The last year has revealed that the co-operative movement needs a different narrative.
Since the start of the financial crash in 2008 we have seen the gradual rise of a certain narrative about co-operatives. We might call this the ‘performance narrative’, which says, in short, that co-ops are successful businesses that can outperform their non-co-operative rivals.
Whilst this wasn’t necessarily a co-ordinated strategy across the movement, it has become the dominant narrative, with many of the loudest voices in the movement using it in their communications and, in fact, reflecting it in their commercial strategy.
The Co-operative Group’s attempt to grow through acquisition and merger is the most visible example but the problems at Rabobank and Mondragon, the regular claims in the UK, Europe and internationally about coops being more resilient than other business models and the large number of pieces of research commissioned to explain the productivity gains and competitive advantage of co-ops and employee ownership – all these point to the dominance of the performance narrative that tells us that ‘through good times and bad’ co-ops are a more resilient form of business than other models.
There was always, though (and, of course, still is) a different narrative being pursued by other coops that haven’t got such a loud voice.
This narrative, which we might call a ‘people narrative’ as opposed to a ‘performance narrative’ doesn’t
emphasise the conventional business and economic benefits of coops. It focuses on something fundamental and unique to co-ops – on the fact that they offer of an alternative to conventional businesses by putting businesses under the control of people, rather than vice versa. In this narrative, whether co-ops are better than other businesses in conventional terms is by the by. Their significance lies in giving people control.
It’s the subtle narrative we’ve seen from worker coops in particular, like Suma in the UK or New Era Windows in the States, where the stress is on creating decent work and giving people voice. It’s also something we see in the growing community shares movement. And it’s evident globally around the role of coops in international development.
If the coop movement – not just a small number of coops – is to genuinely offer an alternative in line with this people narrative some significant changes in the way many coops operate May be needed – we may need to think about the size and structure of coop businesses, as well as their democracy, governance and member control.
But what it needs first and most of all is for the coop movement to move away from the narrative of resilience, productivity and success. That’s not to say that co-ops aren’t all these things. But they are not what set co-ops apart.
What makes co-ops unique is that their structure gives people control.
So let’s focus on this. We need to establish a different narrative around co-ops being a genuine alternative which puts people in control of business and the economy.