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.


Sion Whellens said...

John, that's a really fair reflection of the weekend, although there were quite a few good ideas which I'm sure people will be working on and developing over the coming months. This was the third Future Co-operatives weekend, and with its debate-and-workshop format it's quickly becoming the closest thing we have to a movement 'think/do' lab. The quality of discussion was high, it drew in the widest cross section of co-operators - from Radical Routes to Rochdale types - on an equal, respectful basis; and the atmosphere was friendly and positive.

The vote on the question, by the way, was a 3-way split: not sure of the exact numbers, but I think it was about 15% 'we're in'. 35% 'we're out' and 45% 'this deserves to be ignored' - in other words, the abstentions won it. It was a strange question to begin with, but no matter; the genius of the format was that it allowed for the widest kind of discussion and debate.

John Atherton said...

One of my Members commentted via email so re-posting it here:

Error? “Co-operatives have done their thing for 150 years...”

Sarah Deas pulled me up on this at breakfast on Sunday.

Check out who is having their 250th anniversary this year


They might even have been a worker co-op methinks? Not a lot of people know that.

Dave Kilroy said...

Yes I love the Co-operative Futures weekends too - a bit like a co-operative jacuzzi (without the bubbles) where conversation flows...

I think the things I'll remember longest were Sion Whellens' dismissal of 'The Big Society' as "phoney language" - and that we should not use such language but stick to real words such as "trust" "equality" and "sharing" [did I get that right Sion?]. And I also loved Pam Walker's suggestion of a "Bluffers Guide to Co-operation" - the title is so wonderfully clear that if it doesn't exist - it should!

So thanks to Jim, Jo and all involved in organising it.