Co-operatives in perspective: Nick Matthews chairman of West Midlands Co-operative Council

nick matthewsNick Matthews from Coventry University’s Business School, chairman of West Midlands Co-operative Council, spoke recently at the Quakers and Business Spring Gathering in Birmingham, which was attended by members from many different parts of the country.

He gave an overview of co-operatives flourishing abroad, large energy and housing co-ops in America and healthcare co-ops in Brazil, adding that where the state made no provision co-operatives had stepped in.

Finnish Nobel Prize winners once said ‘We don’t have a Rockefeller but we do have co-ops”

He said that co-operatives are one of the world’s fastest growing forms of enterprise. Even here in the UK despite de-mutualisation and the reshaping of the consumer (retail) co-operative movement there are many new exciting small co-ops, doing a wide range of activities.

In answer to a question from a member of the audience Nick said that even since the disastrous year of 2008, turnover, membership and the number of new cooperatives had increased year after year. A cheering feature is that these are in the new or growing sectors of environmental technology and social care.

Devised during the short-lived period of ‘Big Society’ rhetoric, a new law will come into force on August 1st; this will make the setting up of co-operatives far easier than it was under the 1965 Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act.

It might be a catalyst, like the 1976 Industrial Common Ownership Act which enabled and encouraged the funding and setting up of worker co-operatives, so that – until the next recession – at least one co-operative was being formed every week.

What went wrong? In the 1980s the prevailing mood backed privatisation and many building societies were demutualised – all failed. The idealists were not able to keep the charlatans in check. There was a problem with the management of large co-ops, brought in from outside.

Nick noted that the retail co-ops are vulnerable to pressures in the retail sector – the others are not and have a good record. Several times during the day, reference was made to the Daily Bread cooperative (good practice) and Roger Sawtell’s work was made by individuals in the audience.

Nick Matthews questioned the whole nature of corporate governance which brings in a new culture which doesn’t ‘fit’. For years members, amongst them Vic Parks, have forcefully made this point in the correspondence column of the Co-operative News, most recently in the latest issue. Their warnings were not heard as Peter Marks and the like preened themselves in its pages. Time for true repentance (literally turning again) and co-operative reform.

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