Co-operation: Addressing the challenges of our time

Hazel Johnson, trustee of the
Co-operative College, looks at how the movement can bring structural change to a divided world

Can co-operation and forms of co-operative organising help address the social and economic challenges of our time?

In particular, can co-operatives and related forms of organisation go beyond addressing corners of market and state failure and help promote structural change? These are questions that grow in importance the more that our societies become fractured socially, economically and politically in the face of global, regional and national tensions, increasing inequality and persistent disadvantage.

Co-operatives are a significant global phenomenon, with more than 1 billion members worldwide. In the UK alone there are more than 7,000 independent co-operatives that have a combined turnover of £36.1bn. Co-operatives vary hugely in scale and can be found in every sector from food production and finance to energy; housing; health; education; and digital enterprises. They are informed by values and principles which, when taken together, form a blueprint for a unique business and social model.

But what does this mean in practice and how far can co-operatives inform wider social and economic organisation and service provision that is increasingly marketised? To what extent can co-operatives – and co-operative education – meet the current and future needs of disadvantaged populations, and promote social justice? To what extent can their experiences challenge ‘what is’ and enable us to think ‘what might be’?

These and other issues informed a lively seminar at The Open University in December 2018. Researchers with policy and practice experience from, or linked to, the OU and the Co-operative College discussed co-operative education, social and economic hardship, youth, and the strengths and weaknesses of co-operatives in the UK, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and South America.

Related: The Co-operative Heritage Trust – reinvigorating the Rochdale story

They also reflected on future challenges and opportunities.

The panel discussing education comprised Dr Linda Shaw (former College vice-principal), Dr Cilla Ross (College vice-principal) and Dr Fenella Porter (RED Learning Co-op).

Referring to her work in sub-Saharan Africa and Sri Lanka as well as the UK, Dr Shaw said more work is needed on co-operative education. “There has been a lot of work on co-ops, and education has been a part of that,” she said, “but it’s time we moved it centre stage – it’s critical as a driver of innovation and change”. She quoted Dr Brett Fairbairn, who believes education is the “agency which holds members and their co-operatives together”, and underscored that the demand for co-operative education greatly outstrips supply. “There is a need for more co-operative education that is more consistent and in a language and location that learners can understand and interact with,” she said.

Dr Ross spoke about the Co-operative University project – “brave, bold, scary and possibly controversial” – that was initiated, in part, as a response to “some of the massive changes that are happening across our society; whether that’s changes in the co-operative movement itself, changes in higher education, or the extraordinary changes in society and the great crises of poverty, inequality and the changing world of work”. She emphasised that the project will strengthen deep engagement with co-operatives – both the established movement and the different ways people are building livelihoods and communities. Alongside its federated model, governance, funding and co-operative pedagogy, one distinction of the university project is its aim of using a values-based approach to make a better world.

The third panellist, Dr Fenella Porter, introduced the RED Learning Co-op (Research, Education and Development for Social Change). RED was set up a year ago by a small group of academics who used to work at Ruskin College in trade union education. “We see learning as located in a landscape
of activism and change,” she said. “We see education as going beyond individual student achievement, as integral to the way labour movements and others face the challenges in the current political environment. How we go about teaching and learning is completely embedded in the idea that this is about how we can contribute to this broader landscape of change.”

Co-operative education, learning and expansion of horizons through engaging in co-operative action were underlying features of a lively debate. Presentations from the other panels picked up on the role of the state in supporting, but not controlling, co-operatives; the relationship between co-operatives and other forms of activism; how co-operatives can support livelihoods in the aftermath of conflict and disasters; and how they, as well as other forms of collective organisation and networks, can help address unemployment and youth concerns.

Whether co-operatives address market failure or promote structural change, it was argued that they tend to blossom when linked to other social movements and organisations, suggesting that working together with others is important for the future. Co-operative memberships are a huge human and organising resource. Given the threat of climate change, jeopardising development across the world, should climate change and related issues be a key focus to mobilise around?