The lowdown on Co-operatives UK’s first stand-alone AGM

Co-operatives UK’s AGM looked at some of the major talking points in the co-op world, including the newly formed My CSP

Co-operatives UK tried something new last Friday. This year it ran its annual general meeting for its member co-operatives as a stand-alone event, rather than, as in previous years, squeezing the democratic formalities into a spare hour or two at the Co-operative Congress, the residential event which has been the movement’s annual shindig since 1869.

It seemed to work. Perhaps a hundred and twenty people were present in an upstairs business centre in Manchester’s trendy Northern Quarter, and not all looked as if they had simply walked the few hundred yards from their desks at the Co-op Group’s head offices across town.

Eleven years after its creation, as a merger between the staid Co-operative Union representing the consumer co-operative societies and the rather more radical workers’ co-operative Industrial Common Ownership Movement, Co-operatives UK can now legitimately claim to represent most segments of Britain’s diverse cooperative sector. At one extreme is the giant Co-operative Group, one of the world’s largest cooperatives, with its 2800 food stores, its bank and insurance arm, and its interests in pharmacy, farming, funerals and – increasingly – legal services. At the other extreme are Co-ops UK members such as the Busy Bee Toyshop Co-operative, the Millrace Furniture Restoration Co-operative, the Bay of Colwyn Community Benefit Society and the Isle of Skye Renewables Co-operative Ltd. Under Co-ops UK’s highly complex voting system, the Co-op Group has 9,584 votes while Isle of Skye Renewables have been given two votes. But at least this year, everyone seemed to pull together. The only vote taken, on a technical constitutional change, went through 17,473 votes to three.

Ed Mayo, Co-ops UK’s secretary general, gave an upbeat report to his members, talking of the 152 new cooperative and mutual businesses which Co-ops UK’s legal service had helped register last year. He also welcomed the government’s recent announcement that it will work towards consolidating current co-operative legislation into a new composite act – though this much-needed overhaul of co-op law is still three years away from completion and, as primarily a technical operation, will not involve any substantive changes to what is currently possible under the law.

Co-ops UK offers membership not only to co-operative businesses but also where appropriate to mutuals, mirroring a similar change which is under way globally at the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA). Undoubtedly its biggest recent catch in membership terms is a mutual, the Nationwide Building Society, Britain’s largest building society and the first to formally identify itself in this way with Co-ops UK. The move by Nationwide is if nothing else adroit marketing, reconnecting it with the movement it left when it changed its name from the Co-operative Permanent Building Society in 1970. Memories are long in the co-operative world and ever since then the Nationwide has been a particular target for investors and borrowers seeking to elect member representatives to its board.

However Ed Mayo and his colleagues’ courtship of the John Lewis Partnership is still unrequited, John Lewis currently putting its energies instead into the Employee Ownership Association. And there is also work still to be undertaken to reach out to Britain’s massive agricultural cooperative sector. So far, Co-ops UK has successfully wooed Anglia Farmers Ltd as well as the federal Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society, but the potential is clearly enormous.

In the UK ‘cooperative 100’ league table produced each year by Co-ops UK, farmers’ cooperatives occupy ten of the first 25 places. The league table suggests that there are over 60 agricultural coops turning over at least £5m a year, and that the total of 450 or so agricultural coops together have a turnover of £4.4bn.

Not everyone is automatically welcomed into Co-ops UK’s broad church, however. In a moment of some passion at the AGM, board member Nick Matthews argued strongly that the first ‘mutual’ to be established by the government to deliver public services, the newly-formed venture My CSP, was effectively nothing more than a private finance initiative with an element of employee ownership thrown in. My CSP, which has been set up to manage the civil service pension scheme, is 40% private sector owned, 35% government owned, and with a 25% employee benefit holding. It has been controversial from the start with the main civil service union PCS and received the thumbs down from Nick Matthews. “This is a private venture. It’s neither a mutual nor is it employee owned,” he said. His speech brought out the biggest applause of the afternoon from the AGM audience.

More generally, the coalition government’s much-vaunted interest in ‘mutualising’ public services poses something of a dilemma for Co-ops UK. On the one hand Ed Mayo contributes to the mutuals task force established by the Cabinet Office, and his organisation’s board does not necessarily reject the idea of mutualisation per se. There is considerable concern, however, that the mutual name could be sullied by being applied to ventures with only limited employee engagement.

This year’s stand-alone AGM was an indirect result of the UN International Year of Co-operatives 2012, and in particular the now well-advanced plans to hold Co-operatives United, the main closing event for the year, in Manchester from 29 October – 2 November. Co-operatives United, a pick-‘n’-mix combination of trade fair, conferences and cultural events, is being actively planned by Co-ops UK, the Co-op Group and the ICA. Co-ops UK says that it will monitor this year’s AGM experience carefully before deciding whether to repeat the experiment in future years or to return to the Co-operative Congress model.

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