2012 was thanks to its United Nations Designation as the Year of Co-operatives, one of celebration for the Co-operative movement. That was certainly something worth celebrating but it would have been less of a celebration if the UK sector had not performed so well.
For the fourth year in a row the co-operative economy has out performed the overall UK economy. Despite the fact that economic conditions for all sizes of co-op’s in all sectors are, thanks to the unresolved banking crisis and the efforts of the economic management of the ConDem coalition to make a bad situation worse, the toughest we have seen in our lifetimes.Against this backdrop some co-operative businesses have been real star performers like the Co-operative of the Year, Midcounties, one of the larger retail societies, trading in food, pharmacy, funerals, childcare and now energy. Their outstanding energy business, Co-operative Energy, has won numerous awards and now has over 60,000 customers. CEO, Ben Reid, has 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."
If you haven’t checked out Co-operative Energy yet supplying households with their gas and electricity and the only suppler to CUT its prices this winter I suggest you do so. Another outstanding performer has been the Wine Society, supplying high quality wine at fair prices, receiving the Decanter Award as National Wine Merchant of the Year for the second year running.
The Co-operative Banks capture of 632 former Lloyds Bank branches is also something of a coup and completely changes the scope and reach of the Co-op Bank. This was clearly a tough call for the Co-op Group but to achieve this level of growth organically would have taken decades.
The Co-op Bank has been a great success, it never required any government support but has still been hit by tough new regulations requiring greater capital adequacy, a significant contribution to the banking compensation scheme and having to set aside millions for PPI miss-selling despite the fact it hardly sold any, the price of defending yourself against no-win, no fee lawyers, all these costs means bank profits will be hit in the short term.Other star performers include, small co-op of the year, Equal Exchange, a fair trade workers co-op, dating back to 1979 when three voluntary workers returned to Edinburgh after working on aid projects in various parts of Africa. Their belief was that aid was not the only answer and direct, fairer trading could help redress the balance. Today they have a great range of quality products helping producers across the developing world, including an excellent Palestinian olive oil.
As a fan of supporter owned football clubs I was delighted when FC United, won the #coops2012 Award, for the co-operative which has actively used a variety of media (radio, press and social media) to promote their co-op. Their innovative use of social media to engage with its fan base is quite stunning. To date they have raised over £1.7million in a Community Share Issue by using every channel to talk to their 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."
The final major event of the International Year, Co-ops United in Manchester, was great fun and attracted almost 12,000 visitors with 200 Co-ops exhibiting including the Peoples Press Printing Society. The history of the sector was not neglected in the year with a super Lottery Heritage Fund refurbishment of the Rochdale Pioneers Museum and a new version of the film of the Pioneers.
One last highlight in a year of highlights was the publication of the, The Co-operative Revolution, a graphic novel that vividly explores the history of the co-op movement and its spread across the world and then takes an optimistic look at the co-operative world in 2044 the 200th anniversary of the Rochdale Pioneers. Published by co-operative New Internationalist with the support of the Co-op Group at just £5.99 it makes a great stocking filler.
There is no doubt that this year people have started taking the co-operative business model more seriously and as Victor Hugo said, there is nothing more powerful than an idea when its time has come. And after the satire of the Nobel Peace Prize, being awarded to Henry Kissinger, Menachim Begin, Barack Obama and now the European Union we should campaign in 2013 to get the Prize for a genuinely peace promoting international body, the International Co-operative Alliance, they could certainly make good use of the prize money!