Co-operation: How? debate #2 – How do we take participation in co-operatives to the next level?

In their second debate at the Co-operative Congress, delegates looked at different ways to take participation in co-operatives to the next level. Keri Facer, Professor of Educational and...

In their second debate at the Co-operative Congress, delegates looked at different ways to take participation in co-operatives to the next level.

Keri Facer, Professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol, introduced the debate, in which co-operators pitched their own ideas as to how to increase participation in co-ops.

Prof. Facer, who has been Leadership Fellow for the UK Research Council’s Connected Communities Programme since 2012, told delegates that the debate was about taking the co-operative movement to the next level.

She said: “We have to understand what’s changing in the world outside and how we can harness the resources an opportunities there”. She explained that co-operatives should be able to respond to the changes occurring at a global level, such as technological advances, the disaggregation of work places, climate change and ageing population.

As the world becomes increasingly dependent on technology, the movement needs to look at ways in which technology can reshape co-operation, she said.

Prof Facer argued that environmental changes will also lead to demands for migration and internal movement, to which co-operatives will have to respond.

In light of these changes, co-operatives will have to provide support for different generations, from young people to the elderly. Keri Facer believes this will lead to a huge proliferation of co-operative practices, with groups like Avaaz and 38 Degrees engaging larger sections of the population.

These changes are about learning, thinks Prof. Facer,  “about educating ourselves to live differently”.

Pitch 1: An alliance of co-operatives 

Co-operators should form an alliance to share knowledge and learning in terms of participation, Peter Couchman told delegates at the Co-operative Congress.

Mr Couchman, who is the chief executive of Plunkett Foundation, which promotes and supports co-operatives and social enterprises in rural communities worldwide, thinks co-operatives have failed to move on in terms of participation.

To address this issue he proposed creating an alliance of co-operatives that would work together and share ideas to find solutions the lack of participation.

The alliance would need to be reaching out to other thinking going on elsewhere, said Peter Couchman.

“Let’s come together and face the 21st century together”, he said.

Mr Couchman also believes that co-operatives should make the most of the use of digital tools, but that they needed to clear about why they wanted to use digital platforms and what they hoped to achieve by doing so.

Most delegates were supportive of the idea proposed by Mr Couchman. Vivian Woodell, chief executive of the Phone Co-operative spoke in favour of the initiative and called Peter Couchman “a visionary”, while Phil Frampton of FC United said such an alliance should enable members to be engaged and exchange ideas without fear. He said: “The main reason why people don’t part is because they are told to shut up.”

However, Patrick Grey, president of Midcounties, disagreed with Mr Couchman, and expressed concerns that older members would not be interested in using digital tools and social media. He said: “We need to provide venues so that people become engaged so that we can build up a body of people who are active members, an army of activists to regenerate co-operation, but to do that it’s got to involve meetings like this one – real, active, face-to-face engagement.”

Pitch 2: A worker co-operative solidarity fund

Setting up a solidarity fund for worker co-operatives could help small worker co-operatives overcome challenges and grow. The proposal, introduced by Bob Cannell of Suma Wholefoods, had been suggested at the Worker Co-operative weekend, which took place in May.

Co-operatives would contribute one pound per member, per week to the fund.

“Young people need jobs which pay a living wage and are sustainable and secure. Some worker co-ops managed to supply that – they are fantastic businesses when they work right”, said Mr Cannell.

He explained how worker co-operatives have helped maintain and create thousands of jobs in Spain and Argentina.

Delegates favoured the idea of creating a solidarity fund. Stuart Field of Rootstock, who had also took part in the Worker Co-operative weekend in Sussex, said this could help co-operatives that have problems get in contact with other co-operatives that have faced similar challenges and managed to overcome them.

“There are many small co-ops who found innovative ways of working which we all can to learn from”, said Bob Cannell.

Josef Davies Coates of Co-operatives London and United Diversity, said he welcomed the idea, but wanted to extend it and have more co-operatives funding co-operatives, like in Italy, where all co-operatives must allocate 3% of profit to invest in other co-operatives.

Pitch three: Reforming co-operatives UK

Introducing the third pitch of the debate on participation, Jo Bird of Co-operative Business Consultants called for the reform of Co-operatives UK. Ms Bird said that the Co-operative Group and Co-operatives UK had a similar culture and came from the same areas. She argued that Co-operatives UK was a leadership body that was expected to lead by example.

She proposed six reform principles, including ensuring more representation on the board of Co-operatives UK and increasing members’ contribution to to the organisation, which, she said, was too dependent on funding from the Co-operative Group. Ms Bird also suggested moving to the one member, one vote principle.

She said Co-operatives UK should focus on meeting the needs of members and also enable individuals who support the co-operative model to become members. Another measure she suggested was inviting more international speakers to various co-operative events to enable knowledge exchange.

“There needs to be a cultural change within co-ops UK”, she said, adding that more democracy and openness was needed.

Responding to Ms Bird’s comments, Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK said that the National Retail Conference had featured a keynote international speaker. He also added that Co-operatives UK has looked at ideas about opening up to individual membership.

Mr Mayo said he welcomed the idea of securing more funding from co-operatives, but said that the organisation also aimed to attract more co-operatives.“We represent indirectly 70% of the co-op sector”, he said.

Your pitches

Delegates also suggested other measures aimed at increasing participation within co-operatives.

Co-operative Group member Vic Parks said elected members needed legislation to ensure they had rights and protection.

“It’s your role to hold the management to account,” he told delegates. “It’s easy not to have the courage to speak out. We need legislation to protect people on boards.

“A co-op is about caring for other people if we want a truly caring a sharing co-op we need to have a sanction against perpetrators,” he said.

Sean Farmelo, activist and founder of Students for Co-operation, encouraged delegates to support more student co-operatives.

“We need to ask who’s going to do this in a few years – it’s going to be people like us,” he said. He added that in the USA or Canada thousands of students were living in housing co-operatives and that Students for Co-operation needed more financial support to help grow the co-operative movement among the youth.

Other ideas suggested included supporting the development of community share platforms and aligning co-operatives with open source movement online.

The winning pitches voted for by delegates to be implemented over the coming year were:

  1. An alliance of co-operatives
  2. A worker co-operative solidarity fund
  3. Supporting student co-operatives


Read more:

Debate #1 – How do we promote the co-operative message and secure our identity?

Your Pledges – Delegates share their pledges to further co-operation over the year


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