How the Co-op College helped shape a leading light of the movement

Dame Pauline Green told the organisation’s Centenary Conference how it introduced her to the ideas of co-operation

Dame Pauline Green, in what she said would be her last public co-operative appearance, told the Co-operative College Centenary Conference how the organisation affected her as an individual co-operator.

Co-operation came easy to her generation, she said. “I am probably one of a few in the room who remember the stories of the Rochdale Pioneers being taught in primary school. I was one of the lucky ones; shortly after this, co-operation disappeared from the curriculum.”

This changed when the Co-operative College started to reintroduce this knowledge in schools, firstly through endeavours such as schools opening co-operative accounts, then through Enterprise Weeks and Co-operative Schools. 

Dame Pauline said was part of the baby boomer generation, who, “more than anything, were fired up to avoid World War III, through solid institutions, embedding democracy and building peace on the back of respect for rule of law”.

She defines herself as a “trade unionist, a politician and a co-operator”. She has worked as a policewoman and a teacher, was a Labour and Co-operative MEP and led the Parliamentary Group of the Party of European Socialists (PES). She was chief executive of the Co-operatives UK from 2000-2009 and president of the International Co-operative Alliance from 2009-2015. 

She came to active co-operation in adulthood, when a search for a youth group for her son and daughter led to the Woodcraft Folk.

“This led on to wanting to understand more about the co-operative movement,” she said. “I took part in one of the Co-op College’s history weekends that they used to run at Stamford Hall, meeting people and exploring where the co-op movement came from and where it was now. I became a complete convert to the co-op movement, and from then on my career was underpinned by co-operation.”

Throughout her career she met people who had been educated by the College “who had ended up in senior positions in finance, politics and business in countries throughout the Commonwealth”.

Many of them had taken part in the residential courses the College had set up for people returning from WWII, hosted at Stanford Hall, the grade II listed 18th-century English country house in Nottinghamshire that was the College’s home from 1948.

“One of the first to attend this course was Lord Graham of Edmonton,” said Dame Pauline. “At the age of 13 he was working for his local co-op in Newcastle delivering bread on a co-op bicycle. He ended his career as the general secretary of the Co-operative Party. He was a Labour and Co-operative MP and became a life peer.

“In the House of Lords he famously introduced himself by saying ‘Hello, my name’s Ted. But you can call me Lord’. He’s now a feisty 94 -year-old who is still very well aware of the importance of the College.”

She highlighted how changes in the economy and retail meant “the days of retailers sending out managers to long courses was over” and how this led to the decision to leave Stanford Hall.

“During that time, I, as chair of what was then the Co-op Union and my chair, Bob Burlton, and Mervyn Wilson, then principal of the College, and his chair, Stephen Yeo, had the painful and painstaking task of leaving the Hall, a place that the movement had a very deep emotional attachment. It was a chess game of moving pieces.”

The £5m sale of the hall in 2001 resulted in an endowment fund “without which the College wouldn’t be here today,” she added. 

At same time, there was a drive to move the co-op movement forward. “The College played a vital role in the co-operative renaissance of the 1990s particularly with its values and principles training. That. together with the Co-operative Commission in the 2000s saw a renaissance of new co-operative forms of business. The College underpinned the training of this new approach to co-operation, with an emphasis on driving member participation and democratic engagement.”

When she was elected president of the ICA, Dame Pauline “was able to use the resources of the College to help reform and rejuvenate the ICA”, and as a trustee of the Co-operative Heritage Trust she saw the “work of the College in successfully bidding for Heritage Lottery Funding” which developed the Rochdale Pioneers Museum on Toad Lane. 

In her international work, she witnessed “a staggering level of ignorance among global leadership about co-operatives and our successes”. To change this requires “simple and eye catching messages, underpinned by education”.

For her, three of these messages are: 

  • Look at our history: “We need to help people understand that co-operatives are the most effective initiative to help people out of poverty, with dignity.”
  • Look at the economic impacts: “Today co-ops play an important part in the economy of many UN member states, accounting for 60% of the real economy of some countries. Some of the most successful, stable, equitable and diverse societies are ones where co-ops play a large role – the Nordic states, for example.”
  • Look at the democratic impacts: “’Co-ops have played a crucial role in embedding democracy and supporting civil society around the world, from Finland to Tanzania. Co-operation is vital to that process.”

“In a world that’s fractured, how on earth is the ordinary mass of mankind expected to make decisions for the future?” she asked. “Co-operative education can’t do everything on it own, but we know can make a difference. “Perhaps it can restart the belief in civil society through honesty, care and compassion.”

As part of this, she encouraged co-operators to “skip a generation and embrace leadership of the young”.

“Where are the young co-operators giving their views on all of these issues?”