Co-ops provide a lifeline for communities: Growing the co-op economy

The co-operative economy has outperformed the UK economy for the fourth time in a row this year, but how can it continue to grow? This was the topic...

The co-operative economy has outperformed the UK economy for the fourth time in a row this year, but how can it continue to grow? This was the topic of the Co-operative Congress, held at Co-operatives UK in Manchester.

Co-operatives UK Secretary-General, Ed Mayo, explained that co-operatives must remain tough in a tough competitive market. He said: “We are about stakeholder, not shareholder, of course we need to make a profit, but that’s juts part of it.”

He added that co-ops provide a lifeline for remote and rural communities. Using the example of the Uig Community Co-operative Shop on the West Coast of Lewis in Scotland.

Elaine Newton, the general manager of the shop said: “There’s no doubt that without the co-op and access to all the goods we can get there, the community would die without a shop.”

The Secretary-General quoted retail guru Mary Portas, who was at the previous Co-operative Congress. She had said that consumers are beginning to question how they spend their money and co-ops: “are not shouting enough about your ethical credentials.”

He added that co-ops are “harder to start, but harder to kill” with only 1 in 20 new co-op businesses failing, compared to nearly half of new non co-op businesses.

Mr. Mayo finished by saying: “We can send a message to our colleges, to our members, to our public, that we are business, that we are co-operative, that we are the future.”

The second speaker of the Congress was Peter Hunt, Chief executive of Mutuo, an organisation promoting the mutual approach to business and public policy.

Mutuo was set up ten years ago when the UK had come to the end of a major demutualisation, with significant shrinking of the sector from 80 per cent to 20 per cent in areas such as Building Societies.

Peter said: “Mutuals and co-ops were feeling pretty low and government was pretty negative about the sector – many people thought if you just leave it alone it’ll go away.”

“There was out of date legislation, and there were people in government who didn’t understand or empathise with the needs of co-op businesses. In 2008 the financial crash hit across the world – it gave them time to question their strongly held view, and realise all the eggs were in the wrong basket.”

He added that co-op politics had always been seen to be a lefty thing, but the reality was that “there are people from all political parties that have an interest. This is a cross party message.”

Peter explained that there were two million more mutual members because the work of Mutuo. He said: “We need to look from the politician’s perspective. We have to have successful co-ops and mutuals to point to.”

The Co-operative Congress was moved to become part of the 2, the biggest co-op event of the year.

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