End of year Q&A: Rose Marley, CEO, Co-operatives UK

‘We had to take some major steps in terms of understanding what we’ve termed the democratic economy’

How has the last year been for you and the UK co-op movement?

 This year has been so significant in terms of empowering co-operation. We had to take some major steps in terms of understanding what we’ve termed the democratic economy, alongside bringing together members and like-minded organisations so we can speak with one, more powerful, collective voice. 

We revamped and reworked our annual economy report to extend to the wider mutual family. Titled the Co-op and Mutual Economy 2023, it encompasses employee-owned businesses, building societies and financial mutuals – as well as co-operatives of course. We worked with the Building Societies Association, the Association of Financial Mutuals, the International Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Federation and more to get a baseline. Without a baseline how can we chart democratic growth? 

So our Co-op and Mutual Economy report revealed a combined annual turnover of £87.9bn. It’s a big number, but other nations provide context. Germany has a co-operative sector four times the size of the UK’s as a proportion of GDP and France, while in the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand co-operatives amount to between five and 10% of GDP compared to 2% in the UK. 

Related: A look at the Co-op and Mutual Economy report

I look at this in a positive way. There’s huge potential and a growing interest in the democratic economy. We’re seeing impressive growth in, for example, credit unions and community-owned pubs – an increase of over 60% in five years! Let’s not forget that co-ops are all about people. We showcased our members including West Granton Housing Co-operative and Equal Care Co-op – demonstrating how they’re tackling broken markets in social housing and social care respectively. Co-operatives fix things! 

We’ve created, solidified and strengthened politic alliances to further our aims.  Alongside partner organisations we launched the Co-op and Mutual Prospectus, as well as working with Social Enterprise UK, the EOA, Community Energy England and more, on the Future Economy Alliance. It’s all about ensuring business with purpose work together. And of course, after many years of lobbying – from way before my time at Co-operative UK – the most comprehensive modernisation of the co-operative sector for a generation is under way. 

The review of the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 and Friendly Societies Act 1992 was announced at Co-op Congress by MP Andrew Griffith. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve society law! Exciting times for Co-operatives UK, our members and the entire movement. 

What are your hopes for the future?

Looking forward to 2024 what is our ask in a general election year? We launched a powerful policy platform in September calling for all parties to commit co-operative growth ahead of the next election. Our clear asks, working closely with our members, include: unlocking options for raising capital; removing unnecessary barriers to co-operation; enabling the power of co-operatives to fix broken systems; and building business support. 

We evidence what co-operatives will give the nation for this support; from good jobs to brilliant and resilient business to thriving local communities. The next 12 months offer so much opportunity and potential for our wonderful sector. We’ll be working hard to make sure we take full advantage.

Click here for more Q&As from our annual review