We need a different narrative

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.

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A co-operative story

It’s become a regularly trotted out (and vaguely meaningless) truism that successful brands tell a good story.

I recently came across the way that MEC (the Mountain Equipment Co-op) in Canada tells it’s story.

It’s worth a read.

Well written, aimed at outdoor enthusiasts and peppered with people, hard work, struggle and co-operation – it’s got all the essential ingredients of a good story.

http://www.mec.ca/AST/ContentPrimary/AboutMEC/AboutOurCoOp.jsp

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What I learnt about social media this week

Students guide image

On and off over the last few months I’ve been writing a student’s guide to starting a co-operative.

It’s been great fun finding the issues that students are interested in, identifying the main steps from a student’s perspective and getting blogs from those that have started co-ops.

We started to promote the new guide this week, and I’ve learnt some really useful stuff about the rhizomatic nature of digital media – about the way things online get shared, picked up and passed on in a way that’s nearly impossible to monitor, let alone control:

  • Social media is crazily international. When we first shared the guide, it was being shared by people in the US and continental Europe, but not the UK, which was our target. This has changed over at the moment, with UK sharing in the ascendency. But the great thing is that social media effortlessly spans continents and time zones.
  • People don’t tell you what they are doing. I emailed some people I know – and others I don’t – with words and pictures about the guide, asking them to share it online. Two out of about eight people said thanks, yes, we’ll share this; but I’ve stumbled across at least five of them who have done it.
  • It’s hard to keep track of where it’s going. I’ve found links to the guide on student websites, on Facebook pages with massive numbers of shares, single blogs, articles and quotes from the guide circulated widely and emails from people who got emails forwarded to them . . .

The other thing we at the Co-operative News learnt this week (well, to be honest, we knew this already, so really, had reinforced this week) was that one simple story, written relatively quickly – in this case, about a worker co-op with a film premier  – can get shared incredibly widely on social media, despite nearly no promotion.

Do we need a ‘new economy’ movement?

The short version of this post is a question: with so many different movements – co-op, transition, the sharing economy, the commons, etc – aiming for something similar, should we drop our particular concerns and unite as a broad-based movement for a new economy?

Here’s the longer version.

I recently saw a conference in the US for ‘A national gathering for the new economy movement.’

It clarified something in my mind that I’ve been thinking for a while.

In the UK (and in the US too, no doubt) there are lots of separate ‘movements’. All of them seem to be aiming for something similar. Yet they are all operating independently; sometimes even competing with one another.

  • The co-operative movement is one of the largest and most established. It is a broad church, with large businesses, sometimes very democratic, sometimes not easily distinguished from the shareholder model, and radical worker and housing co-ops agitating for change. There is, though, a core set of ideas, held by many in this sector, around creating a more democratic, equitable economy.
  • There is a relatively new movement around the sharing economy and collaborative consumption. Based around developments in technology, it makes use of digital tools to give people control of their lives and free themselves from corporations and bureaucratic institutions. As Evgeny Morozov has argued, there is a strong individualistic – perhaps even neo-liberal – strand to this; but there is also a move towards ‘we’ not ‘me’ and sharing not owning.
  • A more egalitarian version of this movement can be found in the movement for the commons. This is a broad collection of people arguing that certain assets and goods are best kept out of public or private ownership – indeed out of the money economy – and instead should be managed by the people themselves: community buildings, Wikipedia, land, software and so on. It’s informed by the ideas of Elinor Ostrom on managing the commons, but is a practical movement.
  • The transition movement builds on this, but with a distinct environmental edge. It proposes local communities take matters into their own hands and create resilient economies and communities as a way to address impending changes caused climate change and other pressing ecological shifts. Though occasionally associated with certain a smug middle classness in the UK, it is a growing and increasingly global movement.
  • Social enterprise also feels like an increasingly important and relatively distinct movement that wants to use business for social purpose. Until recently it appears to have developed independently of co-operatives – despite the overlaps and similarities – whilst co-operatives have taken a similarly anti-social enterprise stance. The emergence of the Social Economy Alliance, discussed later, is a welcome change to this.
  • And finally there’s the Occupy movement – what felt in 2011 like the start of a new non-hierarchical movement for social and economic change, and lives on in ideas of worker ownership, mutual aid and a growing politicisation amongst students and young people. Whilst there may not be one unifying vision for this movement, as David Graeber’s 2013 book, The Democracy Project: a History, a Crisis, a Movement, argues the value of Occupy was its focus on a radical democratic process and a demand for meaningful democratic control over the world of work.

None of these different movements are monolithic. They often have different strands within them. As Joshua Brustein says of the sharing economy movement in Business Week, for example, “the so-called sharing economy, depending on who you talk to, is either a lightweight form of socialism or an artisanal flavor of capitalism spawned by the Internet.”

But I think you can identify a common vision nestled in many (though not all) of the ideas that inspire movements for co-operatives, the commons, transition, Occupy and social enterprise.

GDH Cole, 50 years ago, puts it like this when talking about the British founders of the co-operative movement in the nineteenth century:

“For Howarth and his fellow pioneers store-keeping was but a means – one among a number of means – of forwarding the Co-operative ideal; and that ideal was the foundation of Co-operative Communities, or ‘Villages of Co-operation,’ in which the members could live together on their own land, work together in their own factories and workshops, and escape from the ills of competitive industrialism in a world – a ‘New Moral World’ – of mutual help and social equality and brotherhood.”

And, 150 years later, you get a sense of this in the ideals of the transition movement. As the Transition Network explains on its website: “Transition is a quiet revolution unfolding around the world. People like you and I are seeing crisis as the opportunity for doing something different, something extraordinary. It’s an idea about the future, an optimistic, practical idea. Transition is one manifestation of the idea that local action can change the world; one attempt to create a supportive, nurturing, healthy context in which the practical solutions the world needs can flourish.”

There is, I think, a common vision here: of a new economy where people take things into their own hands, creating an economy run for the people by the people.

It might not apply to every organisation, every activist or every writer in every movement. But I’d argue that it cuts across a significant chunk of each movement and provides a relatively common vision for them.

If this is the case, then I think we can see a few important tasks ahead.

First, articulate the vision. We need to find a way of articulating a meaningful and compelling vision of an alternative economy that all these different movements could sign up to.

Second, make the connections.
Whilst there are some connections between the various movements they tend to be small scale, practical alliances built on specific crossovers.

The best example is  the Social Economy Alliance – an excellent example of primarily social enterprise, but also co-op, bodies coming together to campaign in the run up to the 2015 general election.

This campaign is specifically around raising awareness of business for social purpose; but it has the seeds of a broader alliance if it can include other movements and articulate a vision of a better world.

So the task here is to build on this, to connect at a strategic level around a shared vision through which we can downplay the differences between the movements, identify the similarities and work together as a broad based movement for social change.

Third, find a name. A good, relevant, meaningful name is important for unifying people behind a common cause.

In the US the term ‘new economy’ is catching on to capture this movement. In the UK we already have the pioneering New Economics Foundation, and the ‘new economy’ seems to be a way to incorporate the aspirations and innovations of the various movements.

So, perhaps we need to connect the leaders and activists of the diverse movements, create a shared vision, and kick start a movement for a new economy.

Getting perspective on the Co-operative Bank

Last week’s media furore over the Co-operative Bank’s ills was an onslaught of revelations and reactions.

Thankfully, though, there were some commentators offering a sensible perspective.

It’s worth bringing them together here because a common view emerges.

Probably first in the week was Philip Augar’s comment in the Financial Times

Second was the Guardian’s leader column published the same day

Then a few days later, on Friday, was the Co-operative News’ comment

And finally there was Ed Mayo’s blog this weekend

These commentators managed to stand back and look relatively dispassionately at the Co-operative Bank’s difficulties.

Yes, they say, there were big problems of governance, management and hubris at the Co-operative Bank.

But these were sad mistakes by The Co-operative Group, an otherwise successful business.

Most importantly, these commentators are all clear on one thing: the Bank’s problems tell us little about the state of the wider co-operative and mutual sector; nor do they put into question the legitimacy of the member-owned model of business.

The Co-operative Bank is just one unfortunate co-operative business.

Beyond the Bank, co-operatives and mutuals are diverse, global and thriving.

Why the Co-operative Bank’s problems matter

So, the Co-operative Bank’s rescue bid – which involved a partial flotation on the stock exchange to raise capital whilst The Co-operative Group retained around 70% ownership – has failed.

Following very difficult negotiations, it now looks like the majority of shares in the Bank will be held by institutions, with The Co-operative Group retaining just 30% ownership.

There is – and will continue to be – an inquest into the causes of the problems that led to this. Hubris, failed expansion plans, disengaged members, executive failings and much else will surely turn out to be factors.

But what perhaps hasn’t been said, in simple terms. why it matters. For what it’s worth here, I think, is why it matters.

To society. The Co-operative Bank has been arguably the biggest force for good in the UK banking sector for the last 20 years – a prominent ethical bank that led the way on ethical investment and sustainability. Without it there will be less of an ethical counterpoint to standard banking practices.

To customers. The Co-operative Bank provided an alternative for customers, offering them an accessible mainstream bank where they could feel good about what their money was being used for. There are other ethical banks, but all are small and niche; there may be no easily accessible alternative anymore.

To co-operatives. The Co-operative Bank was perhaps the defining brand of the co-operative sector in the UK – when people think about the word co-operative they think about an ethical leader. In the short to medium term, this association will be damaged by the Bank’s problems.

To the economy. The tragic unfolding of events stem from a deeper problem – that the institutions governing banks and business favour one model of banking, despite the fact that the model has been shown to fail since 2008. Specifically, in this case, Standard and Poor’s downgrading of the Bank was partly a consequence of the rating agency ignoring the capital available to The Co-operative Bank because it was owned by a much larger Co-operative Group. A major catalyst for these problems was the blinkered view of acceptable banking practice.