Co-ops: don’t be too co-operative about your name

Co-operators in the US recently faced a moral dilemma over the proposed changes in health insurance. After spending years arguing for the role that co-operatives could play in solving the issue, they woke to find that the US Government was launching a “CO-OP” program.

But, far from being a triumph, CO-OP now stood for Consumer Owned and Oriented Plans. Where the hyphen comes from, which isn’t usually used by US coops, is a mystery. What was clear was that a whole range of healthcare providers would be able to ply their trade under this CO-OP banner.

The National Co-operative Business Association was left in the strange position of having to argue for including coops, but also asking pointing out that the name could lead to a wide range of problems as other jumped on a $6bn bandwagon.

It isn’t only the other side of the Atlantic that has these issues. Lambeth Council has recently declared its desire to be Lambeth Co-operative Council. Its launch document is inspiring in its desire of ‘handing power from the provider to the user’. It proudly states that ‘Lambeth Council is a co-operative organisation’. Yet the structure is works under is nowhere near being a co-operative and remains firmly rooted in the public sector.

Co-operatives are blessed and cursed with be the only form of social enterprise whose name can be used as a verb. Anyone can be co-operative with being a co-operative. Indeed Co-operatives UK has done much inspiring work under Ed Mayo to promote the fact that just being co-operative is a very good start.

So why should co-operatives be defensive about their name? The simple fact is that they are based on a set of principles evolved over nearly 200 years. Those principles have inspired millions around the world and challenged all who have sought to misuse the name, from rogue traders to authoritarian regimes. Such clarity has been a hard battle and now is not the time to give it up.

Next year will be the UN Year of Co-operatives, a unique chance to put across the message of the role that co-operatives around the world play in the lives of billions of people. A radical idea that now employs 10% more people worldwide than all the multinationals and their subsidiaries put together.

We have seen the co-operative model rise up the political agenda with all three main parties promoting it in their manifestos last election. We have a Coalition Government with a commitment to co-operatives and mutual enshrined in its agreement. But with this popularity comes the danger of flexing the definition for short-term political advantage.

The co-operative principles make clear that co-operatives are enterprises, not state bodies, and that membership must be “open and voluntary.”  This was used particularly during the Cold War to challenge state run bodies from presenting themselves as co-operatives.

Co-operators should welcome the interest in their model and everyone in the social enterprise sector should see it as an opportunity to promote alternative forms of enterprise. But never at the long term cost of losing what it means to be a co-operative. I worked in Lambeth in the 1980s and 1990s and can see what a great step forwards in plans are.

But let’s make clear, whether we are in Lambeth, Westminster or Washington that being co-operative is a wonderful thing to be, but being a co-operative offers a whole lot more.


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