1844 and All That: Co-op Down, Not Out

The UK Co-op is in a spot of bother.  A rather large spot really.  A spot that threatens to tarnish the entire movement’s name in this country via inspired Daily Mail bile such as ‘I’m back on the Ketamine says the Crystal Methodist’; a headline apparently referring to the disgraced former Co-op banker, Paul Flowers. Yet the spot is yet bigger than Flowers’ admittedly sizeable frame alone. The near-collapse of its bank, which ran up a capital shortfall of over £1.5 billion and was subsequently pounced upon by saviour investors, was materially a much bigger blow. After negotiations, ‘retail investors’ now control 70% of the bank, with the Co-op’s remaining 30% expected to be floated – or fed – to the lions of the Stock Market some time soon, realistically ending the bank’s claim to actually being a ‘Co-operative’.

But do these gathering storm clouds threaten the wider Co-operative movement? They have certainly tarnished its image in some people’s minds, as only so many negative headlines with ‘Co-op’ in them can do. At the recent Co-operative Movement Conference in Manchester, various speakers stressed the need for deeper democracy in the way Co-op institutions and executives were accountable to their members/workers. While logistical changes like this will clearly help reduce the risk of the kind of executive incompetence that seems to have dragged the Co-op Bank down, they will only go so far in reinvigorating the movement. They might also sit well alongside a rejuvenated, loud defence of Cooperativism: its past and present of progressive legacies and achievements.

A brief look at the modern Movement’s foundations 170 years ago instantly shows how visionary and positive the foundations of the Co-op were. The Rochdale Principles – named after the Co-op father organization, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers – outline the just cause that built Cooperativism. They included rules like these

  • EQUALITY: Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
  • Profits should be divided pro rata upon the amount of purchases made by each member.
  • DEMOCRACY: A Co-operative will be structured so that members have control over the organisation – one member, one vote.
  • That the management should be in the hands of officers and committees elected periodically.
  • SOLIDARITY: Members will support each other and other co-operatives.
  • COMMUNITY: Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.

Source: http://www.rochdalepioneersmuseum.coop/about-us/the-rochdale-principles

While some of these rules, like the explicit anti-discrimination, seem like norms or common sense to us now, they were unmistakably radical back then. Through the concerted effort of its workforce and leadership, which between 1923 and 1960 happened to include my great grandfather, they blossomed in Britain to become the bedrock of Cooperativism globally, from  manufacturing to supermarkets.

Further, other rules still seem decidedly strange to neo-liberal eyes. How many companies today can boast sharing all profits among their members i.e. their workers? Too few, it would seem. The ethics that underline these principles are embodied in the modern day Co-op. They set it apart from a great deal of the for-profit commercial-corporate world that surrounds it, a world itself in need of a stronger moral edge to improve employee-executive harmony and balance. Further, the Principles… have also led on to the current ethical projects which the Co-op movement champions. For example, it virtually pioneered Fair Trade goods in its UK supermarkets, closely followed (more inconsistently) by its rivals, who cannot similarly claim to be actively supporting global human rights issues as the Co-op also does: It helps produce films made for just causes, like the incredible Burma VJ, it joins boycotts of goods from oppressive States. It would be major loss to the UK high street if bad press generated by a few bad apples dragged the Co-operative, its most consistently ethical and democratic retailer, into the mire after its Bank.