It is said that across the world more people work for co-operatives than for multinational corporations. And yet the impact of the Co-operative Movement on British society is marginal. Now the Co-op has announced a “Revolution” and aims to more than treble its membership and become a force to be reckoned with. The Co-operative Movement, which sprang out of the efforts of the Rochdale Pioneer Society in 1844, was one of the great legacies of Victorian England. It demonstrated that working class people could organize successfully to take control of their lives. As importantly it provided an alternative economic model to the savage laissez faire capitalism being developed at the same time. But as everyone knows it lost the battle and barely restrained capitalism is everywhere triumphant. The Co-op became an interesting historical footnote that could be largely ignored by economics teachers in secondary schools and completely ignored by the gurus of the business schools. Now the leaders of the movement are determined to challenge those perceptions and launch a “Revolution” (their word) that will help change the nature of British society and make it a better place for everyone. Once again they will provide a model to challenge the primacy of crisis-prone capitalism. The Rochdale Pioneers would certainly recognise the ambition of their 21st century successors; whether they would recognise the movement itself is a moot point.
Today's Co-op is not so much a movement as a “Group”. The Co-operative Group is a diversified business empire. Since buying the Somerfield supermarkets it has become the nation's fifth largest food retailer. Its acquisition of the Brittania Building Society has consolidated its position in financial services. It even owns Europe's largest firm of undertakers. The Co-op has 120,000 employees: that's more than half as many again as Marks & Spencers. By any conventional financial measure the Co-op is an incredibly successful business. If its executives wanted to make a few pounds for their members and far more pounds for themselves they could probably float on the stock market like so many of the ill-fated mutual building societies.
Instead they plan a revolution waving the banner of “Corporate Social Responsibility”. It is easy to be cynical about CSR, and rightly so in many cases, but the Co-operative Group has some real achievements to its name, not least in spearheading the development of Fairtrade. Now it has produced an Ethical Operating Plan committing itself to a long list of worthy targets.
I have spent much of my life writing operating plans of one sort or another and approached the Co-op's with considerable scepticism. I was blown away. There are some truly amazing targets that I can't imagine any private company signing up to. Spend £7m a year tackling global poverty with a further £25m microfinance fund support. Press for a reinvigoration of the Jubilee third world debt campaign. Devote £5m a year to tackling UK poverty with 10,000 community initiatives. Support the establishment of 200 Co-operative Schools and campaign for votes at 16. Reduce the Group's greenhouse gas emissions by 35% by 2017 and water consumption by 10% by 2013. And on they go, covering everything from reducing saturated fat consumption to animal welfare to establishing a £20m loan fund for developing co-operatives abroad.
If half the targets are hit the Co-op will have achieved an enormous amount and to commit to spending millions fighting poverty abroad in the depths of a recession at home is incredibly brave.
However it is also deeply depressing. Why does the Co-op feel the need to fight poverty in the UK and support 10,000 individual community initiatives each year? Isn't that what people pay their taxes for? Shouldn't the government be setting really robust environmental targets for every business rather than relying on someone else to take the lead?
Is it more “revolutionary” to fight the cuts in public services or to find ways to live with them? Co-operative Schools may well be a marvellous idea but they could also be used as justification of the Coalition's Big Society rhetoric. It is more than ironic that the Government could use the Co-op's ethical commitment as an argument for reducing public expenditure and thereby avoid the need to increase tax revenues by curbing the tax avoidance practices of the Co-op's competitors.
What is missing is a political framework. It is all very well producing an alternative economic model but however successful that model may be British business is not going to rush to transform itself into battalions of ethically minded co-operatives. Nobody can deny that the Co-op's plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are impressive but to have a real impact their actions must be copied by thousands of other firms and that will only happen by government regulation. The Co-op's success with Fairtrade has shown the benefit of setting a good example but it will need effective political campaigning to ensure that the examples being set in this new operational plan are widely imitated.
The economics of the Co-operative Movement have been vindicated. Its ethics are now being reasserted. What remains is to rediscover its politics. One of the most ambitious targets in the new plan is to have 20 million members by 2020. If it can do that, and it's a very big if, perhaps the Co-op really will be able to wield the political clout it deserves and needs.