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Ten Years from the Co-operative Commission

The Co-operative Congress 2011 is an ideal opportunity for participants to share, learn, network and exchange ideas. It is also a time to reflect and examine the co-operative movement, its advantages and the challenges it faces to carry on growing and improving. With this in mind, there will be an in-depth and interactive session on Saturday afternoon which not only steps back and reflects on ten years after the Co-operative Commission, which took an independent look at the sector, but looks forward and towards the next ten years of co-operation. But how and why did it all start?

“It is up to the Co-operative Movement to decide whether it is prepared to grasp the opportunity and to put these proposals into practice. If it fails to do so… then, I fear for the future of the Movement. But if it adopts them with enthusiasm and commitment and implements them in full, then I believe the prospects can be as bright as at any time in the Movement’s history”.

This is what John Monks, general secretary of Trade Unions Congress and chair of The Co-operative Commission, wrote 10 years ago, in 2001. His words are part of the Preface of The Co-operative Advantage, a document which outlined 60 recommendations of the Commission to help the Co-operative Movement to face its weaknesses and challenges to develop and grow.

Both the publication and John Monks’ warnings were the culmination of years of research.

The Co-operative Commission was established in January 2000 by Tony Blair, at the request of the leaders of the Co-operative Movement. They wanted an independent institution to define a strategy to modernise British co-operativism. It comprised business leaders, politicians, trade unionists and co-operators and aimed to analyse the general economic context and the specific situation of British co-operatives: the trading environment, their structure and legal forms, their commercial and social goals.

There was evidence it was a difficult time for co-operatives, especially for retail businesses. As Alan Middleton, one of the members of the Co-operative Commission, says: “Co-operatives were losing their way…Trading performance was declining as well as membership, which was really low”. Actually, the final report estimated that the true membership was less than 2 million, instead of the 10 millions the Movement counted.

According to the Commission, Co-operatives had concentrated on meeting social goals at the expense of commercial performance, and had failed to be innovative –they were considered to be old-fashioned. Undoubtedly, they had failed to follow the recommendations the first Co-operative Commission had outlined in 1956, when co-operative movement noticed its first significant halt in its growth.

60 recommendations

However, there were many reasons to look ahead to a thriving movement. The Co-operative Group had been recently created, through the merger of the Co-operative Wholesale Society and CRS (Co-operative Retail Services), and sectors such us finance were demonstrating good performance and providing an example of how to maximise the co-operative advantage: they were proving that the attainment of social goals provides a competitive advantage leading to commercial success, which then reinforces the ability to meet the social goals –what is also known as the virtuous circle.

Through the combined expertise and experience of the Commission, 60 recommendations were made to strengthen the co-operative movement in the UK. For instance, one of the key recommendations was to promote a cohesive new brand and image. It was also recommended to explore and maximise trading opportunities and co-operative solutions in more diverse sectors, like long term care of the elderly and credit unions. The institution suggested changes on the co-operatives’ legal structures and demanded politicians and governments’ commitment. It even proposed the creation of a New Ventures Working Group to explore and implement these opportunities –now called Co-operative Business Development Panel.

These guidelines can now be reflected on ten years after their publication.

Ten years on - has the Co-operative movement grasped the opportunities? Is the final outcome as “bright” as it could be, “as any time in the Movement’s history”? Has that virtuous circle been completed? On Saturday 25 June, Co-operatives Congress 2011 will ask this question and look ahead to the next ten years.  Join us in the debate.

* If you want to learn more about the Co-operative Commission and read The Co-operative Advantage, follow the link:

Written by Isabel
Updated: 18/09/2011