The power of co-operation in our dis-united kingdom

Change is in the air - how can the co-operative movement help businesses to make the most of it, asks Ed Mayo.

by Ed Mayo
Last Updated: 21 Jun 2017

It has been a bumpy year for Britain. Last June the public voted to leave the European Union. One year and a surprise election result later, and everyone is a little less sure of the future than before.

What has been revealed, though, is that people across Britain have an appetite for change. There seems to be a growing concern among many people that they and others like them don’t have the opportunity or the power to get on in their lives. Our polling with YouGov last month showed that 67% of people feel the economy is out of control.

There is a big role for a government to play in shaping people’s fortunes, and for individuals to shape their own.  But there’s a role for businesses too, as organisations which have such an impact on people’s lives.

In this context, co-operatives – businesses owned and run by the people most affected by what they do, whether they are the employees, customers or suppliers – are an example of how businesses can enable people to take control of the things that matter to them.

Take Outlandish. Outlandish was a class-leading web development partnership. It chose to convert to a worker owned co-op in 2016 in order to harness the ideas and skills of the great people working there.

Not surprisingly, Outlandish has continued to do its great work, developing flagship websites and apps for organisations like the BBC, the Open University and the National Union of Teachers. But it has changed the way it does business because it recognises that this and current generations of tech workers want businesses that give them a voice, not just a wage.

Abigail Murphy, one of the founders, makes this point well: "the whole tech industry is driven by collaboration, open source software and agile thinking" she says. "It's only natural that young creative and technical people would want to work in way that prioritises the needs of users and workers instead of shareholders".

Or take the Organic Milk Suppliers Co-op, OMSCo for short. This is a business that supplies about 65% of the organic milk in the UK. It’s a growing market but OMSCo knows that relying on a decent price for milk in the UK is a risky strategy, so it has diversified, getting organic accreditation in the US and China, for example, and developing a host of new products.

The co-op is owned by roughly 250 organic dairy farmers across the UK who are members of the co-op. And they are members because it allows them, as farm businesses, to get leverage in a global supply chain that they simply couldn’t achieve alone.  By working together they are getting more control over their livelihoods.

Or take a business like the Central England Co-operative, one of the largest independent retailers in the country, with 250 food stores and a turnover close to a £1 billion. It gives a significant proportion of its profits to local community causes, and it does it because the business’s members want it to. As a co-op owned by its customers, they decide on how it uses its profits, and they decide through a range of mechanisms that they want to distribute the money locally so the community can benefit.

There are countless examples of co-operative organisations – in tech, farming, retail and across the economy – giving people a say over things that matter to them. In fact, our latest analysis of the state of the co-operative sector finds there are 7,000 co-ops that are owned by 13.6 million people and turn over £36 billion a year.

They are successful businesses that are not only contributing to the economy and creating jobs (226,000 jobs in fact) but crucially are a living example of how organisations can give people more of a say.

It is not, of course, that every business needs to be co-operative. But if every business were a little more co-operative then perhaps the business community could play a valuable role in giving people more of a say over the things that affect their lives.

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, the network for the country’s thousands of co-operative businesses.

The UK co-operative economy 2017: reimagine the economy is published today.

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