Bring on a new age of co-operatives
Author: Derek Walker
Political parties shared common ground on their commitment to co-operatives during the Welsh election.
There was a welcome cross-party consensus in the manifestos about the value of co-operatives in growing the Welsh economy. Welsh Labour acknowledged how mutuals, social enterprises and co-operatives have a key role in the economy and other parties took similar positions
And they were all right to do so. Co-operatives are good for business, good for individuals and good for society. Increased employee involvement in how the business is run means higher productivity and job satisfaction levels are invariably improved. Then there is the direct benefit of profits being shared locally with workers and the local community.
The politicians are not alone. Co-operatives are well perceived by the public. Polls tell us that co-operatives are viewed as locally based, honest and a good way to run a business. Other, more traditional, companies are often seen as distant, global and cut throat.
In Wales the co-operative economy is estimated to have a turnover of almost £1 billion, with 200 businesses and over 5,000 employees. There are high profile examples, such as Tower Colliery, alongside less well known businesses, such as Dynamix, a training provider in Swansea that delivers courses and play based activities primarily for younger people.
The co-operative model is a flexible one that is found in all areas of the economy from manufacturing to media, and agriculture to the arts.
And it is flourishing. There are around 5,000 independent co-operatives in the UK owned by more than 11 million people and the numbers keep on growing. During the economic downturn when the rest of the UK economy contracted, the co-operative economy grew.
There are excellent examples of co-operatives across Britain and around the world. Enter the (Mon) dragon. The Basque town of Mondragón is home to the world’s largest workers co-operative, the Mondragon Corporation. This federation of businesses not only creates tens of thousands of jobs and significant wealth. It also ensures that this wealth stays in the region rather than dissipating to shareholders across the globe. This large co-operative has helped make the Basque region one of the wealthiest in Spain. It is one of the reasons why the region has maintained higher employment levels when other parts of Spain have suffered.
Poverty expert and sociology professor Barbara J. Peters (Southampton College, Long Island University) studied the Mondragón example and remarked on its obvious cohesion and relative equality. “In Mondragón, I saw no signs of poverty. I saw no signs of extreme wealth,” Peters said. “I saw people looking out for each other…It’s a caring form of capitalism.”
Almost three decades ago the establishment of the Wales Co-operative Centre was inspired by a study trip to Mondragon. Next year, during our thirtieth anniversary year, we plan to take a return trip with a group of politicians and policy makers.
Whilst we have made significant progress in growing the co-operative economy in Wales since then, there is still a lot more to achieve. Wales needs good jobs, greater wealth and more community businesses.
The Wales Co-operative Centre’s ambition is to make Wales – alongside Mondragon – an international centre for co-operative thinking and action. We are looking forward to working with the Welsh Government and the new economy Minister, Edwina Hart, to realise this goal.
Derek Walker is Chief Executive of Wales Co-operative Centre. This post was first published on The Bevan Foundation blog (external website).