Delegates vote ‘co-operative’ over ‘Big Society’

Russell Gill, the head of membership at Co-operative Group

Russell Gill, the head of membership at Co-operative Group

David Cameron’s Big Society is a bandwagon on which co-operators have no desire to jump, preferring instead to promote and develop the co-operative model.

That was the message from the Future Co-operatives conference in Swindon on Friday and Saturday (January 28 and 29), during which co-operators were asked to vote whether the movement should be ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the Big Society.

And after an evening and a day of key note speeches, debate, and round-table discussions the majority of the delegates – 30 in all – cast a vote of abstention, saying they did not want to embrace the Big Society, but could not ignore the ramifications of the cuts either. Twenty four delegates opted out and just nine said they were in. 

The conference began on Friday evening with a presentation by Russell Gill, the head of membership at Co-operative Group, who described his organisation – with 5,000 trading outlets, sales of £14bn, 120,000 employees, 21m customers and 5.5m members – as “the Biggest Society.”

“Changes to health, education, housing and energy – we’ve been involved in these already. Now our competitors are taking an interest: John Lewis is advising on Big Society projects, Asda and Cadbury have signed up as Big Society network partners, and Sainsbury’s is pledging support. Not engaging is not an option.

“But we also have to protect our brand. Organisations are springing up that use our language but are shadows of what we are about.”

The conference acknowledged that the government was talking about co-operatives in a positive way for the first time in years.

Weighing up the pros and cons of involvement during his keynote speech on Saturday morning, Dave Boyle of Supporters Direct said: “As a movement we’ve been talking about organising for collective needs for 200 years. Now we have a government which says ‘we like that too’.”

Vivian Woodell, of Midcounties Co-operative, agreed. “We’ve always been ‘in’,” he said, “and government is catching up. Some people genuinely want to reinvigorate civic society and we should not be putting two fingers up to them. We need to be pragmatic, and clear about where our boundaries are.”

Bob Cannell of Suma Wholefoods urged early engagement with government. “We were too slow over the issue of social enterprises and other people pushed in and set the agenda. The social enterprise movement developed without any input from the co-operative movement.”

And James Shaddock of Community Empowerment Ltd, said: “Let’s put our cynicism aside. We should jump in head first.”

But many delegates feared a public backlash if the co-operative movement became too closely aligned to a government policy of shrinking the public sector.

Sion Whellens, of Calverts, described the Big Society as an “ideological puffball” and accused the government of stealing the language of the co-operative movement.
“They are using words and phrases like ‘equality’ and ’empowering communities’. The government talks about a Big Society, but what it means is a smaller state. I don’t even want to be talking about a Big Society – that’s their agenda, not ours.”

Ultimately, said Jim Pettipher of conference organiser Co-operative Futures, who posed the original ‘in’ or ‘out’ question, David Cameron’s Big Society is a bandwagon on which co-operators feel no desire to jump.

“I really thought in the run-up to the event that delegates would say ‘of course we’re in, the people we help need us to be in, it’s just a question of terms’.

“But the message from delegates is that we should not allow ourselves to be distracted by any government or any government agenda.

“Promoting and developing co-operation remains the agenda that our delegates wish to pursue.”

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