Co-op News: a tool of democracy

‘Co-op News is part of the co-operative movement but also an independent body and this is incredibly valuable’

This year, Co-op News turns 150, and our celebrations include a series of articles looking at our life and times. This month, Gillian Lonergan looks at the role of Co-op News in democracy …

In his book on Co-operative Principles, Will Watkins, a former director of the International Cooperative Alliance, said: “A co-operative exists to promote the interests of the whole body of its membership. It must be managed with the consent and approval of the members, otherwise it will collapse. There must therefore be agreed methods of ascertaining the members’ wishes as well as safeguards against the society being managed or manipulated in the interests of a minority of them.” 

Democracy is one of the fundamentals of co-operatives and throughout the development of the co-op movement, the engagement of members and ensuring that they can and do participate in the democratic control of their societies has been a major concern. If only a tiny minority of members actually take part in the democratic process, is it really democratic? Co-ops have always provided information and education to members to help them to take a full part in their societies. Co-op News has played a major role in this, with generations of co-operators reading the publication, learning what is happening in other co-ops and gaining ideas to help the development of their own societies. 

The Co-op News is part of the co-operative movement but also an independent body and this is incredibly valuable. Co-operators need to have access to information about times when things go wrong as well as when things go right – that does not always make for comfortable reading. I spent my working life in the National Co-operative Archive and whatever the subject that archive users wanted to research, the Co-op News would be one of the key sources. The analysis of governance failures as well as successes gives a true picture of how co-operatives operate and guides co-operators towards improvements.

One member, one vote

One member, one vote is one of the elements that made the ‘Rochdale Method’ such a success. Some earlier co-ops gave voting rights in proportion to the amount invested in the society. This meant that the decisions were being made by those who had money, whether or not they actually did their shopping in the stores. The Rochdale Pioneers used a much fairer and more co-operative method, which had been used by a few earlier societies, with everyone having a say, irrespective of the size of their purses. Co-operatives give huge numbers of people the opportunity to have an influence on the way the businesses operate. This was true even in the nineteenth century when most people did not have any influence in other parts of their life and long before people who did not own property could vote in local and general elections. Many co-operators – including quite a few of the Rochdale Pioneers – were Chartists, campaigning for the extension of the franchise to all men. Interestingly, the 1844 Rochdale Rules said that any person could be a member and specifically included women.

When co-operative societies are first set up, democracy is simple, the founding members can usually all fit into a room and discuss opportunities or threats faced by the society. As the membership increases, that becomes more difficult and it is a never ending challenge to co-operatives to find ways of engaging members. 

However large a co-operative society grows, the members are always the most important group, with employees and boards being accountable to them. To be able to take a full part in their societies, members need to have an understanding of co-operation and how it works. To have true democracy, members need to actively hold the boards to account and need to direct the actions of the workforce. 

In recent years there has been debate about how to encourage members to become ‘active members’. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the subject of what were known as ‘economic members’ was often discussed. Many people joined their consumer society because of the dividend, which was a valued addition to household budgets, but they did not know – or care – about how and why that dividend was produced. They did not attend meetings or read reports and were extremely unlikely ever to use their co-operative vote. Reaching those members was a challenge.

A responsibility to educate

Education of members about co-operation took many different forms in the nineteenth century. In addition to formal courses and lectures, the Education Committees held social events, concerts and dances to appeal to a wide range of members, making sure that during the interval there was a talk about co-operation, doing everything possible to increase the information getting to the membership. The Rochdale Pioneers Society held annual tea parties and took an interesting approach to encouraging attendance: tickets were priced at sixpence, and for any member who did not attend, there was a fine of sixpence. 

The salesmanship handbooks produced by the Co-operative Union for co-operative shop workers in the first half of the twentieth century included a section on members. These pointed out that when a member came into the shop, the shop assistant was actually serving one of the business’ owners. These volumes also point out, of course, that if the shop worker becomes a member, they will also be an owner of the business that employs them. 

Shop staff were encouraged to read Co-op News and other publications and to learn as much as they could about the products in the stores so they could distribute information alongside the goods. They took Co-operative Union courses and did their own research on the CWS factories that made the products and the supply chains that brought items from across the world. The shop workers were given the important responsibility of passing on information about co-ops to members, feeding into the democratic processes. 

When members are elected onto committees and boards, the need for participation steps up to another level, with committee members having a responsibility to participate in meetings. The Rochdale Pioneers, in the 1844 rule book, said that, barring illness, any committee member more than 15 minutes late for a meeting would be fined. In the late nineteenth century, a society in the West Midlands was making improvements to the boardroom and had funds for a boardroom table and chairs for half of the committee. The committee discussed whether to go ahead with the purchase or to wait until they could afford enough chairs for everyone. It was decided the purchase would be good for the democratic process as it would encourage prompt attendance – arrive early and have a nice chair. Latecomers sat on tea chests. 

Democracy takes different forms, and ensures that all stakeholders have a say in their co-operative society. It is the responsibility of every member and every employee to ensure they do everything possible to encourage co-operative democracy to thrive. As long as there are co-ops, this work
must continue.