01 February 2011

Future Co-ops feedback and does the movement need a Pope?

This week I attended one of my favourite Co-operative events of the year organised by Co-operatives Futures.  This is an event predominately packed with co-operative activities who debate big issues of the time.  This years debate was "Big Society: Are we in or are we out.." You can read their own summary of the event here (not ready yet).

The event's main speakers were Russell Gill, Head of Membership at the Co-operative Group and Dave Boyle CEO of Supporters Direct. Who both gave balanced reasoned arguments discussing the opportunities and threats to the co-operative movements involvement and association with the Big Society. With other delegates contributions here is a summary of main points:

Should be in:
  • Every so-often co-operatives become part of the zeitgeist and we should take advantage to promote co-operatives in their current forms when this happens (every 10-20 yrs).
  • Be confident in our own language and clear about the aspects of Big Society we want to be involved in and those we should stay well clear of.
  • If we involve ourselves early and state our case confidently we can beat our competitors and the more unscrupulous private sectors businesses in the delivery of public sector contracts (that are going to happen whether we are in or out).
  • This might actually be a genuine attempt by the Conservatives to reach out to the co-operative movement and find better solutions for meeting peoples needs.
  • Co-operatives purpose is to bring people together to meet their needs and we especially thrive in recession or when people face real hardship.  With the cuts taking place that is going to be quite likely.

Should be out:

  • The "Big Society" is just a clever rephrase of its opposite "Small State" and we should be wary of being a shield for ideologically driven cuts.
  • You can not "empower communities"; power is taken it can't be given to people. the Big Society is a top down approach and like earlier top down approach (Bennite Co-ops, Bus Privatisations) is more likely to fail.
  • Co-operatives could be left with the scraps while the more profitable and easier aspects of public services are sold of to investor owned businesses.
  • Are we ready, do we have the scale and ability to successfully deliver?
I attended 2 workshops; one on the use/misuse of language, the most interesting comment was the "Big Society" is just a container word and is so tainted we should just not use it.  We (and other communities organisations) have been doing this stuff for years and should be confident in our own language; why do we need to rebrand it ours is a superbrand anyway? 

I also attended a workshop on how to engage with new forms of co-operation and the more radical things going on.  Are the student fee's protesters, #ukuncut and other responses to the Big Society "proto Co-operatives"? If so what can we learn from these new vibrant forms of collaboration and what can they learn from us (we have had years of learning by trial and error, must be something to show for it).

Unfortunately I had to leave before the end so I wasn't about for the final debate. But something tells me there was  no simple "in or out" resolution. 

Like a few other issues that raised their head throughout the weekend (are Community Benefit Societies or John Lewis Partnership co-operatives?). It would be great if the Co-operative Movement had a Pope who could decide on such matters.  But we haven't  "Co-operative" is a social construct and we re-create it with every discussion based on our underlying shared values.

My view from was and remains that the "Big Society" will will come and got like many other phrases and top-down initiatives. Who says "The Third Way" anymore?

Co-operation is an instinctive and natural behaviour for humans. Co-operatives have done their thing for 150 years and they will continue do their thing for the next. If other people want to join us on our journey for a bit that's great and we will enjoy the chit chat, but we won't be expecting them to stay on the same path forever.