Looking forward to 2015: Courage, austerity and support

Co-op sector to secure its bases after crisis After such a challenging year, there is little doubt that the co-operative sector in the UK will spend 2015 securing its...

Co-op sector to secure its bases after crisis

After such a challenging year, there is little doubt that the co-operative sector in the UK will spend 2015 securing its bases.

The Co-operative Group will have its new democratic structure in place by May, and begin engagement with a mass membership of many millions.

Co-operatives UK will be working to help repair reputation damage and continue to unite the movement.

More broadly, there will be a general election in May, which has seen the co-operative sector campaigning, by itself and through the Social Economy Alliance and Co-operative Party.

Leadership, courage and identity

In 2014, a year of huge problems for the movement, Co-operatives UK secretary general Ed Mayo called on the sector to focus on building its leadership.

“We came close to losing the Co-operative Group as a business this year,” he said. “We need those in leadership and representative roles in the Group to focus on the future and to step up together to advance a realistic business strategy for recovery.

“In that context, there is space and scope for many of the other outstanding co-operatives across the UK to take a leadership role, arguing the case for economic democracy.

“The sector has already proved itself to be dynamic, resilient and growing. It remains a challenge to sustain that dynamism, resilience and growth. I’m convinced the sector is up to that challenge.”

Co-operative Group chair Ursula Lidbetter said new ways of thinking were needed to take the movement forward. She added: “For the Co-operative Group, our challenge is to open our minds to fresh thinking and new ways of working.

“We need to build real momentum – and seeing the courage we’ve shown this year I know we can take the opportunity to rebuild and move forward in 2015.”

Sarah Deas, chief executive of Co-operative Development Scotland, also spoke of a need for momentum in the movement. “We continue to face the challenge of spreading understanding of the benefits of co-operative working,” she said.

“While awareness is growing, we must ensure that we maintain momentum. There is significant potential in 2015. The growing desire for fairer, more inclusive approaches to working is an opportunity to further underline the virtues of the models. We anticipate interest will increase as those companies already embracing co-operative working demonstrate the benefits for staff, business and the economy.”

Altgen founder Rhiannon Colvin pointed to three key challenges facing the movement.

“First,” she said, “is going back to the co-operative movement’s radical roots and staying true to its values. People are fed up of the current economic order. We need to be brave and not try to be like the current corporations, but say we are different – we can offer an alternative – a more equal and sustainable future.”

She added: “This leads on to the second challenge: communication. The images and words we use need to reflect the fact that we are different. We need to stop looking like nice corporates and start using words and images that feel fresh, new, young and alternative.

“Finally, if the co-operative movement wants to have a future, it needs to put significantly more time, resources and knowledge into empowering the next generation of co-operators to take ownership of this movement so they can innovate, progress and take it forward.”

And Peter Couchman, chief executive of the Plunkett Foundation, said it was vital to put across the message that co-ops are there for people.

“The biggest issues will be how we put across the message that co-operatives are a relevant to solution to meeting people’s needs when so much reputational damage has been done,” he said, “and how we find enough resources to support the hundreds of communities coming to us for help with exploring co-operative solutions.”

Election, austerity and resources

Abcul chief executive Mark Lyonette believes 2015 will be an important year for the sector.

“General election years are always significant for the movement,” he said. “With the outcome of next May’s election as unpredictable as any in recent times, it’s more important than ever that politicians of all parties understand co-operatives and their contribution to the economy. Abcul will be continuing to make the case for access to ethical, mutual financial services for all.”

As general secretary of the Co-op Party, Karin Christiansen’s focus is firmly on the election.

She said: “Whatever the make-up of the next government, Party MPs will be out there championing co-operatives. We also know that, whoever is in government, money will be tight. In that climate, it’s crucial that co-operators in local and national government are putting people first, giving ordinary people a role in setting priorities and deciding how services are delivered.

“At a time of public scepticism towards politicians we need to make the case for politics that put people centre stage, not politicians or private companies.”

The Wales Co-operative Centre’s Derek Walker agrees that austerity will continue to affect the country. He said: “Budget cuts are affecting the ability of local authorities and other public services to deliver essential services in their current forms. They are having to look at doing different things, not just doing things differently.

“The challenge is to ensure that changes to services are done in an effective way and for local authorities to be encouraged to consider co-operative models as viable and attractive models that offer the best approach for both service users and employees.”

Growth, innovation and support

Retail societies will be attempting to turn around food sales in 2015, after a year of difficult conditions for the supermarket sector.

The foundation of Federal Trading Services (FTS) – a reboot of the Co-operative Retail Trading Group – will play an imperative part in facing up to this challenge, according to Mark Smith, director of FTS and chief executive of the Southern Co-operative Society.

“Given the market conditions we all face, we have to make this work,” he said. “No one can afford not to be fully up to speed on these important strategic developments that will impact us all.”

Of the launch of FTS in 2014, Mr Smith said: “Independent societies have been evolving how they work together while retaining their independence since the beginnings of the retail consumer movement.

“During 2014, major changes were made to the way in which these relationships will be overseen and governed that will have significant implications for all societies.”

He added: “There was much to be concerned about in the crisis that hit the Co-operative Group in 2013. But as part of fixing those problems has come the genuine opportunity to secure mutual benefit for all from a new fit-for-purpose federal relationship, one that provides a once-in-a-generation chance to move us all forward together.”

In the agricultural sector, James Graham, chief executive of the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, has called on co-operatives to move faster.

“It seems that some of our agricultural co-ops in the UK are not moving fast enough to secure a long-term position in their markets,” he said, “and there is a knowledge deficit to overcome.

“This is a massive challenge for those of us working in the sector.”

James Graham, chief executive of the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, has called on co-operatives to move faster.
James Graham has called on agricultural co-operatives to move faster

Mr Graham added: “We must establish more relationships with leading agricultural co-ops around the world, learn from them and, where possible, create mutually beneficial commercial partnerships.

“We need to stimulate a stronger momentum of change from an acknowledgement that our co-op futures, and the interests of their members, require this.”

Mr Graham said SAOS had been working in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership with the University of Aberdeen to research the need for a new credit union to serve farming and rural Scotland. The project is assisted in part by the UK Technology Strategy Board and the Scottish Funding Council.

“We have identified segments of farming that require better financial products and services,” added Mr Graham, “and a range of ways in which their needs might be addressed, some involving established agricultural co-operatives.

“In 2015, we must conclude the research stage of work and plan the type of financial intermediary or solution that we believe will serve our farmers and their co-operatives.”

Kate Whittle from Cooperantics said the biggest issues are the need to move on from the crisis at the Group and Bank, and raising awareness that the co-operative movement means much more than those organisations.

She said aims for the year should be: “To help all co-operatives to remain sustainable and financially viable in these difficult economic circumstances, and to share the benefits of the co-operative way of working more widely outside the co-op sector.”

She added: “There needs to be a way to fund development of pre-starts – such as fledgling businesses that could become co-operatives but lack awareness of the options. And finding a way to fund co-operative skills training for staff of businesses that convert to co-operatives.”

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