What can Co-operative Development learn from history?

As the Welsh Government considers a proposed ‘Co-operative Commission’ to help pave the way for innovative co-operative development in Wales, what lessons can history teach us?

With all the attention being given to the merits of the John Lewis employee model of co-operation, is it not time that we focus upon different co-operative models and the role that service user members of co-operatives can play?

Robert Owen (1771–1858) is considered the father of the co-operative movement and was indeed a great social reformer. However, Owen was a patrician who sought to organise self-help action for people.

If Owen inspired the co-operative movement, others – such as Dr William King (1786–1865) – took his ideas and made them more practical and workable. King believed in starting small, and realised that people would need to organise co-operatives for and by themselves.

King founded ‘The Co-operator’ a monthly periodical, giving a mixture of co-operative philosophy and practical advice about running a shop using co-operative principles. Even without the Internet the message traveled widely and quickly, especially where Chartists had tilled the ground.

Members running a shop, purchasing wholesale, and sharing what they called a surplus, distributed as a ‘divi’ according to purchases worked a treat, with some of the surplus used for co-operative education. With unadulterated food why would members want to shop anywhere else? No wonder such shops spread like wild fire, whilst Owen was in USA.

Thus we have the beginnings of the world wide consumer co-operative movement. This is quite distinct from worker or producer co-operatives where only the workers have a stake in the business.

In guiding our future thinking about the development of the co-operative movement in all areas, the patrician, versus the self-help model of voluntary association, is particularly helpful, especially with care co-operatives.

All co-operatives are defined by the fact that they grant ‘control rights’ to stakeholders and members. They are distinct from conventional non-profit distributing voluntary organisations, which are essentially defined by the constraint on profit distribution.

In the co-operative structure, it is the element of member control and the member ownership of the co-operative that defines both their culture and operation. They are 'in addition' rather than 'instead of' public services. Neither a quick fix, nor an opt out for the government's responsibilities.

As leading Canadian co-operative elder care expert John Restakis reminds us, where service users are also members, the operation of ‘control rights’ has the capacity to transform the user from being merely a passive recipient of care, to the potential for active engagement in the design, delivery and improvement of the service*.

The advantage of multi stakeholder co-operatives involving service users and workers is that social care becomes a shared outcome between caregiver and care receiver. This element is fundamental to the reform of social care systems.

To support this model of social care Wales Progressive Co-operators and Cartrefi Cymru have arranged for Jean-Pierre Girard, a leading practitioner from Quebec, to visit Cardiff on 7th and 8th February 2012 to amplify the importance of reciprocity, accessibility and accountability^.

This will celebrate UN Year of Co-operatives 2012 by The Co-operative Cymru/Wales, Public Health Alliance Cymru and the Welsh Food Alliance who are funding his visit.

It will also support an ‘Inquiry process’ and contribute to the long-term success of the proposed ‘Co-operative Commission’.

David Smith

  • Humanising the Economy’ New Society Publishers ISBN 978-0-86571-651-3

^ Details can be found at

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Hilda Smith: a tribute by the Chair of the S Wales Area Committee, the Co-operative, 9 April 2013

As I’m sure you are all aware - with the death of Hilda Smith last month at the great age of 94 - Co-operation has lost a great advocate and worker. Hilda was a former member of this Committee and in such circumstances members would normally take the opportunity of a Committee meeting to pay tributes.

Our circumstances on this occasion are rather different as we have Hilda’s son David as one of our current members.

David has intimated to me that he has been very touched and moved by all the letters and cards of sympathy he has received from Co-operative colleagues expressing sadness at Hilda’s passing and for the wonderful contributions she has made.

He does not feel that he could emotionally cope with a series of tributes this evening and in these circumstances what I propose to do, as Chair, is to make a SINGLE tribute on behalf of us all, followed by a period of silence during which we can all privately reflect on Hilda as a person and a co-operator.

I have known Hilda for getting on for 20 years –not as long as some on this Committee have known her – but still a long time. When she joined the South Wales Committee of the Co-operative Group, I think in 2009, she must have been by a long stretch, its oldest “new” member, although she had been a member of many co-op committees before.

She was very active in what can now be seen as a golden age of Co-operation in the 1930’s and was particularly engaged in the campaigning illustrated in the wonderful films of the London Co-operative Society, with themes of Internationalism, Education Pacifism and Feminism. We have to remember, Hilda was not all that far behind the Pankhurst’s and she was born just after the ending of the First World War.

As many of us know, Hilda was completely passionate about what she believed in and was always a strong advocate for the same.  She was always a master of her brief and fastidious in studying her papers and making reasoned and detailed contributions.

She had a powerful intellect but was still very interested in making practical observations about what a store should stock, what services it should give to the customers/ members and how they could be engaged at shop level.

I remember her observing back in the early days of Recession, that the support work of the Co-operative Group, through such things as the Community Divided Fund would become far more vital, as Public Expenditure Cuts bite and she is being proven right.

To think when she arrived in South Wales in 1986, she did not come for a rest, because at the age of 76, she set about with vigour in a whole new co-operative and mutual scene.

 She was instrumental in establishing the Newport University of the Third Age, The Wales Food Alliance- together with David – which had a number of collaborations with the Group. She was a member of the WG Older Persons Advisory Committee and made a considerable contribution to policy formulation. Of late she has been engaged in modelling social enterprises to deliver home care.

I last saw Hilda at the Members meeting last year at St Fagan’s, when the meeting was somewhat hijacked by Disability Rights Protesters.  I will remember her contribution for a very long time. She was not prepared to sit idly by but rose to make an impassioned speech about how Co-operatives had been at the forefront of protecting and promoting the rights of the disabled for getting on for 100 years.

David, Hilda was highly principled, creative, dynamic not just a thinker and dreamer about the Co-operative Commonwealth but who has actually contributed to help make it happen over 60 or 70 years.

We are all the better for knowing her and she has left you with much to live up to!

Brian Rees

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