Friday, March 18, 2022

The problem with the Cooperative Movement is it doesn't cooperate and it doesn't move

A letter to a community support worker friend in the cooperative movement. 

On 'cooperative relationships', you know I agree with you principle, we've talked about this before at some length, but in this instance I can assure you Angie is spot on. Simply put when one party fails to engage responsibly in the spirit of cooperation then there's no cooperative. I'm in a cooperative housing association where the committee is dysfunctional, does not follow the rules and guidance everyone committed to when becoming members, and the committee itself is essentially powerless in the face of officers who always refer to standing orders when any committee member says 'can we please refer to and stick to our rules?' and the standing orders essentially hand all power of decision making to the officers without needing to refer to the committee (it's a long story and I KNOW from MUCH research into this situation that this kind of breakdown in cooperative working is common in small cooperatives). It's so bad that where before the Ukraine war that in private the chair has been described as a tinpot Putin who always shouts people down with 'this is a democratic committee where members have to participate, participate, participate to cooperate, cooperate, cooperate.' And, basically there's nothing can be done about it, there's absolutely no external bodies to refer to who have any power to intervene. I know. I've been onto the housing regulator and several much bigger cooperative housing associations and legal firms looking to get support for the committee.

This area specifically has for years presented a real, serious, barrier to developing the proposed People's Pub Partnership which needs to be set up on radical cooperative multistakeholder governance that aligns the interests of all people who engage with and use Pubs whatever relationship they have as individuals to The Pub, they all have an interest in the long term success of The Pub as the unique secular social construct it truly is: Workers in the pubs, customer users of the Pubs and suppliers to the Pubs... all must cooperate in this relationship or else it'll just become another JDW with smaller premises around the country.

In researching this over the last 11 years {PPP was incorporated in July 2011 to protect the name) the buffers to getting it going have always been governance. On the one hand people are busy or have have short attention spans and can't be bothered to put the time into the foundational work which is ESSENTIAL for getting it right, or they resist the prospect for various competing reasons.

While almost everyone I've discussed this with at high level, people who could readily influence its progess substantially by putting resources into developing it.

On the cooperative, not for private profit side of the coin they say 'what you're describing sounds all well and good but multi stakeholder coops don't work, you will find different classes of member will develop competing interests down the line and it will all disastrously fall apart' (this is just weak thinking that maintains the status quo). Oh and the other one is 'there will not be any benefit from economy of scale when all the Pubs are non branded and not carbon copies of each other'. 

On the other side of this coin, from the standard fair of capitalist private equity greed viewpoint it's 'what you're describing sounds all well and good but without the benefit of private profit driving the business you'll find there's no incentive 1) for HNWI or institutional investment and that's the kind of money this will need, because the returns won't be attractive enough (really, this is what *they* say) and you'll never develop the economy of scale you need to make the business work profitably enough and won't be able to incentivise staff and you won't be able to control the business where everyone has a say in how it's run' blah blah blah...

And along the way people, many, not a few) who are steeped in the cooperative movement have said to me privately 'you know what we say about the cooperative movement don't you?'

Me: 'er No. What do you say?' 

'The problem with the cooperative movement is it doesn't cooperate and it doesn't move.'

Say that in public and they all deny it

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