The current economic crisis has led a growing number of people to question the suitability of the capitalist system and even our Western democracy to cope with the big issues that confront us today: youth unemployment, climate change and the lack of sustainable new technologies to re-start economic growth. Many of us have already been affected by the accompanying social unrest, reduction in disposable incomes, stress and lifestyle issues, and changes to the environment.
Public services and charitable funding are being cut, and despite the lessons from the banking sector, more and more of us find ourselves dependent on a few dominant, profit driven, global companies for many of the essential things we need such as food, energy, and communications. They offer us choice (as long as we go to their ‘shop’) and often low prices. Often bigger and more powerful than governments, they distort the market in their favour by promising our political representatives jobs and investment, using offshore tax havens, stifling new competition, and more. What government facing re-election in three or four years can risk raising the energy, health, transport, or environmental taxes to the sustainable level that some of these companies should pay to reflect their negative long term impacts on society – both here and in the developing nations? The net result is they continue to grow and, directly or indirectly, crush or buy off anyone who threatens their oligopoly.
Any observer of history can see that this discounting of real costs and risks in the pursuit of endless growth is unsustainable – as proved the case with the banks. The longer it continues, the more painful the inevitable adjustment will be. A co-operative economy offers a genuine proven alternative. In 1844, similar exploitation was going on in the then dominant UK textile industry. Factory workers were often paid in ‘truck money’ – money issued by the mill owner, which could only be spent in his own shops where prices were as high as they could get away with (some might say a bit like loyalty points awarded by some retailers today). In response some consumers got together, each put in what they could afford, and started their own shop. They all had a vote to be sure of a fair deal that put their community first and they jointly decided how to use any financial surpluses. Thus began the co-operative movement and it developed the Values and Principles that co-operatives continue to work to today.
There are now nearly 5000 independent co-operatives in the UK owned by more than 12.9 million members. It has become a global movement and is growing rapidly as consumer trust of global corporations and governments diminishes, and there is increasing recognition of co-operation as a vital ingredient in economic development. The advent of the internet and social media is a big boost for the movement allowing quicker and more effective co-operation amongst diverse groups and enabling the participation of far flung communities with a common need – The Phone Co-op and The Co-operative Energy ventures being good examples.
Can the co-operative approach help the Holme Valley face up to the coming cut backs and build a better community for the future? Well it already is in a small way, and the success of other co-operatives nearby illustrates the tremendous scope for our community to work together, to address some of the key problems we face:
Experience has shown that small businesses are vital to job creation. Local, sustainable start ups providing products and services for the needs of today’s consumers offer training and opportunity, and ensure that a fair proportion of any wealth created remains in the region. Compare that with another new supermarket – a few shelf-stackers yes, but management, services, drivers, maintenance, and other skilled opportunities will go elsewhere.
New co-operatives, which already employ significant numbers in a local context, have started in the Holme and Colne valleys in sectors as diverse as baking, pig farming, Fairtrade retailing, fruit and vegetables retailing, and organic box schemes. Local co-operative members collaborating with the Transition Town movement and other local organisations and business have identified opportunities in education, manufacturing, agriculture, recycling, health and social care, tourism, and renewable energy. Most of these projects involve volunteers with money, experience, or specialised skills taking responsibility and working together in solidarity with younger people, contributing energy, imagination, and flair. Other co-operatives elsewhere are already operating successfully in these areas and are ready and willing to help. Consultancy, legal and financial support is available through the co-operative movement structures.
Climate change and poverty
Small local growers and retailers working together in our area offer fresher food, reduced food miles, lower pesticide and fertiliser use, and less local traffic. Demand is exceeding supply providing opportunities for new growers. Co-operative members have expertise and contacts in green buildings, renewable energy, and recycling schemes that could provide local employment and a quicker, more cost effective way to reduce carbon output than the mega projects touted by multinationals.
The Fairtrade supporter can buy an increasing proportion of their needs from suppliers who can demonstrate a positive social, environmental and economic impact on poor communities. Direct links have been established with these communities and local businesses, schools, NGOs and colleges, leading to collaboration on new fashion and food brands designed, marketed and packaged locally from upcycled or fairtrade ingredients. Aura Que handbags, Oromo coffee and Not Just Rice are examples, all empowering local people to make a difference whilst providing scope for local jobs and fair employment in developing world communities.
Stress and lifestyle issues
Cutbacks in health, social services, and government supported charities, mean we will increasingly have to look after vulnerable members of the community ourselves. Even The Royal College of Nursing warned recently that we may soon have to take personal responsibility for feeding our elderly relatives in hospital. Housing, foster care, palliative care, child care, homecare, and other social and health care co-operatives are operating throughout the UK providing a vital lifeline for communities and volunteering, job and training opportunities. Carers and cared for are treated as equals and have a democratic voice in the running of the service. Such volunteering can help individuals deal with isolation, depression, and unemployment as well as keeping care local.
Political apathy and short termism
There are no short term, easy answers to the problems we face. Tax cuts, debt fuelled spending, enterprise zones, etc so hotly debated by our politicians are increasingly irrelevant in the face of seismic changes in the world economy and environment. Effective local leadership is needed to create a climate where the huge collective talent that exists in our community is encouraged to work together for mutual benefit.
Bottom-up democracy is alive and well in the co-operative movement. Members hold boards to account, decide how to use any financial surpluses, and approve key decisions. They will tend to be active voters and support political candidates who are open, honest, and caring, and deliver for their local community. With over 2000 members of independent co-operatives in Holmfirth alone they have the potential to make their voices heard.
In conclusion, co-operatives are not a panacea, but anyone, be they old, young, unemployed, business leaders, civil servants, asylum seekers, politicians, etc, etc; wanting to do something positive to improve our community, can support and get involved with their local co-operative. Members are their lifeblood and they will welcome expressions of interest from individuals or organisations who wish to join, volunteer their help, start their own co-operative, or explore a partnership opportunity. Combining the talents and energy of our local community with the national and international networks of the co-operative movement offers real hope for the future.
Blog post by Mark Lewis
Although I am a member of the co-operatives listed below, the views expressed above are entirely personal and should not be taken as reflecting the opinion of any particular Society.
The Co-operative Group firstname.lastname@example.org
The Fair Traders Co-operative email@example.com
Wooldale Co-operative Society firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch this amazing animated short film by Accrington based Huckleberry Films which uses archive and animated footage to bring the story of the Rochdale pioneers to life and how their beginnings encouraged a global movement which incoporates over a billion members. Watch the New Pioneers film here.