Living A Co-operative Life

We hear from UK co-operators about what the movement means to them

After a co-operative start to life, how do people engage with co-ops? Ahead of this issue, we took to social media to ask a few of our UK members and readers what kind of co-ops they had joined throughout their life, and why…

Martin Meteyard has been involved in co-ops for nearly 40 years. “My first involvement was as a worker member of GreenCity Wholefoods in Scotland, which led to me then joining the Co-operative Party, and from that CWS (forerunner of the Co-operative Group) as a retail customer and user of banking and insurance services. Then other co-ops where I could use their services.”

He is also a member of three media co-ops, with other memberships reflecting “longstanding interests [and] solidarity through community share issues”.

Rory Ridley-Duff was a worker-member at Computercraft Ltd for 12 years, and then spent nearly two decades as a lecturer/professor in Co-operative Social Entrepreneurship at Sheffield Hallam University.

Over the last 40 years, he has been a member of 25 co-ops: “For me, wherever co-ops could provide a better working life, or a better (in some cases more ethically justifiable) product or service, I choose to join them rather than use private companies,” he says. 

He believes that opportunities have grown as the sector has become more diversified. “When I was young, there were no phone or media co-ops, no energy co-ops and few co-ops dedicated to advancing worker-ownership.”

Mr Meteyard agrees. “In general I think there are a lot more opportunities. Although the traditional consumer sector has generally been in decline, worker co-ops seem to be slowly growing in number again, credit unions have grown enormously, housing co-ops have held their own, and co-ops are becoming far more relevant to local communities again. I’m particularly excited by the growing interest in student co-ops now.”

Rory Ridley-Duff sees the argument for co-ops as strong, “whether viewing the matter from a self-interest, social economy or social justice point of view”. He finds co-ops “economically, politically and morally more rounded and balanced than capitalist and state counterparts, and recent evidence links this to political stability as well as greater prospects for peace”. 

Mark Simmonds is a co-operative development worker who is currently a member of 18 co-ops, including a local allotment and garden society, community pubs, credit unions, media co-ops and energy co-ops. 

He sees many more opportunities to get involved with co-operatives, “particularly with the growth of community investment and the culture of community DIY”. For him, people should choose to live a co-operative life “because together they can do more than they can apart”.

Another co-op development worker is Jo White, who is a member of five co-ops. “I’m not a serial co-op joiner,” she says, but joins co-ops because she uses their services, or as a worker member: “For me it’s about ownership, and being part of a business that operates in a way I want to be a part of and influence – but not for my own ends.

“We’ve been through a period where there has been a lot of talk about ‘building back better’ – that’s what co-ops are doing, but we still don’t articulate it very well,” she adds. “Co-operative membership can help people lead fulfilling lives and reduce isolation.”

John Boyle, organiser and principle six officer at the Co-operative Party, is a member of 16 co-ops. “The first co-op I joined was the Co-op Party in 1989; then Central Midlands Co-op, which merged into Central England.” 

He also sees co-op as worthy of time and investment, as well as places to do business. “I joined Solid Fund Co-op at its inception because it’s brilliant,” he says. “In 1997 I joined Wortley Hall because I’ve stayed there. I invested in Shotley Pier because I wanted to help and be able to say I own a pier! I am in love with all the co-ops I have joined or help set up.

“I also invested in Student Co-op Homes because co-op housing could be the bedrock of the co-op movement – I wish every co-op society would invest in it.”

For Rita Rhodes, a well-known historian of the movement, a life in co-operation started at 16 when she joined the London Co-operative Society. Her commitment broadened as she started reading Co-op News, took out a Co-op Bank account and became active in the Labour and Co-operative Parties. 

Co-operation has been the mainstay of her life – with a long and distinguished career in co-op education – and also shaped her life in other ways: in 1960 she married fellow co-operator Bernard Rhodes and has written several books about the movement. 

Richard Bickle, a director of Central England Co-operative and secretary of Co-op Press, among other things, is a member of 17 co-ops. “I believe in the principle of democratic ownership,” he says, adding that it is much easier to join co-ops now than when he first got involved. 

“You can join online and it’s easier to find out more about them. There are also more co-operatives around that see members as a strength rather than a nuisance.” 

For him, the pandemic has meant that with many meetings going online, he has participated more as well. “Although online meetings aren’t as good as in-person events, you do feel more of a part of it.”

What sectors could co-ops be more active in? 

For Mr Bickle, the two big ones are housing and care. “These are the areas of major state failure in contemporary society and are also areas that the co-op model is suited to; care because relationships and trust are important, and housing because by definition, they are a long-term investment.” 

Jo White agrees that care is an obvious space where co-ops are lacking: “UK Co-ops have never been able to crack care. It’s a sector that is often  neither fair to employees nor recipients and is an area where we could really use our values and principles to make a difference.” She thinks part of the problem is that care is a sector driven by cost and that implementing the values and principles in such a setting “doesn’t come cheap. 

“The flip side is that the impact [of care co-ops] has never been measured in long term, in part because we’ve never had a sufficiently robust care co-op to demonstrate that.”

For Prof Ridley-Duff, it’s banking. “Compared to other regions and countries with a rich co-op history, we have no mainstream co-operative banking option, and no really well developed co-operative education sector.”

Mark Simmonds would like to see more worker co-operatives as “active partners in the ‘traditional’ community business sector – not just retired folk running local assets as a hobby”.

 Martin Meteyard sees the issue as more wide-ranging: “Co-ops can and should be active in many more areas of life. But we seem to have lost our way in terms of co-op development and a sense of identity as a movement.”

For him, “joining and supporting co-ops is about seeing that the future of humanity can only be secured through collaboration in the things that matter.

“It’s as simple as that really.”

With thanks to Rebecca Harvey, the news.coop

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