We asked co-operative leaders, activists and economic thinkers for the opportunities and challenges they are expecting in 2014.
Predicting future trends is difficult. This time last year, with the success of the International Year of Co-operatives behind us and the hope of the Co-operative Bank’s Lloyds deal ahead, few would have predicted the calamitous events of 2013.
Yet it is important to look ahead. So we asked co-operative leaders, activists and economic thinkers what they are planning for in 2014.
Perhaps the most pressing issue for the next year will be repairing the reputational damage from the Co-operative Bank crisis.
As Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK says in this issue, “it would be naïve to assume that the challenges of 2013 will not echo over the coming year.”
With a number of high profile enquiries into the Co-operative Group’s governance and operations taking place, alongside the need to salvage trust in the ‘co-operative’ brand and the model’s capacity for strong governance, this seems inevitable.
From the Group’s perspective, Euan Sutherland, the chief executive, will want to draw a line by unveiling a new vision for the business at its AGM in May.
But the impact of the Bank’s problems is likely to continue beyond that and be felt across the sector.
As Julian Dobson writer, researcher and director of think-tank Urban Pollinators says: “The co-operative movement faces a major challenge to its credibility. The worry is that this will make life harder for new and aspiring co-ops.”
Chief executive of the Wine Society, Robin McMillan, says that “the short term reputational fall out of the Group’s recent banking crisis” will be the biggest challenge of 2014.
Euan Sutherland does not dodge the issue: “With everything that has happened in 2013, I think the whole co-operative movement faces a major re-building exercise for us to again demonstrate our relevance.”
More positively, the problems at the Co-operative Bank have reawakened the democratic desires of the co-operative movement.
Maurice Glasman, in one of the most considered comments during the Co-operative Bank crisis, wrote in the Guardian: “I am angry with a movement that was not prepared to hold its rulers to account. We need to rediscover tension and conflict in order to bring the co-operative movement back to life.”
In the letters pages of the Co-operative News, across social media and in the Save Our Bank campaign, there is an active grassroots movement emerging, likely to get stronger over the next 12 months.
Dave Boyle, consultant at Principle Six, a self-described ‘co-operative agitation and development agency’, explains that the co-operative movement’s biggest challenge “is articulating what is meant by member democratic control. Our notion of member democracy and participation now looks perversely out of kilter with the times. We have discovered that our co-operative culture is grievously disconnected from the mass of our members.”
Worker co-operatives predict a similar challenge. Government support for employee ownership is set to continue. But as Bob Cannell of Suma says, while the “time for economic democracy is clearly here” and “employee ownership is pushing at an open door, we risk only achieving half the gain and leaving the corporate executive elite still in charge unless we have proper co-operative democracy.”
Reputation repair is likely to be accompanied by increasing competition.
For Ben Reid, chief executive of Midcounties Co-operative, “the biggest issue is undoubtedly how we respond to the serious challenge that the discounters pose to our food business.
“I suspect [food] has never faced such a threat as presents itself today. We need to call on all our experience to refresh our food business or we risk losing relevance.”
This point is emphasised by Ben Reid’s counterpart at Midlands Co-operative, Martyn Cheatle: “we need to continue to invest in and protect our co-operative principles. Many of our competitors have realised the value of what has traditionally been our point of difference.”
Rediscovering social purpose
Accompanying the democratic reawakening is the sense that the co-operative movement will try to articulate a stronger social purpose.
As James Meadway, Senior Economist at the New Economics Foundation says: “The biggest challenge for co-operatives will be in forcing themselves to the front-and-centre of the economic debate. There’s a need to think big – to see the potential for different forms of ownership as part of the solution to the huge social challenges we face.”
Researcher Julian Dobson adds: “If co-ops are unable to show how they are addressing issues of poverty and justice, they risk becoming sidelined as irrelevant and ineffective.”
There is no doubt that the events at the Co-operative Bank have left a determination to explain the co-operative difference clearly. Euan Sutherland puts it simply: “For a Group that was born with difference in its DNA, we stopped being different many years ago.”
Sion Whellens of Calverts design co-operative calls this “a historic opportunity to renew and transform” co-operatives and “give them a new co-operative relevance.”
This is no small task.
What we can expect in 2014, then, is for the co-operative movement to try to transform its democracy and define its social purpose, while working through some of the biggest reputational and financial problems for decades.