Roger Sawtell: Small is Beautiful – an idea whose time has come

tony benn 2 pipeTony Benn was an enthusiastic supporter of the co-operative movement because he believed that unregulated capitalism could never be the basis of a just society. In 1975, as chairman of Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM), the national body at that time of employee-owned co-operative businesses, I invited him to be guest speaker at our AGM . . .

I do not think his support for co-operatives would waver because of the current troubles of just one large co-operative. Neither should the rest of us waver.

The recent awful revelations about the governance of the Co-operative Group is further evidence that we have little idea of how to manage a large business as a co-operative. However, there are 6,000 co-operatives in UK but they do not get into the news because most of them are trading satisfactorily.

For example, we have proven experience of successful small employee-owned co-operative businesses in food retailing. Unicorn Grocery (Manchester, 18 years, £3.5m. sales,) Daily Bread Co-operative (Northampton, 33 years, £1.5m. sales), New Leaf Co-operative (Edinburgh, 1 year), are just three examples of viable businesses with strongly held co-operative principles.

If the Co-op Group should fail, hundreds of their local stores could be transformed into independent employee-owned co-operatives. Loan finance is available from several sources including Co-operative & Community Finance and simple model constitutions and advice are provided by Co-operatives UK, the national association of co-operative enterprises.

Some of the key factors are:-

  • to be deliberately different from the supermarket chains in layout, products, packaging, customer relations,
  • to have a working group (preferably not more than twelve) such that all can sit round one table for an hour a week to take decisions,
  • to have at least two working members with contemporary successful management experience,
  • to have good working conditions and security of employment with a ‘flat pyramid’ salary scale.

 

Truly an opportunity for an idea whose time has come.

 

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