Co-operative lobbying: seeking change for good

One of the most unsavoury characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is Gríma, the Wormtongue. He whispers from the shadows into the ear of the decrepit...

One of the most unsavoury characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is Gríma, the Wormtongue. He whispers from the shadows into the ear of the decrepit King Théoden of Rohan, urging self-interest and accommodation with evil. Such is the common perception of how business lobbyists conduct themselves within the labyrinth of government.

But there is another side to the story, shown through examples of businesses engaging with public policy and making a substantive, positive difference to people and the planet. In the 19th century it was Cadbury, Lever, Owen and Rowntree. In the 21st century it is Aviva, Co-operative Energy, Gates, IKEA, Khosla, Maersk Line, Moore, Ramsay, Reid, Skoll, Unilever and a host of others.

Past champions of corporate responsibility are often viewed through the crude lens of community investment and how much wealth they donated. Yet the truly great business leaders throughout history have always grasped that legislative intervention can be a greater force for good.

At the turn of the century, Robert Owen was pioneering enlightened new work practices at his New Lanark cotton mill in Scotland, including the introduction of the world’s first infant school. He also spent the greater part of his adult life lobbying for the reform of working conditions across the nation. William Lever created the incredible Port Sunlight garden village to house his workers – but he was also a member of Parliament who, in his maiden speech, called for the state to have a role in the provision of pensions, and later went on to introduce a private members’ bill on the issue. John Cadbury spent his spare time campaigning against the use of young boys as chimney sweeps. Joseph Rowntree made sure that not all of his trusts were charitable, as he wanted them to be able to seek to “change the laws of the land”.

Today, an emerging group of pioneers have similarly realised that the business case for corporate responsibility will never be strong enough to support an isolated business in its competition against the unscrupulous. Public policy intervention is required to change the rules and shift the bar for the allowable lowest common denominator.

Take the example of Co-operative Energy. From the outset, the business committed to fair pricing and pledged that the carbon content of its electricity would remain less than half the national average. Moreover, in addition to general support for renewable energy, it actively sought power from community generation initiatives.

But it quickly became apparent to Ben Reid (chief executive of Midcounties, of which Co-operative Energy is a part) and Ramsay Dunning (general manager of Co-operative Energy) that they faced an uphill struggle to acquire customers and build market share given the stranglehold of the ‘big six’ energy firms, which between them controlled 97% of the UK energy supply market and benefited from regulation that had evolved to accommodate their interests.

“As a co-operative intervening in a marketplace it’s not just about playing the game, it’s not even about winning the game – it’s about fundamentally changing the game,” said My Reid, while Mr Dunning believed that “energy policy needed to be radically overhauled and coal power generation phased out at the earliest opportunity”. So they went about building a highly effective strategy of lobbying for good, as is apparent from the society’s latest Social Responsibility Report.

As with many things, the co-operative movement was an early pioneer of lobbying – something even the incredibly effective Unilever will attest to. The Rochdale Pioneers were deeply political (the door of the first store was painted Chartist green on the opening night) while back in 1819, the first president, Miles Ashworth, led a group to the bloody demonstration in Manchester that later became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

Across the globe, the logic of lobbying for good is such that it is overriding the cultural aversion that rails against it. Getting on board puts you not only in the company of some fantastic business leaders down the ages, but on the right side of history. There are plenty of ‘jump on’ opportunities through the wonderful Co-operatives UK and the Social Economy Alliance. As Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK has said: “If your business signs up to sustainability in principle, then you will know it is serious when it starts to lobby for it in practice. The sustainable economy is not going to create itself – so champion it.”

• Paul Monaghan, is Director of Up the Ethics, former Head of Social Goals at the Co-operative Group and co-Author of the new book ‘Lobbying for Good’. Co-operative News readers can save 15% when purchasing Lobbying for Good (Dō Sustainability, 2014) from the publisher. Use code COOP15 here.

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