Co-operation started with food, when the Rochdale Pioneers set up shop. If we thought of growing the co-operative sector like preparing a meal, what would be our cookbook?
First the ingredients. Co-ops are people centred businesses, and so they start with people’s needs and stand or fall by the extent that people work together and take responsibility. But they can’t be just any people. They have to be a little bit organic – willing to put their ego aside and to work with others. There are many entrepreneurs in the co-operative sector, but theirs is the entrepreneurialism of the team. It is not for everyone even if most people have skills of co-operation and can learn more; what we have always called ‘co-operative education’.
Second the timing. Some co-ops are rapid, pop-up businesses that emerge in response to crisis. When the Star Inn in Salford was put up for auction, it was the only pub left within a twenty minute walk. Local people rallied together to raise the money to save the pub. When foot and mouth disease struck farmers in Lincolnshire, the local independent co-operative helped to organise them into a co-op, so that they could keep more of the money from the livestock in future. Other businesses take time, because they rely on relationships. Sometimes co-ops can be slower to start as a result. But they can also be slower to fail, as well, because having people onside is key to survival when things get tough.
Third, the preparation. There is no one chef for the co-operative sector. It is a plastic model that is constantly being renewed and reinvented. One of the fastest growing areas is co-operatives with multiple constituencies of members (sometimes called ‘multi-stakeholder’) – with new approaches developed for their design and governance. But it can help to have recipes and for many initiatives, there will be a template or set of examples that can be drawn upon and adapted. Co-operatives UK runs a programme called The Hive, with support from the Co-operative Bank, as part of its continuing commitment to an Ethical Policy. One way or another, there is advice out there for would-be co-operatives.
It is an exciting time to be in the co-operative sector, with a strong commitment to its growth from leading politicians, reflected in this week’s Ways Forward conference in Manchester. We are a bottom up movement, so the state can’t create co-operatives directly but it can challenge a business environment which privileges investor ownership, to create a more sustainable balance with which co-operatives can thrive. Co-operatives UK is working with our members and partners of the sector to feed ideas into this process.
And like the best food, after all the work, with co-operative success comes the sharing.