Mythbusting: co-operatives are old fashioned

Mythbusting: co-operatives are old fashioned
The Guardian, by David Floyd

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s co-operatives seemed like a relic of bygone era. This was partly because of the political and economic climate of the time – the Thatcher and Major governments revered dynamic self-starting individuals and their exciting high risk businesses – but also because co-operatives had a low profile.

I don’t remember ever seeing the Co-operative Group’s Bank or shops advertised on TV. In fact, co-operatives were rarely mentioned in the media at all beyond occasional documentary footage of Tony Benn’s ill-fated attempts to prop up failing motorbike factories in documentary footage reminding people of the ideals that Thatcher had destroyed/what would happen if the Labour Party ever got back into government again.

I always liked the idea of co-operatives businesses, though and in the early 2000s, when I was working in Kentish Town in London, I often dropped into the local Co-operative supermarket hoping to buy something. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done because at the time, the Kentish Town shop was less a small supermarket, more a marginally better decorated homage to the grocery stores of the pre-perestroika USSR. Most days, there was hardly anything on the shelves.

I also got an account with the Co-operative Bank but – in the days when it was still important to be able pay in cheques in person – that meant either longer than average journeys to the nearest branch or highly restricted choice of where to live.

Then the social enterprise movement began to gather momentum, enthusiastically backed by the New Labour government. Many of the organisations promoting social enterprise had their routes in the co-operative movement but, while there were plenty of stories about the 19th century exploits of the Rochdale Pioneers, modern day co-operatives were rarely mentioned at social enterprise events.

According to the report Good Business? – Public perceptions of co-operatives, published by Co-operatives UK in 2010 based on research conducted by Yougov the public’s position is that: "40% associate (the term co-operative) with being "old-fashioned" (conversely 33% apply the term "modern")." It’s a confusing picture but probably a fairly accurate in the sense that co-operatives may be both old fashioned and modern at the same time. Co-operative approaches to doing have a long history in the UK but are also very much back in fashion. The ‘Good with Food’ ad for Co-operative supermarkets is firmly in the public consciousness.

The Co-operative Economy 2012 report outlines the growth of the co-operative sector in recent years.

In 2011 co-operatives grew by 8.9% and between 2008 and 2011, by 23%.

In 2011, the co-operative economy grew by 1.5%, outperforming the UK economy for the fourth consecutive year. The co-operative economy has grown by 19.6% since 2008 while the UK economy in 2011 is 1.7% smaller than in 2008. The total turnover of the co-operative economy, £35.6bn

Membership also grew by 5.5% in 2011 and between 2008 and 2011 by 19.7%. There are13.5 million members now.

Earlier this year, The Co-operative Bank agreed a deal to take control of 632 Lloyds TSB branches, taking on nearly five million new customers amounting to 7% of the UK current account market. Potential new customers will no longer need to make a choice between their ethics and the opportunity to use a local branch.

Since the economic crisis began in 2008, people have become more suspicious of other forms of business and are embracing co-operatives. According to the Good Business report, while only 29% of the public associated conventional PLCs with the term ‘trusted’, 66% associated co-operative businesses with it.

Policy guru Charles Leadbeater considers co-operatives a good idea.

Leadbeater, formerly a leading Blairite thinker, previously announced the arrival of social enterprise in the UK in The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur and also popularised ‘the knowledge economy’. In March 2012, he wrote a paper published by the thinktank IPPR and supported by Co-operatives UK, called It’s Co-operation Stupid. In it he explained that: "We live in a society where people prize both individual freedom of expression and the ability to collaborate and connect" and pointed towards ‘Our co-operative future’ explaining that: "Cooperation – far from seeming quaint and anachronistic – could come to define the spirit of the times, to be successful and modern, aspirational and dynamic."

Now that the 30-year-pursuit of winner takes all economics has come to a juddering halt, it looks like co-operatives and co-operation could be a big part of what comes next.