatives Fortnight is the single most important initiative we are taking with our members this year [which] is to explore how we can encourage people to be co-operative, as well as to engage in co-operatives,” says Ed. “That there is a personal level to being a co-operator; not just an institutional level.”
But the mood favouring co-operatives is undoubtedly helping with more co-operative business registrations, as well. The political focus on co-operatives from the political parties has coincided with a period in which the number of co-ops delivering public services has increased, suggests Ed. He points to the 20 or so childcare co-operatives and 54 co-operative schools as indicative of a trend.
“Yet the majority of the Co-operative Movement is not involved in the public sector in that way,” he adds. “So it is important for us to keep a focus and say that we want all markets to be co-operative.”
Ed gives as an example energy as a sector in which shared-owned companies “deliver appalling service and appalling value for the consumer” and which is ripe for competition from co-operative enterprises. “Our focus is still going to be about transforming markets,” he says. “We want all markets to be co-operative.”
And that gives more than a hint as to the direction in which Co-operatives UK is now being led. “Co-operatives UK’s role within the Movement is quite a humble role, actually, of just being a trade association,” he adds. “We have to roll up our sleeves be a network and trade association for co-operative enterprises.” It may not sound glamorous, but if properly fulfilled it would be welcomed by many co-ops.