Friday, 9 November 2012

Co-operatives United

 Wow! Co-operatives really lit the blue touch paper in Manchester for the Co-operatives United festival to mark the culmination of 2012 as the UN year of Co-operatives. What a celebration, Co-operatives United together with the International Co-operative Alliance Expo, generated some amazing statistics, there were 11,800 visitors, representing 88 countries, 753 co-operatives attended, 171 co-operatives exhibited (including the Peoples Press Printing Society), the whole thing made possible by 521 volunteers and returning £12.8 million into the north west economy.

Many international visitors took the short trip to Rochdale for the spectacular re-opening of the refurbished Toad Lane Shop and Museum or caught up with the new Pioneers film (to be shown on Film4). I was particularly pleased with this years Co-operative Congress and the Co-op awards partly because my Society, the Heart of England Co-op Society, sponsored one of them. The award winners where from quite a cross section of the movement, a fan owned football club, a large retailer and a fair trade workers co-op. Organised by Co-operatives UK, the awards were announced at the international gala dinner in front of 900 people.

Miidcounties Co-operative, one of our larger retail societies, trading in food, pharmacy, funerals, childcare and now energy, won the Co-operative of the Year Award, sponsored by Cobbetts LLP – for overall performance excellence. Their outstanding energy business has won numerous awards and now has over 60,000 customers. Ben Reid, Chief Executive of Midcounties said: "It has been an exciting 12 months as we have developed and expanded our food, energy, childcare and travel businesses in particular. We have had the confidence to invest and diversify despite the challenging economy because we believe in the co-operative way of doing business. Winning Co‑operative of the Year is a fine endorsement of our approach."

Equal Exchange, a fair trade workers co-op, won the Small Co-operative, Big Achiever Award, sponsored by Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society – a small, under £5 million turnover co-op that has made a big impact. The origins of Equal Exchange go back to 1979 when three voluntary workers returned to Edinburgh after working on aid projects in various parts of Africa. Along with a sister organisation in London, Campaign Co-op, they started buying instant coffee from Bukoba on Lake Victoria in Tanzania. As a result Campaign Coffee was born. The volunteers had seen how small scale farmers were getting into debt due, in part; to the appallingly low prices they received for their products. Their belief was that aid was not the only answer and direct, fairer trading could help redress the balance! Today many years later, after bigger campaigns, more education and better products finally reaching independent retailers and supermarkets, the three volunteers' dreams are beginning to be realised. They have demonstrated a continued dedication to packing fair trade products at source, adding revenues, employment and new skills to the developing world partners they work with making them worthy award winners.

My delight however was for FC United, the fan owned football club, who won the #coops2012 Award, which we sponsored – for the co-operative which has actively used a variety of media (radio, press and social media) to promote how their co-operative is building a better world through co-operation during 2012. Their innovative use of a broad variety of media to engage with its fan base, to promote their long term aim of changing football for the benefit of supporters, is quite stunning. And by using every channel to talk to members and supporters their communication strategy has real purpose as Andy Walsh, FC United's general manager, said: "The club's media work not only helps spread the word about FC United and supporter-ownership, but also gives many of our co‑owners the chance to be involved, develop their own skills and take responsibility for running an important element of the club."

These Co-op Winners offer a snapshot of the breadth and excitement of the modern co-operative movement, a movement which has a new spring in its step following the UN year. What is important now is to build on the terrific quality of the international contacts we have built to generate a commercial co-operative advantage one from the other. Key initiatives must include an international buying Group to enable co-op retailers to compete with the very biggest of our capitalist rivals.

The inspiration of some of the international examples we have seen should also encourage us to continue to develop new Co-ops in new sectors here in the UK. In the United States the umbrella of electricity co-ops, Touchstone, serves 30 million members everyday - so don’t tell me we can’t have a huge co-op energy sector here in the UK. Lots to do now to build on the UN Year of Co-ops!