Pauline Green on politics, democracy and the future of co-operation

‘We’re sort of mainstream, but not enough – there’s still people who don’t understand what a co-op is’

In June 2024, the 10th European elections took place, with 720 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) elected to represent more than 450 million people from 27 member states. While the European People’s Party won the most seats, the pro-EU centrist, liberal and environmentalist parties suffered significant losses – while anti-EU right-wing populist parties made serious gains.

“I think this is very worrying,” says Dame Pauline Green, a former Labour & Co-operative MEP, previous president of the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA), and current director of Coop Exchange, a fintech co-op which is looking at new ways of securing development capital for co-operatives. 

“I was with a co-operative colleague from Germany recently, and he showed me a map of the country,” she says. “The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has taken control almost totally in what was Eastern Germany. It shows that 34 years after reunification there still isn’t the cohesion or unity in the country that they hoped for. Something’s gone wrong somewhere.”

Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party in France also did well, as did Italy’s hard-right Brothers of Italy party, led by Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni – “and we have the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency in America. I think it’s a very dangerous time”.

Born in 1948, Green grew up in a post-war environment “where we built up international law, partnerships and tolerance”. 

“These were the things that we were all working towards,” she says, “but it seems to me that now all of that is taking a step backwards. And unless we’re very careful, this will lead to more and more conflicts across the world.”

Related: Pauline Green on the influence of the Co-op College

She thinks “the way we do politics” has to change, to enable people to be more involved in the decisions being taken about them: “They need to participate in those decisions.”

The week before the UK’s general election, Labour announced plans to introduce automatic voter registration should they get into power on 4 July, on top of reforms already announced by Sir Keir Starmer’s party such as extending the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds. 

Democratic participation is also one of the core assets of the co-operative movement, but Green thinks more needs to be done in this area as well, to motivate people to join co-operatives and encourage co-op members to speak up – and at the same time get co-ops to listen more: “We’re very good at supporting communities and young people, but not as good at engaging with them in a way that works for them.”

Green spends a lot of time with her teenage grandchildren. “They take part in so many things on their phones; we need to be making changes, and using technology to bring these young people into our movement. They are the future and will be a great force,” she says.

“When you talk to young people about co-operatives, and they get it, they become absolutely committed. It’s a chance to participate in running something, making their voice heard in the way a structure is built, the way we sell our products, what products we sell – and taking into account things like the environment, and gender and how we address people.” 

She is also encouraged by how engaged young people are ahead of the UK general election. As a former Labour politician, Green is working in her own constituency in North West Essex, where Conservative candidate Kemi Badenoch had a 27,000 majority.

Related: Interview with Jeroen Douglas, director general, ICA

“I’m absolutely amazed at the way younger campaigners are turning out to support the campaign to unseat [Badenoch] and for me it’s very exciting watching them and listening to them. They are enthused by having a different sort of government – a government that is prepared to devolve power to allow participation in local communities, to give people a say in how they develop their economy and how they develop things like their energy and infrastructure.”

Co-ops can contribute to wider political democracy, she adds, “by expanding our own definition of democracy” – and thinks economic democracy is “one of the aspects of co-ops that is least talked about in the public domain”. 

“Members must retain control [of a co-op]. But within that there’s scope for us to be reaching out to others, to inform us and keep us informed, to keep us thinking new thoughts, discussing them, and then letting members decide what they want to do,” says Green.

“If you look at some of the things that the co-op movement has done, [you can see] the effects of local economic democracy. For example, in communities where women in particular were the ones leading their co-operatives, both economically and politically with a small fee, and became leaders in their community as a result. So you’re getting people practised in operating pure democracy, democracy on the ground, and I think that has helped to build co-operatives across the world. In my view, co-operatives are the best ever export from the United Kingdom, to bring people out of poverty with dignity.”

In June, the UN announced that 2025 would be the second International year of Cooperatives (IYC); Green was president of the ICA during the first IYC in 2012. “What I saw then demonstrated the power of co-operation [and] out of it came greater visibility worldwide,” she says.

“We launched the COOP marque, which co-ops across the world are now using. We had, for 10 years, the Blueprint for the Cooperative Decade. All of these things helped to create a knowledge of co-operatives that didn’t exist. And that’s the sort of thing we should be doing now, pushing knowledge about co-ops, [because] they are great assets in times of trouble.”

But how can co-ops become more mainstream, and not just a model reached for when crises hit?

“I think if what Labour is trying to do happens and co-ops become an established community growth initiative around the country … the more we are going to integrate co-ops into the mainstream,” Green says. 

“We’re sort of mainstream, but not enough, because there are still people who don’t understand what a co-op is and its differences. 

“People who are deeply involved in co-ops can talk at great lengths about them – but I’ve always found that it was easiest to say the difference between a co-operative and a company is that the company is duty bound by some constitution to maximise its profits. A co-op is duty bound by its constitution to meet the needs of its members. And that’s what we should be advocating.”