Monday, March 22, 2021

Co-ops will never succeed until they start demanding more money from people who want to join them

The co-operative movement is often referred to as having emerged from Rochdale in 1844 (although it's history goes far further back than that) - a time when the average life expectancy was a mere 21 years; and most people died in the streets wearing nothing but rags.

The co-operative society that was formed then did two very powerful things that have since resonated through history: one has defined the movement globally (documenting a set of core values and principles); and the other has come to limit the interest of people in not only becoming members of co-operatives, but subsequently also not being interested in being actively involved in their governance (the setting of a membership fee of £1).

Whilst those values have gone on to be argued about, expanded, refined, and ultimately codified by the International Co-operative Alliance as the acid test of what makes a co-op a co-op, that membership fee has largely remained resolutely steadfast at £1 in nearly all co-ops.

Today, most people in the movement would argue that it should remain £1 - this is the lowest amount the law will recognise and allow, and allows for inclusivity: after all, no matter what your circumstances, you can scrape £1 together relatively quickly and easily.

But adjust for inflation, and that £1 should actually now be £128.

However, inflation only looks at the nominal buying power of that £1 - it doesn't recognise the extremes of poverty and deprivation people whom that co-operative in Rochdale was created for, and how those might transpose to our society of 2021.

A couple of quick google searches identifies that in 1844, people were most likely to be factory workers or labourers, with an annual earning of around £20.

Compare that to the average UK salary in 2021 which is £29,600 (as at 18th March).

And suddenly we start to some some big differences.

If I were to join a co-op in 1844, it would cost me 5% of what I could hope to earn in a year = roughly 3 weeks earnings (nearly a months wages) .

3 weeks wages today would be equal to £1,700.

Suddenly it becomes apparent just how radical the co-op of Rochdale was, in what it represented that meant people were willing to give up so much of what they would have otherwise spent on their rent, meals, and health (no NHS in those days!).

If you invested nearly £2,000 or a month's wages in something, you'd want to make sure you were getting value for money and a return on what you've otherwise have been spending it on (insert your favourite vice here). You'd want to make sure your voice was heard: you'd engage with any and all opportunities the organisation offered you to be part of its governance and decision making.

In short - you'd be actively involved, because it had hurt you financially to be part of it.

Most co-ops today struggle to not only recruit members, but also to encourage and maintain their involvement and engagement in their co-op's governance and activities.

Could it be because the movement hasn't paid enough heed to its history, and forgotten just how much it asked of people who wanted to be part of it, in order to keep this cost of membership current and relevant?

If co-ops today suddenly made the cost of membership £1,700 (after all, they all echo nearly everything else that the Rochdale co-op mandated and advocated), I suspect we'd seen an initial drop in member numbers. But those that did become members - how active and dynamic would they be in the democracy of their co-ops?  

1 comment:

  1. Cooperation is intuitively one of our basic human activities. It would be wrong, if people at work, competed with each other for the hammer or the trowel. At the foundation level - mother and child - we have to support each other.